There are plenty of ways to explain what The Cave is, but there's really only one way to fully understand it and that is to venture down and experience it for yourself. If you ask The Cave (yes, it's a talking cave) what it is it would probably say something along the lines of: The Cave is a riddle wrapped inside a metaphor trapped in a dark and moist rock formation. A games journalist way to describe it would be to call it a sidescrolling platformer with point-and-click mechanics or to say that it's Limbo meets Monkey Island.
The Cave is interesting from a structural point of view (pun intended). Instead of providing us with one lengthy playthrough we're given the choice of seven different characters at the beginning of your spelunking adventures. You may pick three and your choice will determine the three main adventure areas you'll experience during that playthrough (there are transition areas as well, so each playthrough consists of seven locations if you will).
It's a bit strange then that you have to replay the game three times, and in doing so quite a bit of material is recycled, in order to experience The Cave in its entirety. But it also makes for a more enjoyable co-operative experience as you can jump in and play one section, or indeed a whole playthrough without the need to stick around for the duration.
That's right. The Cave allows for co-operative play - up to three players controlling the characters - and while there are no proper co-op mechanics in place requiring simultaneous action (the single player switches between characters and the puzzles and challenges remain the same) - this is an adventure tailored to be enjoyed with a friend or two by your side.
Co-operating in a game like this isn't entirely easy seeing as you'll be watching the other player performing tasks or trying to figure out stuff for extended periods.
It may not be for long, these sequences when you look on rather than play, but until puzzles have been figured out (and of course the second and third player can help out with solutions) it can get a little tedious. It doesn't help if the idle player makes helpful suggestions such as "jump!" or "press the button", either. But at least I refrained from hijacking the other player's character (via a simple press on the d-pad)...or perhaps that's exactly what I ended up doing. Whatever happens in the cave stays in the cave, but you may end up losing a co-op partner.
There is a lot of heritage with The Cave. First and foremost it comes from the brain of Ron Gilbert, and secondly it was crafted by the talented folks at Double Fine under Tim Schafer's guidance. As you'd expect there is plenty of humour to be had, most of it rather dark. There is a Tim Burton quality to The Cave that's hard to miss, especially with The Twins, even if it should be said that there is a lot of variation as far as the characters and their respective areas go.
It's not just the design of the characters that stands out (once again the Twins are brilliant. as is the Knight), but the environments have been given plenty of love and there always seems to be room for that extra little detail. At times I found myself dying repeatedly just to see that animation of my hillbilly succumbing to electricity, or getting burnt by a dragon. There's no real penalty for dying and in fact if you feel like it you can pull both triggers to die and spawn at a nearby spawnpoint.
The three characters you've picked aren't alone on their journey. They're kept company by the talking cave itself, and the writing here is sublime. There are also plenty of characters you run across inside The Cave, though it's difficult to say whether they're just a side effect of some gas that seeps out through the cracks in the rock or if they're actually there. Some of the characters you come across are more memorable than others, but there is an attention to detail and creative touch that shines through in each and every one of them.
Each of the seven characters have one special ability that may be an advantage in some puzzles, but more importantly it's that ability that allows them access into their character-specific areas. The hillbilly can breathe under water and thus swim greater distances, the knight can shine a holy light and gain immortality, the twins can have their ghosts appear and help in pulling levers, the adventurer can use a grappling hook and so on.
There is therefore a certain element of multiple solutions to some puzzles, but for the most part The Cave lives by the rules of old school point-and-click adventure where a specific item is found and used in a specific way in order to progress events.
However, it should be noted that for the most part solutions aren't as far fetched as in genre classics like Day of the Tentacle or Grim Fandango. In fact, the puzzles I spent the most time on wound up having very simple solutions that typically involved moving a box or something equally mundane.
There are so many memorable moments I take away from The Cave, but as I don't want to spoil things I'll keep my descriptions brief and vague. The hillbilly's tale is one of fiery love, and it takes place at a Carnival where you'll meet "a man of ordinary strength", and "exotic clothed dancers" - all the characters here are cardboard cutouts, which makes for an even more surreal experience than the other areas in the game.
The tale of the knight is equally memorable as he chases glory, fame, and power in a less than honourable manner. There is a beautiful line here, about removing certain goo from an amulet before presenting it to the king pretty much says it all. The realm of the scientist, a missile launch facility, felt a little bit underwhelming compared to the others, but it was still great and featured a monkey. A monkey who served as the guidance system of the rocket we were about to launch, and well, when the least appealing part of a game sports a monkey guiding a rocket, then you really can't complain.
There are one or two grievances I have with The Cave. I would have liked the option of not having to repeat certain sections during the second and three playthrough, and I also find the hovering sound of the Time Traveller somewhat irritating. But any complaints I have are minor.
The Cave is a whimsical and wonderful adventure full of dark and gruesome people. You don't end up in the cave if you're a stand up citizen full of empathy and righteousness. As a game it makes good use of simple and proven mechanics, and while it's a platformer on the surface, it's an adventure game at its core. Perhaps not as challenging as the point and click adventures of yore, but there is a certain amount of depth to this cave anyway, especially as you try and collect all the easter eggs that will score you Achievements and Trophies.