Double Fine and Ron "Ronzo" Gilbert, together at last? Making an adventure game? Well, tie me down and call me Betty, how can this go wrong?
And for those still worried: The Cave is an adventure game. Ron apparently had the idea for the game back in the 1950's, at a time when text adventures, often set in caves, ruled the scene. That general type of gameplay is what The Cave is all about, but with a healthy dose of modern elements thrown in. Graphics. Sound. You get the point. It might not be a graphic adventure in the traditional sense, but it's certainly an adventure game with graphics.
And the platforming part? Completely secondary. Tertiary even. I have no idea what those early reviews were going on about, complaining about the platform controls. I can only assume they were playing a beta version of the game. That's why Mojo is always late on reviews -- our strict editorial standards prevents us from reviewing anything but the finished product. No. Really! (OK, not really.)
Anyway: As far as the plot goes, you already know the basics -- three adventurers of your choice enter a cave for reasons more or less unknown. The titular cave provides most of the speech in the game through a Rod Serling type narration, throwing in plenty of one-liners. It's constantly amusing, if not laugh out loud funny, which is fine with me.
The paths the adventurers take are all based on the combination of characters you choose, meaning that while the initial play-through is relatively short -- six hours or so, possibly less -- the game will change depending on the adventurers you choose next time. In other words, this is a game you can play multiple times, and the locations and puzzles you see will different each time.
In the cave you will find cave paintings with backstories of the various characters. These are presented similarly to those in Psychonauts's viewfinder, and range from funny to sad. In that sense this is not a terribly deep game, story wise, but there is enough to the backstories to make you actually care for the characters. Their designs and animations also add a lot to the latter.
There are elements of classic graphic adventuring here too. You'll meet characters giving you puzzles -- often following the classic Monkey Island three quest structure -- all of them providing well-written and funny monologues. Note "monologues". The main characters don't actually speak throughout the game.
The puzzles? Not as frustrating as some have described them. That's not to say you might be grinding your teeth now and again, but not for long. I found the puzzles rewarding, and thankfully a whole lot more modern than those in text adventures. They're also closer in style of graphic adventures than, say, Myst.
One issue, though, is the amount of back and forth traveling you need to do. This occurs in individual sub-sections (or levels, if you will) of the cave, and can largely be blamed on each character's inventory being limited to one item. That back and forth can get old after a while. Luckily, traveling between each sub-section has the two other character follow you automatically when you reach a checkpoint. No need to repeat the trip with each character.
You've already seen the screenshots, but just to hammer home the point: The atmosphere adds a lot to the game. The graphics are gorgeous, 2D styled, and incredibly detailed. Just keep an eye out for all the stuff going on in the background. The cave feels like a living, breathing world, underscored by an often ambient soundtrack and subtle, ever present sound effects.
Say what you will about any of Ron's work, but the man really gets how important atmosphere is to a game, and so does Double Fine. The details you see and hear in their games -- be it Costume Quest or The Cave -- adds just that little extra that makes them truly immersive.
The only issue I really have with the graphics is the occasional slowdown, at least on the 360. I hope these will be fixed through a patch, as they can be somewhat jarring.
Really, though, we're talking niggles here, niggles that really aren't that annoying.
Is this an awesome game, overall? I think it is. I enjoyed it a lot; a whole lot in fact.
One can probably question if this type of gameplay and storytelling will capture the hearts and minds of strict 1990's graphic adventure purists, but I see that as being more their problem than anyone else's.
Actually, I wouldn't have been surprised if The Cave had been thrown square in the middle of the "are games art?!" argument had it been made by a new, up and coming studio. Seeing how it's the work of seasoned veterans, it seems to kind of have skipped that discussion -- probably thankfully -- and is rather being compared to the team's previous works.
To me The Cave stacks up remarkably well. It features classic gameplay with a modern touch. I mean, this is an adventure game with co-op gameplay, for heavens sake. I can imagine it being even better when played with a large group, at least for those who aren't poor, lonely souls. So yeah, forget that, as most of Mojo would be excluded. :~
The Cave might have some niggles then, but they don't get in the way of what is truly a fun experience. Ron's philosophy seems to be based on making short games, filled to the brim with atmosphere. The Cave really represents that, nicely mixing old with the new.
As long as you can live with the fact The Cave is not entirely an old-school graphic adventure, you will likely enjoy this game as much as I did, and that was a whole lot.