Platforms: PC, PSN, Wii U & XBLA
Developer: Ron Gilbert & Double Fine
When the creator of Monkey Island teams up with Double Fine, the result is a talking cave.
Ron Gilbert's latest game lets us assemble a team of three reprobates from a selection of seven, each of whom has a unique ability and a seriously dark past. Perhaps you'll choose the time traveller on a mission to prevent a future disaster, the heartbroken hillbilly, a chivalrous knight or the cute-yet-twisted twins, who just want to play (honest). Your characters assembled, you'll embark into the eponymous cavern: who is wry narrator, friend, mysterious antagonist and enormous sprawling environment all in one. By replicating key moments of their past - and future - The Cave will reveal who they really are... and what horrible secrets they possess.
It probably won't surprise you to learn that The Cave is an adventure game, considering its pedigree, but you probably wouldn't know it from the screenshots. Indeed, Gilbert feels that the genre is due a serious overhaul.
In an effort to appeal to a modern generation of gamers (who "always need to be engaged in something" according to Gilbert), The Cave is suffused with a heady dose of jumping, grabbing and climbing. Much like a highly simplified version of Trine or The Lost Vikings, you'll traverse your way through the labyrinthine depths, and actively trawl through the sprawling environments at your own pace. Though only a single character can be controlled at any one time, the others remaining where you left them, they'll automatically catch up if you get too far ahead. Not only does this help to keep players engaged on a second-by-second basis, but it also infuses the traditional adventure formula with a sense of real exploration.
Interestingly, death is only a minor setback, meaning that you won't have to replay long sections of gameplay after missing a particular jump or failing to move a box correctly to break your fall. The Cave wants you to proceed - and won't let a little thing like dying get in the way of its mysterious plan. Constantly narrating the action and showing characters static flashbacks of their former lives through scrawlings on the wall, it's clear that the sentient cavern has designs of its very own.
Each of the seven characters, from whom you'll pick an active roster of three, have access to a single unique skill that can be used to access specific areas. For example, the Hillbilly can encase his head in a bubble of smoke, allowing him to hold his breath indefinitely and swim through long underwater tunnels. The portly scientist can hack technology and interact with otherwise-lethal electrical objects, thus opening some previously-inaccessible areas. Since you can only take a trio of 'heroes' into each playthrough, you'll have to play through the game three times to see everything, which should lead to major replayability and a unique interplay between characters every time. Gilbert told us that the concept for The Cave predates Maniac Mansion, and it's clear that it shares some of the same ideas.
However, The Cave is far from a simple collection of stony, mossy caverns. As you progress, rough rock gives way to jarringly out-of-place locales ripped straight from the character's memories. An entire castle lies underground, accessible only by the Knight who can use his shield to block gouts of flame. For the purposes of my preview, however, I lead my team of Hilbilly, Twins and Scientist past the bizarre fortification to discover an impossible carnival staffed by talking cardboard cut-outs. The Cave set the stage, and the Hillbilly's darkest nightmares was its inspiration.
Which is where, suddenly, The Cave showed its true colours as an adventure game.
Once you've found one of the character-specific adventure zones, reflexes and platforming skills give way to good old fashioned logic. Tasked with winning five carnival tickets to unlock a cuddly teddy bear to impress a pretty girl - who's strongly hinted to be a shadow from the Hillbilly's past ('the one who got away,' perhaps), it was time to leverage some serious brainpower. How can a dumbbell, a wizard and an invisible cupcake be used to trick a 'guess your weight' stall into picking the wrong answer? How do I activate a robotic fortune teller, and why should I bother? Since each character can carry a single item, The Cave plans to do away with the obnoxious broken logic combination puzzles of some of the later Monkey Island games, instead putting the focus on using a limited number of inventory items in imaginative ways.
And no, I won't spoil anything for you.
As always, Gilbert and Double Fine bring a heady dose of anarchic humour to the table, from the Cave's dryly forboding narration to some erotic 'fully-clothed dancers' who can distract a crowd of cardboard onlookers with their massive collections of coats and trousers. Things will often take a turn for the profoundly dark, mind, as evidenced by the Hillbilly's love interest spurning him for the Man Of Average Strength... causing the jealous redneck to burn the entire place to the ground in a fit of unbridled rage.
Though I was broadly impressed by what I played of The Cave, I was left with a couple of nagging concerns. Since there's no real threat associated with the platforming, there's potential for it to just become padding between the character-specific adventure zones. Puzzles are often spaced out with selections of jumps and gaps in the way, meaning that you'll sometimes know how to complete a particular solution but forget where you need to go. In multiplayer, the camera only follows a single player, thus leaving the other character to watch and kick their heels before assuming control for themselves. The decision was taken to avoid two players pursuing their own ends rather than working together, but whether it will resonate with the majority of gamers is another matter entirely.
But, at the end of the day, Ron Gilbert and Double Fine are making an adventure game set in a talking cave. Wonderful. With clever puzzles, twisted secrets and laugh-out-loud humour to look forward to, this multi-platform hybrid could be one of the most enthralling titles of early 2013.
The Cave is out this month on PC, Wii U, PSN and XBLA. Stay tuned for our interview with Ron Gilbert, which will go live later this afternoon.