The Cave

“This is an idea I’ve had for, I guess, going on 25 years,” Ron Gilbert muses in a gloomy tunnel buried somewhere beneath Waterloo. “It predates Maniac Mansion in a lot of ways.” Listening to Gilbert speak about The Cave, you get the sense that the last part bears great significance. Despite the platforming and the new and impoverished inventory system, despite the fact that it’s 2012 even, the message is simple: this is vintage adventure game stuff.

So, is it?

The demo on show isn’t nearly long enough to gauge just how good a job Double Fine have done of harking back to the days of SCUMM, but it’s a good showcase for the developer’s attempt to reimagine two staples of the game: inventory and traversal.

Gilbert’s quick to assert that The Cave isn’t a platformer. The platforming has been incorporated to provide a light alternative to the otherwise puzzle-heavy gameplay. Death carries only the lightest of punishments (your character is hoofed a few meters back) and throughout the demo the platforming never evolves much beyond the classic timed jump onto a moving platform. It’s completely serviceable, if rarely enthralling.

Elsewhere, Double Fine have cut a ruthless swathe through the inventory systems of old, leaving behind a barely recognisable stack of bones. “Game designers were using it as a crutch,” laments Gilbert. “They could just bury something in the inventory and call it a puzzle.” No such shenanigans here. Each character is able to shoulder one item at a time, and choosing whether to take the cupcake or the wrench is about as thorny as the decision-making gets.

The level on show – a Hillbilly-themed carnival – is comprised of a handful of puzzles, brief platforming stints and a slew of hidden items. The carnival itself is a delightful crush of backwater caricatures, scoundrels and swindlers that play into the hands of both the puzzles and Gilbert’s wonderful humour.

Simple tasks like whacking a high-striker with a hammer are complimented by those of a more taxing nature: using a genie-booth stationed on one side of the carnival to decipher the upcoming colour on a rigged spinning colour wheel at the other end is a particular highlight. It’s a game of swindling the swindlers, and that affords each solved puzzle an added tinge of gratification.

Experimentation is key, as is the interplay between the three characters that form your party. Gilbert promises there’ll be seven characters in the full game, including a knight and a time traveller, but for the demo we take the reigns of the hillbilly, the scientist and the twins.

Each of them boasts a unique talent – the hillbilly can hold his breath indefinitely, while the twins can create ghost-like apparitions of themselves, a knack for which I found no use in my time with the demo. The scientist’s ability to hack fuse-boxes without being zapped comes in handy for bypassing some of the more rudimentary puzzles, but just having two extra pairs of hands to flick switches and lug items around proves the more useful asset.

But it also throws light on the game’s chief problem: its three-player co-op. On several occasions my co-op partner was left twiddling his thumbs, stood idly by switches or waiting for doors to be opened so that he could join in the ruckus. When it comes to fathoming the tougher puzzles, having a buddy makes for a more enjoyable game, but elsewhere – mainly during the platforming – the extra controller proves more of a hindrance.

While an occasionally awkward camera can be added to the short list of problems waved away with a dash of humour, it’s hard to imagine the full game being improved by the addition of two other players contending for screen time.

Ultimately, it’s Gilbert’s inexorable brand of humour that lends The Cave its pull (although the Double Fine artists have done a stand up job of bringing the place to life): the steady supply of comedy serving to convert an ostensibly dreary location into one bristling with colour and intrigue.

The familiar twinge of hard-won satisfaction that comes from solving a particularly tricky conundrum is there too, and while it’s too early to tell whether the platforming and curtailed inventory will hinder the full game, at times when playing it feels like the warm embrace of an old friend.

This preview was originally published on BeefJack.

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