Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Review: The Cave

The Cave is an interesting game. On the surface, it appears to be a platformer with point and click style puzzles and witty dialogue that will keep you amused, entertained and even capture the very essence of your soul. It even offers multiple characters, of which you can use three of in order to offer some co-op puzzles between them and even some unique puzzles here and there for each individual character. But there comes a point where you're going “that's it”, mainly because it never feels like there's enough content in the game to go along with its large aspirations. It feels like a game that's finished, but without the polish and creative measures necessary to call it a full experience. A five course meal where each entree course lessens in taste is the best way to describe it...

It'd be better to explain it in full, beginning with the best part of the game – the story. Deep within the recesses of the cave lies riches beyond ones' wildest dreams. Enter our eight “heroes” (well, seven actually as two of them are twins you control at the same time), who wish to explore this cave in order to fulfil their deepest desires... which basically amounts to money. Now, you might be thinking “but we're playing as a monk, a time traveller and a chivalrous knight, maybe they're just going to use the money for the greater good”. Well, if by greater good, you mean for their selfish desires, you'd be absolutely right. Adding onto this is the disembodied voice of the cave itself. It provides snarky, humorous commentary over specific moments, often having to do with these characters and their not so good intentions. While the narration itself is funny, the situations of which the characters are placed under in order to progress through the cave, like grave robbing or altering with time itself, makes for even funnier situations, then you add the narration and it just makes for some rather humorous moments. So where it lacks in detail, it more than makes up for it with a combination of witty writing, morally reprehensive characters and unfortunate circumstances, all for the amusement of both the player and the cave itself.

The Cave is one part point and click in the form of a sidescrolling platformer, and one part just plain sidescrolling platformer. What I mean by point and click is that a lot of the puzzles will require you to use items to interact with parts of the scenery. Whether you use a single item to interact with a complicated mechanism or you combine items in order to demolish an obstacle, you'll be tasked with first collecting items and then using the three characters – each switchable with a press of a direction on the d-pad - you have control of to solve the puzzles as a lot of them require multiple characters working together. A vague example I can give is that there'll be scenarios where one character will need to activate a mechanism to unlock a door for the other two to get across and then they activate a conjoining mechanism so that the one activating the first one can follow the two. Most of these puzzles aren't complete brain busters and require simple logic in order to solve (insert rod A into slot B), but there are a few that can at least make you think a fair bit. Either way, the solutions for each of these puzzles make enough sense to keep you immersed into the experience. At no point does it feel like you're merely playing a video game; you're only doing what feels natural with what you have. You could make this argument for any game, but like games such as Broken Sword and the Zelda series, The Cave goes the extra mile by implementing these in a way that feel natural. Probably helps that some of these puzzles are downright funny.

But what's a game using multiple characters without abilities? You'll be given options like a character who can temporarily gain invincibility, a character who can hold his breath underwater for as long as he wants to, a character who can hack into computer terminals, a character who can use her whip to swing across gaps, a set of characters (or twins) who can leave shadows of themselves, a character who can use telekinesis and a character who can go through thin walls... the latter, I don't quite understand, but as this is the time traveller, apparently, in the future, people can walk through thin walls. Anyway, given that you have different abilities at your disposal, there are parts where you can utilize their abilities to solve puzzles. Whether there are parts of the cave where only that one character can traverse through (like a fantasy themed section only the knight can traverse through, or a laboratory only the scientist can go through) or you can use their abilities to solve a puzzle differently, there are a few opportunities to use their unique abilities to give the gameplay even more depth, and given that the logistics behind their usage makes sense, it aids in immersion quite well. I keep making a point of immersion, but really, when a game is about exploring what you could assume is unexplored territory, the discovery of new and exciting places is what keeps you playing, and puzzles with sound logic can keep that up.

