Exploring the depths of The Cave, Double Fine’s adventure game reinvention

They all feel it, this inexplicable draw. A motley crew assembles at the mouth of the thing, yawning wide and extending deep down into the bowels of the Earth. Then, it speaks. Not to the group assembled before it. Not even to you, really, even though you can hear it. The chatter is meant only for its own ears — do caves even have ears? — but it’s also your only verbal guide as you venture into the depths of Double Fine’s The Cave.

The Cave is something of a passion project for its creator, Ron Gilbert. The veteran adventure gamesmith has actually been hanging onto the core concept since his days at LucasArts working on titles like Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island. Like much of the other work that Gilbert is known for, The Cave is an adventure game. It doesn’t look like one though.

Starting out, you select three characters to guide through the game out of a colorful assortment of stereotypes. There’s a scientist, a knight, a time traveler, a hillbilly, and a number of others. They’ve all come to the cave in search of… something, and your journey through its depths will ultimately bring those answers. In the case of the knight, it’s a powerful sword that you’re seeking. The hillbilly wants to find his true love. The time traveler wants to erase a wrong in his past. Each character’s big picture goals have little bearing on what the game throws at you, but you’ll find out how each one’s story closes when you finish the game.

The character selection may resemble the opening of Maniac Mansion, but that’s where the similarities cease. The Cave is a 2D side-scrolling game set in the titular cave’s “Metroidvania”-like environment. It looks the part of a platformer, but the actual play falls more in line with adventure gaming. There’s no call for twitch reflexes and pinpoint timing in The Cave. You just need to use your brain to apply logical (and sometimes illogical) problem-solving to an assortment of challenges. There isn’t even a proper inventory system; each character can carry a single item, but that’s the extent of it.

One example shown during my recent hands-off demo saw the trio of cave explorers — the knight, scientist, and hillbilly in this case — trying to venture deeper in, only to have their progress blocked by a sleeping monster. After a few stabs at getting by the thing, and a few humorous deaths, the group eventually manages to lure the monster beneath a crane arm using a sausage acquired from a water-powered hot dog-dispensing machine, conveniently located nearby. In gameplay terms, the task is accomplished by switching between the characters and taking care of different tasks. In this case, one is necessary in the monster room to throw out the sausage lure, another rings a bell that lets the monster know it’s time to eat (naturally), and the third sits above, manning the lever that powers the crane.

Each character brings some kind of special talent to the mix as well, necessary tools for reaching each character’s uniquely themed corner of the cave. In the case of the knight, that corner amounts to a medieval-style cast, complete with a gold-hoarding dragon and a damsel-in-distress. The drawbridge leading into the castle is closed but there’s an alternate route to the drawbridge release situated far below the castle. Getting there involves surviving a deadly drop, but the knight’s unique Guardian Angel ability, which offers temporary invincibility, turns the drop into a non-issue. The cave’s layout is always the same, but players who want to explore every inch of it will need to play through the game with all seven characters in order to see all of their unique locations.

The Cave also stands apart as an adventure game for offering multiplayer. Up to three players can sit down and spelunk together in couch co-op. There’s no online because it was felt that conversing over a headset with one or more people would take away from the experience in some way. Couch co-op is okay, because you’ve got everyone in the same room directing their energy into solving the puzzles collaboratively. It’s a minor distinction, but it makes a big difference.

It’s impossible to speak definitively about The Cave until the full picture is unfurled, but there’s very little to be worried about here. It’s a Double Fine-developed Ron Gilbert joint that meddles somewhat with adventure game play while delivering a narrative fueled by Gilbert’s sense of humor. Also, just so everyone is clear: this is not the same as the Kickstarter-funded Double Fine Adventure. The Cave is a separate thing, and it’s coming to Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, and PCs sometime in early 2013.

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