A Knight, a Scientist and a Time Traveller walk into a cave. Somehow, that feels like it should lead to a joke - especially in a game by Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert. It doesn't, but that's not in itself a problem. The Cave has a definite dark sense of humour, but it's not a comedy. Instead, it's a laidback tragedy about seven sinners on a search for their deepest desires, only to find their fatal flaws waiting for them instead. A series of light morality plays written to educate and entertain.
And, sadly, a really quite dull platform game.
Focusing on that bit feels mean, but it can't be helped – not least because there's little that's more depressing than playing an obvious labour of love that doesn't pull it off. The ideas behind The Cave are great, it looks delicious, especially in motion, and no creative expense has been spared in charting this allegorical labyrinth. Even with its flaws, calling it 'lazy' is to openly summon Gilbert to come slap you in the face – and with good cause.
Nevertheless, The Cave shows no sign of having learned from other side-scrollers like Limbo and Trine or even The Lost Vikings, with its puzzles built on tedious lever pulling and repeatedly backtracking over whole levels with newly acquired items. At one point it even copies a 'fill this six gallon jug with two other jugs' sequence from the dusty Book of Elder Puzzles, which is unforgivable in a game committed to imagination - as is then assuming you had to cheat to solve it.
Worse though is how it wastes its characters. For each run through The Cave you get to pick three of the seven, much like the game that made Gilbert's name, Maniac Mansion. Each has a special skill – the Time Traveller can phase through some walls, for instance – and an otherwise locked-off area. That means three playthroughs to see all the stories, and six to see all the endings (though the Achievement for that should be called 'Never Heard Of YouTube').
Except in each character's own area, their abilities are almost never used. Very rarely there'll be something like a hook for the Adventurer to swing from, but with no combat, a completely linear path and no choices to make, in practice everyone spends most of the game consigned to trudging along in silence, pulling levers and being ballast for pressure pads. Weighted Companion Rubes, if you will.
Most of the story areas are no more interesting from a design perspective either, with the worst being the three dull ones that you have to replay and are unchanged regardless of your character line-ups. Areas devoted to the characters' lives are much better, with each telling their story through setting and puzzles, backed up with a series of cartoon stills.
Even so, there's depressingly little emotional resonance. Much as The Cave as a whole would be more impressive in a world without other puzzle platformers, these would be better in one without Double Fine's own Psychonauts – a game that used exactly the same tricks to far better effect back in 2005, as well as having more humour and heart. There's nothing as hard hitting as Milla's secret room here, with the stories being just too on-the-nose to blossom into much more than they initially appear.
That's the biggest disappointment here. The Cave isn't bad, but it is mystifyingly bland for what it sets out to be – and that ends up being worse than a glorious failure. We need more games like this, with this much love on display. With its actual adventure bits lacking the spark of its concept and artistry though, The Cave ends up sending you on an ill-fated trudge through platform purgatory in more ways than one.
Expect to pay: £10
Release: Out now
Publisher: Double Fine Productions
Multiplayer: 3 player co-op
A descent that forces its characters to face the past, while ignoring the superior games that came before it.