The second-to-last week of January had a game I was very excited about. Strike Suit Zero was a gorgeous looking space sim. Having grown up on space sims, I was looking forward to a great space flight combat game. Then I actually started flying the titular Strike Suit ship and found myself quickly underwhelmed by twitchy controls and combat mechanics that didn’t work as advertised in the tutorial which resulted in a massive and frustrating difficulty spike.
Fortunately, there was a second big indie game release that week. Double Fine Productions released their much-anticipated The Cave. The developer is best known for their work on Psychonauts and they got a hand from popular games director Ron Gilbert whose resume includes the cult-hit Monkey Island series. Better than the team behind it was trailers promising puzzles, stories and dark humour. In other words, it ticked off most of the items on my checklist of things I like in games.
The game has seven characters (well, eight if you count The Twins as separate people but the game treats them as one character) and each has a unique story, special ability and mission. For example, The Monk has a telekinetic power and his unique story mission involves completing trials of zenness. It’s also worth noting that the gender of the characters is split down the middle with four male (the Monk, Knight, Hillbilly and one of the Twins) and four female (the Scientist, Adventurer, Time Traveller and the other Twin) characters. When are we going to get that outside of an indie puzzle/platformer?
At the start of the game, you select three characters of the seven to venture through the cave with. Each character has a different goal when entering. Most of these have to do with murder, though some characters have more noble pursuits.
As you can only use three characters at a time and each has different abilities that can be used in concert together, there is instant replayability as each playthrough gives a different experience in what missions you tackle and different ways to tackle the puzzles. For example, I completed part of one of the first puzzles of the game by using the Monk’s telekinesis to retrieve an item. Without the monk, I had to use a crowbar to get an item to use on a well to retrieve the item that I got in about three seconds the first time.
The puzzles themselves are interesting. The end goal of each is obvious but how you actually reach that end is the difficult part. There are about four or five puzzles that are included in every playthrough. These are designed to be less reliant on the unique stories and powers of the characters as each character has to be reasonably able to complete it (though, as I mentioned, there is some wiggle room in the process of solving the puzzles based on your characters’ powers).
The puzzle/story sections unique to each character are where the game’s puzzles really shine. While each stresses the use of that character’s special ability, the puzzles aren’t easy to solve. The game highlights everything available for use to solve the puzzle but it’s up to you to connect the dots. No matter how frustrated you get, Double Fine never says “Here’s the answer, you fool!”
There are a few hiccups/glitches in this game. Occasionally, you lose all input after looking at one of the back story images that you can collect during the game. That’s quickly solved by exiting and reloading the game. There’s no loss of progress (at least not on the PC version) because it saves on exit. There is also the nasty habit of dangling in mid-air because you jumped between a box and hard place. Usually, that can just be salvaged by getting another character to help you out of your predicament.
The graphics are done in a cartoonish style. The game never really takes itself too seriously so it fits. Even with that sort of animated show look, it does manage to fit in dynamic shadows which was fairly unexpected. The audio fits with that cartoonish visual design. All of the NPC characters act like caricatures which adds to the humour of the whole thing.
The Cave itself is the star of this game. That’s in a literal sense more than anything. The Cave has a deep voice with a sinister twist and a dry delivery. He’s there to narrate some of the action and fill us in on the characters’ back stories and motivation. He delivers most of the game’s dark humour. In a way, that sort of makes him like GLaDOS.
I don’t know if you can tell but I really enjoyed my time with the game. It doesn’t have infinite replayability. After I finish playing through with all the characters (working on a playthrough with the 7th right now), I’m not sure I’ll be willing to go back for a fourth straight playthrough. However, I did enjoy the game enough to follow-up my first playthrough immediately with a second. It’s not often that I play a game and say “Let’s do it again!”
The game reminds me a lot of Portal in a few ways. The puzzles are challenging to solve and I love the doses of dark humour splashed throughout the game. The voice acting is also a fun complement to the rest of the atmosphere. It even has the short three or so hour playtime of the original Portal! Anytime you can compare a game to Portal, it’s a good thing.
While I don’t give this game the 8/10 that gets it to “Great” which makes it highly recommended because of the repetitive main story puzzles and a relative lack of replayability after playing each character once, if you’re a fan of Portal or a fan of puzzle games in general, you want to pick up this game.
The Cave was reviewed on Windows PC but is available for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U, Mac OS X, Linux and Atari 2600. (I may be wrong about that last one.) Your impressions of the game will vary depending on the console played on and your PC specs.
Cross-posted from et geekera.