by Travis Fahs0
The Cave Review
Spelunking the Soul
Double Fine has had their foot in the mobile market for some time now, with smaller-scale releases like Middle Manager of Justice and Dropchord, but the release of The Cave is the first time we’ve seen one of Double Fine’s major console titles on phones and tablets. The cerebral side-scroller originally released on PC and consoles in early 2013 has been ported to the small screen with relatively few compromises; an exciting proposal for any Double Fine fan.
The Cave built up quite a bit of hype leading up to its release last January. It was a collaboration between Double Fine and Ron Gilbert, mentor to their CEO Tim Shafer and one of the godfathers of the adventure genre. Not only that, but it was billed as Gilbert’s long-awaited return to the adventure genre for the first time since departing Humongous Entertainment. That distinction chafed many purists, as The Cave is at first blush a platform game, but upon closer inspection, it proves to be a real adventure game after all.
The Cave is a darkly humorous fable about seven adventurers in search of fortune. The eponymous cavern is said to reward those that dare to brave its depths with that which they desire most. Each of these seven protagonists – hailing from across both the globe and history – is confronted with their dark past as they work their way through the mystical grotto.
The cave itself becomes a character in the story, and even narrates its events with a booming, sardonic voice that echoes both the narrators in classic adventure games and the introductions to The Twilight Zone. The characters themselves never speak, but their stories are gradually revealed through illustrations and through their own personalized regions of the cave. When you begin the game, you’ll select three of the seven characters and each character has a section that only they can access. These stages make up about half of each play through, so you’ll need to play through three times to see them all.
Although it’s ostensibly a side-scrolling platform game, The Cave places very little emphasis on action. Death means nothing more than respawning a few feet away, and there is no combat or enemies of any kind to contend with. Instead, the focus is on puzzle solving. Most of this is actually pretty similar to classic puzzle design. You’ll find various objects around and then have to use them on the environment. The main way this differs from classic adventures is that there is no inventory. You can only pick up one object at a time, and then carry it to where it belongs.
The other puzzles revolve around managing the three members of the team. Much like the classic Lost Vikings series, you can switch between your three characters, and you must use them together to overcome many obstacles. For example, one character may need to hold a switch to allow another character pass through a gate, or two characters may need to each carry two needed items to pass another obstacle.
The puzzle design in The Cave is smart enough to force players to think, but seldom frustrating, and may seem easy to hardened veterans of the genre. Its biggest flaw is that, because it lacks an inventory, there’s often a lot of backtracking to shlep items from one are to another as needed. This becomes especially frustrating when puzzles require a degree of trial and error, forcing players to run back and get the same item repeatedly in order to set up the solution.
Surprisingly little has been compromised in the transition to mobile. While the graphics have been toned down a bit, especially in terms of shaders, it doesn’t look drastically different, and the art style still shines through. The controls have been seriously reworked for a touch-based system that eschews the usual virtual d-pad and buttons. Instead you’ll tap on parts of the screen you want to walk to and interact with, making the game feel even more like a classic point-and-click adventure. This set up is less apt when it comes to handling the jumping and platforming tasks, and the jumping mechanics in particular are poorly explained as swipes when, in fact, tapping the upper part of the screen will suffice. With time, though, you’ll adjust to the controls, and the lack of real death helps to ease the frustration factor.
Although it has its frustrating moments, and even bits of tedium due to the backtracking, The Cave’s charm outweighs its flaws. Although it’s a fairly short journey, the high replay value ensures there’s plenty to keep busy with. The unique blend of inventory and navigation puzzles is something genuinely unique, and the dark sense of humor is classic Gilbert, even if it’s not as dialog-heavy as his classic games. While it isn’t perfect, it’s memorable, unique, and utterly worth playing.
Summary: The mobile version of The Cave is an almost perfect replica of its console counterpart with only some scaled down graphics and slightly dodgy controls to set it behind.