On the surface, The Cave seems to offer everything you’d expect from a Double Fine game. The concept is an interesting one: take cautionary tales about the dark side of human ambition, and saddle them to a cast of seven characters, from a sinister pair of dead-eyed twins to a troubled monk. The titular, magical subterrane they aim to plunder for various ends is pleasantly beautiful and dangerous, and what’s more, the cave is a full-on character who narrates the tale and and sarcastically guides the cast towards key turning points in their own morality. Unfortunately, just about every other component of the game is riddled with issues. The Cave‘s skeletal structure is stiff and unrewarding to the point that, despite my interest in its story, I rarely enjoyed the time I spent with it.
You begin the game by choosing just three of the available seven characters to take along with you, and once you pass through that first screen, you’re locked into your choices for the rest of the game. These characters progress through the dangerous cave in hopes that their wishes may be granted, and no motivation is entirely pure. Each of the seven characters get their own specific section to solve, ending to see and special ability to use, but a good chunk of the game is the same no matter who you choose at the outset. There’s no combat or action in The Cave; this is a traditional adventure game in many respects. You poke around the area, find items, pick them up, and find a use for them that helps you get past whatever obstacle is in your way. It’s a mostly traditional approach to the genre, but the puzzles are decent in concept, and their eventual solution nearly always makes logical sense. It’s the way in which they’re executed that leaves much to be desired.
The single biggest problem with The Cave is the way it forces you to control all three characters in real-time, but separately. The camera only follows the character last selected, and since the other two never follow along, you have to manually move through each section of the game three times. Having the camera obnoxiously pan and scan around while you are forced to constantly backtrack looks and feels crummy, and it’s a little saddening to see this rough approach shipped inside a promising product. Solutions to puzzles often depend on running back and forth over and over, and making any sort of oversight – an inevitability for your first few attempts on any puzzle – extends that re-treading and re-positioning of your characters further. There are a few moments of sincere cleverness along the way, but the constant chore of managing your party dims even the brightest moments of cerebral prodding.
Unfortunately, the most basic elements of The Cave have their share of problems, as well. Character movement is slow, the way they jump and grab onto ledges feels rusty and shoddy, and although the individual animations look alright, the way they join together looks bad. Making long jumps can be a particularly grating exercise. The game never puts you under a tight clock or demands you to be super precise with the controls, but they inarguably wear down the basic enjoyment of a video game. It’s also frustrating to have completely figured out a puzzle, only to be momentarily halted by such rough movement.
The disappointing lack of follow-through eventually makes it way to the story, as well. The quality of each character’s vignette varies markedly, so while some of the seven characters have interesting and reasonably satisfying endings, some absolutely do not. You’ll probably get a taste of each from your selection of characters, but I couldn’t help but feel like the game largely misses out on the real potential of its premise. It’s not as funny as it thinks it is, and some of the stories feel so insubstantial that they almost seem unfinished. There are moments of real satisfaction and joy in The Cave, but these crests just make the following trough back to the mediocre norm more disheartening.
The Cave isn’t completely without merit, but it is unquestionably a subpar game in more than a few respects, and one of its developer’s weakest outings. It has a great look and an interesting setup, but it just loses too much of its potential to middling mechanics. I wouldn’t recommend spending your fifteen bucks on it.