Review: The Cave (XBLA)

Though it’s a clever and enjoyable enough way to spend a few hours, The Cave is unlikely to impress anyone who knows how great Ron Gilbert’s games can really be.

In 1987, the debut works of two great artists were released: Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction and Ron Gilbert’s Maniac Mansion. Each was a landmark contribution it its respective field, a herald of great changes yet to come. While their contemporaries were concerning themselves with trivialities like stomping adorable Japanese mushrooms and pouring some sugar on things, Ron Gilbert and Guns N’ Roses were visionaries alike, breaking new ground whilst addressing raw and edgy concepts like heroin addiction and sentient disembodied alien tentacles.

During the subsequent five years or so, Guns N’ Roses would release legendary rock epics like “November Rain” and “Civil War”, while Ron Gilbert would create The Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle, which are essentially the point-n-click adventure game equivalents of legendary rock epics. After that, the members of GnR and Gilbert would do what all great artists seem to do these days: hang around for another two decades occasionally producing works that will never hold a candle to their previous masterpieces, but that I—like all the other nostalgia addicts out there—buy anyways.

Gilbert’s newest work, The Cave, is a downloadable title available on PC, OS X, the PS3 Network and Xbox LIVE Marketplace. A puzzle adventure game vaguely reminiscent of his original Maniac Mansion, The Cave lets you choose three out of seven playable characters with whom to explore a surreal, hostile environment, solving puzzles with found items while unlocking the secrets of a mysterious world. (For some reason there’s also a platforming component, presumably to meet some sort of genre diversity quota imposed by our liberal activist government.) The cast is a predictably diverse set of zany characters, such as a a time-traveling museum worker and a pair of possessed twin children. Each has their own special ability that alters the way you solve puzzles in “The Cave” (such as the ability to bypass locked doors or to hold one’s breath), and each has a dark motivation for pursuing the wealth and power hidden in its depths.

Welcome to “The Cave”.

Despite having been underwhelmed by Gilbert’s recent Deathspank games, I approached The Cave with uncharacteristic amount of optimism, in part because it was a collaboration with one of my favorite studios, Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Productions. Unfortunately, I’ve found in my life that such incidents of optimism rarely go unpunished, and this time was no exception. Even though Gilbert’s Maniac Mansion pioneered the multi-character puzzle adventure, the past 25 years have seen amazing innovations on the original concept (see the classic SNES game The Lost Vikings, or last year’s PC title Resonance), and The Cave feels a bit behind the times by comparison. Most of the features that set it apart from similar games feel like concessions instead of improvements, such as the fact that your characters can only carry one item at a time, or that the platforming elements are as tedious as they are unnecessary.

I’m certainly not asking Gilbert to retread old ground, but The Cave could go much further in building on the essence of what made games like Monkey Island great. For me, the magic of these games was that moment when the moving parts of a puzzle clicked into place, when your brain twisted in just the right way and you could suddenly see the perverse logic that governed these fantastical, comical worlds. There’s times when The Cave dabbles in these mind-bending realms—for instance, when a guard slips because you placed a “wet floor” sign in front of him—but for the most part, the puzzles are of the fairly straightforward “lock-and-key” variety. Even the multi-character component is only delivered by half-measures, as most areas are either generic enough to be traversed nearly identically regardless of your team, or they’re so particular to a single character that the other two are irrelevant.

Fun fact: advertising revenues from grog companies have funded nearly all of Ron Gilbert’s games.

In the end, though, I found the biggest barrier to enjoying The Cave wasn’t the mediocre gameplay, but rather the setting itself. I’ve always had a limited affection for places like Alice’s Wonderland, fantasy settings where literally anything can happen… because if anything can happen, then essentially nothing can happen. In such lands of sheer absurdity, nothing is of consequence, nothing is surprising, and this utter lack of terra firma means there’s no foundation upon which to build a compelling narrative. In other words, Gilbert’s particular brand of charm shines much better in a place where the rules are ludicrous—like the Edison family mansion or Melee Island—than in a place with no rules at all.

What Do You Think?