On the surface, the characters of The Cave are your typical videogame heroes. The adventurer seeks treasure, the scientist seeks knowledge, and the knight must prove his bravery to win a fair maiden's hand. But as the story unfolds, it's clear that there's more to these characters than meets the eye. Each of them holds a disturbing secret, and it's only in the darkness of the cave--a sarcastic, cynical entity unto its own--that their true nature is revealed. The fact that these dark story elements are ably mixed with witty narration is a testament to the great writing on show here. The gameplay is a mix of platformer and point-and-click adventure mechanics, and is decidedly less impressive. There are some interesting puzzles to solve, and the platforming is suitably light, but a clunky camera and character switching system makes exploring the dark caverns of the cave too much of a chore.
That's down to having to control three characters at once during your journey. There are seven to choose from, each of them possessing a unique and often humorous backstory narrated by the cave itself, which hints at the dark discoveries you make during your travels. The trouble is, you have to individually manoeuvre each character across the 2D, side scrolling levels, switching between them using the d-pad. There are good reasons for doing this. Many puzzles involve having characters use objects in different places, such as pulling a far away lever to open a door, or using a hotdog to lure a monster away from his lair while your compatriots rush in to steal the treasure within.
But there are also many moments when you need to have all your characters together to solve a puzzle. And when they're spread out across a huge expanse of cave, it's a laborious process to bring them all together again. There's an element of Metroid-like exploration at play, which--given some of the discoverable story elements and objects scattered throughout the cave's tunnels--is deftly encouraged. But when you have to repeat the process three times with each character, that exploration soon begins to grate. Teaming up with friends for local co-op isn't much help either. Not only are some players left standing around twiddling their thumbs while others go off to explore, but the switching system that lets you take control of any player's character at will is a far too tempting way to grief them too.
Fortunately, the platforming that powers the exploration is kept light and breezy. There aren't any difficult jumps to perform, or vast caverns to traverse. And should the unthinkable happen and you die, there are no extra lives or game over screens to deal with: you simply float back to where you died and begin again. This helps keep the focus on exploring the cave, and solving its many puzzles. Those take the form of traditional item gathering and combining, and logic puzzles. The lack of an inventory means you can only carry one item per character, with everything you need being located within, or near a given puzzle.
Like many point-and-clicks there's a certain amount of videogame logic to overcome, but there's rarely a solution that's too out there for you to discover. You might have to combine a bucket with a puddle of water so you can catch lit dynamite, for instance, or dive into a pool of electric eels in order to charge a flat battery and power a tape recorder. Handily, objects that you can interact with are clearly marked, which means there's no need to run around each area randomly pushing buttons in the hope of picking up a hidden object. There are also many puzzles that require the use of all three characters, such as pulling three levers simultaneously to open doors, or using a time machine to change the past so another character can solve a puzzle in the present.
The puzzles are challenging, but not overly so, even if it takes a little while to get used to The Cave's three-person logic. You also have to take into account each character's special ability. For instance, The monk can pull objects towards him using telekinesis, while the twins can create a body double to interact with two objects at once. Depending on which characters you've chosen, there's often a second, easier solution to many puzzles by way of those special abilities, which gives the game a degree of openness missing from similar point-and-clicks.
Where the special abilities truly come into play are during levels tailored to a specific character. It's there that you learn the true motivations behind their adventure. These dark tales that are ethically questionable, but are told with a great sense of humor via the narration of the cave. Sure, you might not want to launch a nuclear missile that kills millions, or unleash a deadly dragon upon the unsuspecting inhabitants of a kingdom, but the cute styling of the characters, comedic voice acting, and the fact that their actions are so lamented by the cave itself mean you never feel too guilty about it all.
With seven characters to choose from, multiple play throughs are the only way to see everything the game has to offer. That does mean you have to repeat some puzzles before you get to the character-specific sections, but you can easily whizz through them a second time and get to parts that are new. Plus, the story elements and excellent narration are more than good enough to warrant another play through.
The Cave's puzzles are challenging, its story is well constructed and narrated, and its cartoon-like visuals and sprawling, morphing tunnels are pleasant to look at. Its mashup of elements from platformers and point-and-clicks fare less well, but if you can overlook those small flaws The Cave is a dark, yet humorous adventure that ably exercises the grey matter.'