Sunday, February 17, 2013

Game Review: The Cave (XBLA, 2013)

Double Fine’s most recent release, The Cave, certainly embodies their quirky reputation.  It has the high production value we’ve come to expect from the company, but by its nature as a puzzle game, it’s not likely to keep gamers entertained for more than a few days.  Here’s what it has to offer:

The Cave is the tale of 7 fortune-seekers (well, 8 really, as one of the seven is actually a pair of twins) who descend into the titular crevasse in search of what they desire most.  Each character has a backstory told through cave paintings, the game’s collectibles, and they’re surprisingly detailed and interesting for short series of still images.  The game’s narration describing the characters’ quests in the Cave is similarly entertaining, as it is both sharply written and fabulously presented.  The overall story is therefore quite impressive.

And the presentation is incredible.  Beautifully animated, the protagonists travel through a variety of gorgeous environments.  There are wonderful and subtle details adorning every room and corridor, making for a fantastic journey through the Cave.  The sound quality is equally high, with brilliant voice acting all around and sound effects that successfully accentuate the action.  The music, although also very good, is usually not noticeable.  That’s not entirely a bad thing because the ambient music does a lot to set the tone of each area, but it still would have been nice to get some epic tracks during some of the game’s emotional climaxes.

Sadly, despite the awesome premise and presentation, the gameplay is little more than ok.  The Cave struggles a bit against its genre in this respect.  It’s a puzzle game in the style of some old-school adventure titles, so it’s kind of a one-shot deal; once you know all the solutions, there’s not much left to experience.  What’s worse, the Cave is much shorter than those classic adventure games that have clearly inspired it because it can be completed within a few hours easily.

The Cave does mitigate some of those problems with the genre with a clever variability in what the game has to offer.  Although there are 7 characters, and each has his or her own puzzle to solve, you may only use 3 of those characters at a time.  It’s actually a pretty cool mechanic, as the Cave itself is linear, but you’ll get diverted to avoid some of the puzzles.  As a result, the overall experience is different depending on which characters you use.

Now, this format isn’t without its downsides.  There are, for example, a few generic puzzles that you’ll encounter whatever characters you select, resulting in a tedious and time-consuming obstacle in every playthrough.  Also, although every character has a special ability, those abilities are really only used in their individual puzzles.  There are very few opportunities to use one character’s ability to help with another character’s puzzle, eliminating a chance for interactions for the characters.  As such, the specific team makeup doesn’t matter, it’s just a question of which individual puzzles you’ll see.

My final complaint is that the puzzles themselves aren’t nearly as expansive as their areas might lead you to believe.  There’s a ton of backtracking covering large areas, which gets to be very annoying.  For the most part, the puzzles aren’t hard to figure out because there are only a few pieces to each.  The one really difficult puzzle I found was only difficult because I didn’t do something exactly as the game intended, causing me to go searching for another answer that didn’t exist.

In the end, the Cave is a decent game with excellent atmosphere and limited replayability.  Like most adventure games, the story (and humor) is the driving force, and the puzzles are just there to challenge you along the way.  If you’re interested in an amusing tale, it’s worth checking out; otherwise, you’re better off spending your MSP on something else.

My rating: 6/10 – decent.

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