DoubleFine’s games give gamers a fuzzy feeling of happiness in ways that few games can manage. It is one of the most beloved development studios in the world, and there was no better evidence of this than the outpouring of support for its Kickstarter campaign last year. Unfortunately, a new dawn for DoubleFine brings with it some old problems, and The Cave suffers as a result.
In The Cave, players will play as any three of seven potential playable characters (in co-op play, the control is limited to one character per player), each with a unique special ability and backstory. Using the combination of the three characters, players will solve puzzles and explore the eponymous cave in search of…something.
The puzzles in The Cave are cleverly designed. Most of them will require at least two of the three on-screen characters to complete, and typically the cooperation is done in an interesting way. For example, in one puzzle I used a character as a decoy in order to draw the attention of a dragon while a second character snuck in behind it and stole something from its lair. This approach adds something to the grammar of puzzle games, as each multi-tiered puzzle builds on the last to create some truly mind-bending moments. Working together with others and slowly figuring things out as a group is quite rewarding, provided the group is friendly and supportive.
However, playing alone offers a set of annoyances that slowly add up to hamper the player’s ability to have fun. Each character needs to be manually placed in different spots, and as the puzzles get more sprawling, simply remembering where each character is and what his or her role is in the chain of events can become cumbersome. There are other situations in which players have to collect and move the characters around, and players will often have to cover the same ground repeatedly just to complete certain tasks. A system that locks or unlocks the characters from their positions would be eminently useful to solo players, even though the characters eventually follow when leaving certain locations. Finally, those special abilities referenced earlier sometimes don’t feel all that special. Due to the nature of the character selection and design, only some of the puzzles are designed around a character’s special ability, in areas generated specifically for that character. It’s obvious and telegraphed in a way that only serves to make it less interesting, even though the modular game design is in and of itself a smart idea. It would have been more interesting for the game to limit players’ choice of characters to certain ones per section and design puzzles for each combination, but as it stands now the implementation of the special abilities is disappointingly limited.
Also, the game sometimes does a poor job of communicating to players. One early sequence requires the player to outright start to leave the location of a quest giver without receiving the quest in order to “activate” the quest. Although this is a puzzle game, and puzzles shouldn’t be obviously solvable, there still should be some guidance to players in terms of where to go and the end goal. The game plays with players expectations in a way that only DoubleFine can, but its insistence on obscuring goals does more harm than good.
The Cave is a pretty game, with a strong art aesthetic and a subtle use of color that highlights the different environments. There are some technical issues, however. One, the framerate often stutters while traversing the environment. The Cave isn’t a game that requires pinpoint accuracy in terms of control, but it reflects a general lack of polish. Another character, The Twins, will often transpose in an animation loop. Again, it’s no gamekiller, but it’s ugly and takes away from the otherwise strong visual presentation.
Peppering the environment are collectibles in the form of cave paintings, and these paintings give supplementary information on the characters of The Cave. Players will learn about the real origin of The Knight, as well as many other sometimes-hilarious tidbits. The game also does a service to the characters by peppering their personal stories throughout the narrative. It winds up being a bit of a strange result in which the characters work together as well as separately, but it’s held together by strong writing.
In all, The Cave is a success. It has a distinct lack of polish and the controls could use another command or two, but the combination of intrigue and fun puzzles will give any player that fuzzy feeling that so epitomizes DoubleFine’s past work. It’s a self-assured, if somewhat safe, game that feels old and new at the same time.
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A copy of The Cave for the Xbox 360 was provided to us by DoubleFine for the purposes of this review.