The Cave review: Seven spelunkers, none decent

The Cave is an adventure game, obviously. It's littered with puzzles and pieces of junk destined to become the only objects in the world worth having. The cave itself is a sentient, subterranean narrator, enveloping seven different explorers in a patchwork of dream-like environments that not only pertain to them, but contain the kind of contorted contexts in which a femur and a parrot are essential parts of progress.

Those are all signs of the classic adventure, tinged with the incongruous vending machines, gift shops and eternally stranded island hermits you expect from a Ron Gilbert game. But there's something else inside The Cave, a familiar cynicism and cleverness that gradually emerges as each spelunker hits rock bottom. These people – even the monk and the chivalrous knight – are egotistical, unpleasant kleptomaniacs, and you're one of them.
%Gallery-164293% That honest appraisal of the adventurer (and the adventure gamer) elevates The Cave above its structural problems, and makes for an observation far wittier and funnier than anything said by the narrator himself. There is truly unique pleasure in seeing the dark, reprehensible turns each puzzle takes, and knowing that an alternate solution exists in there somewhere. Ron Gilbert assures me there are unselfish ways toward success, though I prefer the evil ones.

The alternate solutions are integral to the game's philosophy – the choice must exist, or the statement is rendered inert. Then again, people bettering themselves isn't nearly as funny as people bettering themselves by battering others. This is an entire genre where lying, cheating, misdirection and arbitrary theft are easy stepping stones en route to the mythical solution. When you're in puzzle solving mode, everyone is a tool for the ol' inventory.

Many players lament the demented logic required to overcome the obstacles in a game like The Cave, but that comes from a history of bad puzzles. The good ones don't have to be sensible in conversation; they just have to trick you into forming the only natural connection – vacuum cleaner on the bat – for the world you're in. This alignment between player and puzzle maker can be a feat of clear storytelling and immersion.

The Cave is ruthless in this regard, segmenting its story for each explorer, abolishing inventory size to a single carried item, flattening exploration into side-scrolling labyrinths, and clearly signposting what can and can't be used. The frustration is infrequent enough to make The Cave something worth seeing, even if you're not into This Sort of Thing.

Unfortunately, The Cave's structure is an obstacle in itself, and it crushes me to dilute my recommendation with video game foibles. You'll notice there's a mathematical problem: to complete The Cave as all seven characters, using three at a time, you have to venture in three times, meaning the last turn will have two repeated stories. The Cave doesn't dynamically adjust based on whether you have The Scientist or The Time Traveler in the party, instead requiring their special abilities to grant access to tailored parts of a static map. It's good, contiguous level design, but it can grow tiresome in unison with the generic puzzle sections that apply to everyone in The Cave.

Though it won't quell the creeping touch of tedium, you can treat the third and final stretch as a speed-run of sorts. I suggest using the Knight's protective aura to quickly drop off ledges to skip ladders, and The Monk to pull levers remotely. And here's another tip to make your life easier: when you switch from one character to another, your former vessel can keep a grip on pushable objects. This mechanism isn't explained, and there's no reason to assume it exists.

The cooperative play for up to three is a sensible addition, but it's not implemented well and usually becomes an annoying struggle for camera control. You may also encounter minor stuttering throughout, the occasional surprise superpower (swimming through walls) and, if you're an irredeemably bad person like me, a corrupted save file.

The Cave turns out to be the cruelest of Double Fine's games, and perhaps the most sharply written. Ron Gilbert and Chris Remo miss on the explicit narration, but their underlying story is perfectly pitched through puzzles and your own wicked participation. The repetition inherent in the game's structure is severe, while also being home to a wonderful, unfurling evilness. Reliving a life over and over may be apt punishment for an adventurer's ill deeds, here in this warm place beneath the earth.

This review is based on a final Xbox Live Arcade version of The Cave, provided by Sega.

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