Seeing as how you're given three characters to control out of seven per playthrough, the idea is that you need to replay this game in order to fully explore the cave. With that in mind, the cave changes its structure to benefit these characters in an attempt not make subsequent adventures feel so redundant. Unfortunately, there are a couple of things that go against this design choice. For one thing, there are a fair amount of areas that aren't character specific, and given that the idea of this game is to explore a previously unknown place, it loses its luster upon repeated playthroughs. The other thing is the third playthrough... in order to experience the last character's specific areas, you have to repeat the other two's specific areas. Unless you're either going through each playthrough with quite some time in between or your memory is bad, this is dull due to the fact that a puzzle simply isn't as exciting nor satisfying to solve the second time as it is the first time you do it. That feeling of “yes I did it” just isn't there the second time. I guess you could consider it the speed run? That's the only way to make that run fun while you explore the parts of the cave exclusive to that one character that you didn't use.

Then again, each playthrough is about five or so hours long, so it could be a lot worse. Still, I feel that there was a good reason why The Lost Vikings and Trine only had three characters – so that they can put more care and attention into the level design. Given how limited in quantity the character exclusive areas are though, it makes you wonder why they even bothered with these different characters. It always felt like more of these sections could've been added, you should have control of all seven characters so that the cave can be designed in a way that requires you to think about how you can use each of their powers to navigate through an increasingly tricky cave, or less characters should've been given to you; and you know, for a game that wants to play like a platformer, it sure feels like crap when you have to do some platforming. The controls are looser than a Vatican daycare and given that backtracking and repeated playthroughs are necessary in order to complete the game and get everything out of it, it can get rather annoying – the only reason it doesn't outright drive me crazy is because when you die, you'll respawn like right before the pit you fell down. I guess that makes up for the sloppy controls... it doesn't, but it's a lesser of the evil of possibly resetting an entire part. Bloody hell! To make things worse, this game is linear – outside of some parts here and there for different characters, there isn't much to it outside of what you go through the second time after your first time through. So while replaying the game is encouraged, it just isn't as good the second or third time around!

The Cave sports a cartoony visual style, giving the cave some smooth and chunky edges, vivid colors and rich lighting that amounts to a sharp look. It's quite a treat to look at, especially as you go through quite an array of different environments despite still being inside a cave. One minute, you're going through some empty caverns; another minute, you go through places that'd host underground societies, and then there's a part where it's like you're inside a volcano. That's not even mentioning each characters' exclusive environments. With them looking as great as they do, it's just amazing. Top it off with some hilarious animations, and it only gets better. The animations are important; the characters may interact with one another, but they're all mute. How else can you communicate but via charades? Like how they can use their hands to perform gestures or even move their bodies. Even better are some of the amusing walking animations, like the hillbilly flailing about while he moves or how the twins may as well be conjoined. Where it hurts is twofold – the framerate can often chug, and you can sometimes find yourself getting stuck in solid platforms which require you to reset the console. Thank god for frequent autosaves...

The music manages to provide the appropriate ambiance. Whether it's the mesmerizing echoes of the cave, to the accordions of the carnival themed places (like when you're introduced to the hillbilly or you're at one of his exclusive portions of the cave), each piece of music manages to fit well with the surroundings and draw you into the experience. Unfortunately, there aren't really any standout pieces, perhaps outside of the James Bond theme sounding song during one of the scientist's exclusive portions involving a laboratory and some sneaky stunts. The voice acting from the cave is fantastic as his voice just drips with sarcasm, complimenting the dialogue with aplomb, and the people you meet along the way also have great voice acting that oozes with personality.

It's amazing how The Cave is a game that revolves around replayability and discovery – while the discovery portion is great, the replayability portion leaves a lot to be desired. The first playthrough is excellent outside of some crap platforming elements, but each subsequent playthrough just isn't as interesting. Most people don't replay the likes of Broken Sword too quickly outside of speed running because discovery, whether it's the solution to the puzzle or possibilities of a solution, is something that only exists during ones' first playthrough. Having a lot of different characters is excellent on paper, but execution is what matters and the execution does leave a fair bit to be desired once you realize that these characters just aren't used as well as they could've been, nor that the cave is as well designed as it could've been, even if it seems like it was well done the first time you go through the cave. At the same time, I would happily recommend that you play through this game, if only for the first playthrough.

7.5/10 (Good)

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