Having repeatedly plundered the depths of Ron Gilbert’s The Cave I have come to accept its message that desire can be a dangerous thing. Not through the actions and fates of its seven protagonists – though their tales certainly present this theme in darker, more interesting ways than one initially expects – but from how my excitement eroded into disappointment with each (damn near mandatory) additional playthrough.
That isn’t to say you will emerge from your first time through the cave completely unscathed. Much of this comes from the efforts to streamline the traditional point-and-click experience. Having no inventory removes the annoyance of trial and error item combinations, but it also leads to backtracking when you inevitably drop an item only to get to the next puzzle and realise you need it. Similarly, whilst the game has certain areas that only one of your characters has to reach in order for the rest to automatically make their way there, you will have to navigate much of the cave’s platforms and pitfalls with each of the three characters you’ve chosen. The puzzles are also, with very few exceptions, rather simple lending the game a refreshingly quick pace but a rather short playtime of around 4 hours.
The character of the cave itself, however, is an undeniable highlight. The narration it provides may reveal itself to be further away from Bastion’s in terms of responding to player actions than it initially seems but it is sometimes poignant, often humorous and always flawlessly delivered. Aesthetically too the cave impresses, with varied environments that span time, space and feasibility seemingly effortlessly yet manage to blend together with commendable cohesion.
Whilst there are some large set piece moments that impress it is the small considerations that I appreciated the most. The way your character will automatically grab back onto a ladder or rope if the fall would kill you, the skeletons that the Time Traveler’s section generates as you play with causality, the way each characters’ personality is expressed through their individual animations and abilities. All of these aspects, and numerous others that I will let you discover for yourself, help make your initial run through the cave fun in spite of its flaws.
The problem comes from repetition and this comes from the fact there are seven different characters that the game wants you to play and only three spots available each playthrough. It is at least one too many characters if you want to see all of their individual zones and collect all of their interactive stories, and more annoyingly the number seems arbitrary in the first place. You could coerce the 7 characters into falling in line with the seven deadly sins, but if it is an intended theme it is not only creatively clichéd but poorly established. The individual abilities and areas of the characters are generally the strongest aspects of the game, but to have to go through the core elements repeatedly to get to them seems like a clear design flaw as does the fact that the abilities are used almost exclusively within those zones. There’s the occasional jump that The Adventurer can grapple over and a few barriers that the Time Traveler can phase through in order to skip part of a puzzle but the overall effect is negligible.
The composition of your team is equally meaningless as there is no shared dialogue or interactions between the characters at any point. It comes across as a massive oversight, as ambient dialogue would grant a degree of subtle characterisation that would improve the game tremendously, but I suspect adding something like this was made nigh on impossible due to the number of characters. It makes them all seem somewhat shallow and directly conflicts with the premise that they deeply desire anything - surely they should show disdain for the hillbilly’s comparatively pitiful quest to find love, or amazement at being transported in time.
To see all of the content, including both the good and bad endings for each character, you would have to play the game to completion at least 5 times and, in all honesty, I barely managed to sustain myself through my three playthroughs that encompassed experiencing each character and seeing examples of the differences between the divergent endings. The Cave is well crafted but downright self-sabotaging in terms of its structure, never quite caving in completely but coming dangerously close and as such it gets a somewhat guarded recommendation.