Double Fine seems to have found a fairly comfortable position in the downloadable market. Their unique and far-flung ideas fit much easier as downloadable titles and have had better luck than their retail releases. This time, Tim Schafer’s old cohort Ron Gilbert steps to the front to release a game that has spent a few years in the making (at least in Gilbert’s head), how does it fair up?
A talking Cave has beckoned eight strangers (if you include both twins) into exploring its depths in the hope of finding their deepest desires. It almost acts like an episode of the Twilight Zone, as the interior of the Cave will change depending on which of the three main characters you decide to take with you. I’d rather not say any more for fear of giving away too much, but suffice to say that the humour on display here is some of the darkest, cruelest and funniest you’ll have seen for a good while. A personal highlight being the ramblings of an old hermit and the desperate tone of the Twin’s parents.
Throughout the game you will find Cave paintings, which give you insights into the main character’s backgrounds. They may seem like collectables but they actually add so much more to the story; initial assumptions about some characters (especially the Knight) are cast aside in sometimes tragic, but always funny ways. Never assume to know what lurks in the character’s minds until the credits role after the poignant and very sombre ending.
Now, if you’ll indulge me for a paragraph or two: The opening level of this game is a masterclass of level design and should be played by anyone wanting to get into the gaming industry. Go to your gaming shelf and put in a random game. Within the first 10 minutes count how many button prompts or tutorials you have to wade through just to learn how to play the game. The Cave has none of this. Oh sure there are icons at the bottom left of the screen that tell you which character is assigned to which button, but there is even a button that lets you hide that, the game masterfully lets you figure out for yourself how it is played.
No command is too difficult to understand that can’t be figured out by a little experimentation. Oh it may take longer without a giant PRESS X TO PICK UP CROWBAR prompt popping up but it’s so much more satisfying to learn the game’s mechanics by yourself. There’s always the option to look in the menu for a tutorial but it simply isn’t needed. The game could also pop up a menu and say WHAT THREE CHARACTERS DO YOU WANT TO TAKE? But instead takes a much more clever and devious route of character selection which helps drives the game’s tone and atmosphere. This sort of game design was much more prevalent during the SNES days and is currently only usually seen in indie-games. While it’s understandable for big games to have a blunt force trauma approach to tutorials as they have masses of information to divulge, the Cave does feel incredibly fresh in this regard.
The game is a 2-D Adventure romp that controls as well as it needs too. Mostly. Although ladders and ledges can be a pain to dismount without falling to your “death” (more on that later), you won’t have to pixel hunt as much as you will in other adventure games; once you know the solution to a puzzle, it’s usually not too hard to solve it. For the most part the puzzles are great fun and a joy to solve. Each puzzle is sectioned off one at a time, meaning that players who vividly remember Year 2 of Grim Fandango can relax; you don’t have to run about a city sized level where anything could be used on anything for hours on end. With only a few exceptions, the puzzles feel fair yet are so satisfying to pull off.
Each character controls pretty much the same, though they all have their own special abilities that are mostly only used in their own special story segments. There’s the occasional moment when having a certain character will help provide a shortcut (e.g The Monk could use his telekinetic powers to help the Knight) but apart from that they are barely used.
Where the game does start to stumble it is in its multiple characters. You can only control one at a time, which can mean that if you want all three characters at one specific point you have to walk them all there individually, which can be incredibly frustrating, especially when your still in the trial and error stage. This could all be solved by letting the computer take over uninhabited characters and making them follow you whenever you want, but instead you’re forced to run across the same areas three times. The game does seem aware of the problem though, as every so often, usually at the end of levels, your extra characters will appear beside you, but why this aspect couldn’t have become more widespread or even part of the gameplay is beyond me. Having an extra pair of hands on another control pad can help cut your time spent meandering about, but only a little. Speaking of…
A massive opportunity is missed with multiplayer. Its inclusion is interesting and even has great potential but no thought has been put into it beyond “let’s have multiplayer in the game”. The game simply doesn’t accommodate it at all. The screen never splits or widens enough to make it worthwhile, all players (maximum of three) have to stay on the same screen together. Having the option to allow players to run off and explore their own area would have been a fantastic addition, but as it is, multiplayer is more of a hindrance as you can change characters on the fly whether they’re inhabited or not. Also the effect it can have on the camera can be infuriating, requiring yet more fidgeting with the D-Pad to correct. The game feels so close to greatness, but little flaws like this hold it back.
One more gripe that sounds small but is really bothersome; there is fall damage. That’s right, the game is constantly throwing you down waterfalls, putting you in all kinds of danger and has Little Big Planet-esque controls (don’t worry, this game is actually good [CONTROVERSY]) yet you can’t fall more than about ten feet without dying. In fact an early puzzle revolves around teaching you just how far you can fall and is quite frankly bizarre.
The art style is somewhat similar to Psychonauts but without the deformed character design (the woodland opening may give Double Fine fans a flashback) and gets the job done, think of the Tim Burton animated films of the past few years. The voice acting is mostly great; though the occasional line is groan worthy, the sickly dark humour will make you laugh as you see the dark twists coming just around the corner (poor Mummy and Daddy). Far more impressive is the complete lack of loading screens. Throughout the entire game there is no fade to black or door that takes longer than it should to open, it’s simply a lovely, uninterrupted experience with the occasional screen freeze being the only hiccup.
Much harder to forgive however are the bugs. Most are fine as you simply get caught in the environment or, in one case during the Time-Traveller’s story, falling through the world entirely, as pulling the triggers together restarts your character a few feet away (clearly a fail safe measure to combat the known bugs). One bug however is literally game ending; near the end, before climbing “that” ladder, my game started glitching out and wouldn’t let me change character. I reloaded my save but it happened again. Eventually I got it working by having certain characters selected at certain times but it certainly did sour the experience. My second playthrough went fine but it acted up again on my third. A definite issue.
Like with lots of Adventure games, there is no death. However unlike Monkey Island or Grim Fandango where they find workarounds, in this you simply turn into a puff of smoke and reappear elsewhere, which renders some graves near the entrance, eery atmosphere and warnings of deathly danger obsolete. Another minor gripe, but also a strange one that’s hard not to notice.
This is a really, REALLY good game. Looking at it from a certain angle it’s probably Double Fine’s best game since Psychonauts. It’s just a shame that many strange design choices and poor implementation of multiplayer hold it back. If you like your humour dark, yet charming and very “Schafer” like (also if you’re a fan of Double Fine), then you’ll really dig this. The 1200MS point price tag may seem daunting but keep in mind that to get everything from this game it will take three playthroughs (a final play-through would be with only one new character though). Don’t feel bad if you want to wait for a sale, that being said it is well worth the price.