Starting the game, there are seven characters to choose a party of three from. Each character has a unique special power that can be used to assist in puzzles or getting around the cave, as well as story that reveals their intentions and past. You have an Adventurer, a Monk, the creepy Twins, a friendly-looking Hillbilly, a Scientist, a “brave” Knight, and an intrepid Time Traveler. There is no right or wrong combinations to select, and if you want to see all the endings and unique cave levels that pertain to each character. As you explore the caves and complete the puzzles within them to advance, you’ll find cave paintings that reveal more of each character’s story through static but well-done images.
The parties of three you choose are not under control by you as a group, but each character singly. This gameplay aspect has you controlling one character one at a time to interact with levels, use abilities, items, etc while the other characters sit idly by. This requires you to plan ahead and have them “work together” to assist in solving puzzles. However it does get tiring ferrying them around in the caves to each location you need them, but luckily there are times where the AI will control the other two characters to follow you to important transitions. There is multiplayer if you wish to have two other players join in, but unfortunately only in local co-op. This does help break up the tasks a bit easier, but there are still going to be times where some players will have to stand around doing nothing while the main character is working a puzzle.
The platforming in The Cave leaves a little bit to be desired. It’s not that it exists, but controls and how the characters move about seems to be stilted and stiff. You can use a keyboard, a mouse, or a controller to play, but none really seem to take away the stiff character movement. There are slow moments going up ropes and ladders that seem to take forever to ascend and descend.
The puzzles are your standard fare of either manipulating switches, standing on platforms, using item X on place Y – all which are easily identified via large white text so that there is no misunderstanding what action is available to be done. Removing the “click everywhere until something happens” mechanic, along with having a simplified inventory system of each character being able to carry only one item makes solving puzzles challenging enough to where you’re not pulling your hair out to figure out, but not simple enough to where you feel like you’re five years old.
Luckily failing a puzzle isn’t possible to where you can’t proceed, and character death is never a worry either. If you fall from a great height, get electrocuted, eaten, squashed, stabbed, (honestly the variations to having your characters bite it is wide and varied), you reappear from a nearby spot. There’s no visual representation to where these checkpoints would be, but they’re never inconvenient and will always put you back to where you made your first attempt before dying.
The Cave’s sound design is fantastic and along with the voice acting (Steven Stanton, who has quite the work list, as the Cave), makes for a very pleasurable experience. Each character has a unique walking noise, from the Hillbilly’s bare feet to the Time Traveler’s hover boots. Unique cave levels are similarly kept up with in high audio quality with background music to bits of filler here and there.
As mentioned above, it’s easy to see Double Fine’s work in The Cave. The graphics are cartoony yet not overdone. The general cave levels look particularly convincing that they’re dark, dank, and cold, and the unique cave levels wildly differ in many great ways. The Knight’s cave level features a grand castle with a dragon’s den, the Time Traveler has a museum in the future with outlandish claims to past technology, as well as access to a time machine across three time periods, the list goes on. It’s almost like a Twilight Zone episode to how well-integrated the levels are in the cave, with transitions working out in a fashion as if you’re stumbling into them. As a fan of Psychonauts as well, it’s nice to see the influence it had in Double Fine’s development in the graphical aspect of The Cave.
Overall, The Cave is a fun adventure to take on. It’s great for fans of Ron Gilbert’s works, as well as Double Fine’s, and for newcomers its light enough to not have them worry about large inventories or convoluted puzzles that offer no logical sense in solving them. The platforming aspect, while helping in adding a bit more flavor to the experience, can be a headache sometimes but don’t let it get in the way. You will see repeated cave levels in your adventures, but with using different three-character combinations alleviates the repetitious nature.