Spelunking through Double Fine's latest.
It's not every day that you get to write about a game that seems made expressly for you, and Double Fine is a studio that's always struck a very specific chord with me. Even their finest efforts aren't without faults, but regardless, there's a special place carved out for them in my gamer heart, which is why I jumped at the chance to go hands-on with their latest. The Cave is a true old-school adventure game done up in a platformer's clothing and is helmed by Ron Gilbert, the man behind many of the great LucasArts games of the '90s. If you're anything like me, this seems like the best thing to happen to you since Psychonauts or Grim Fandango.
Even the setup sounds like some sort of post-modern follow up to Maniac Mansion, possibly Gilbert's most beloved work. Seven strangers arrive at a mysterious talking cave, drawn there to right past wrongs and make peace with their own inner conflicts. At least that's what I was told when I sat down to play. While the game has all the sharp wit you'd expect given its creators, I didn't find much evidence of the heady narrative that was described to me. The narrator, who I presume is the voice of the talking cave, didn't offer up much in the way of exposition, but admittedly more than made up for it with a ton of snark. Mysterious glyphs scattered throughout the cave will be the keys to the story, but alas, for this demo they remained silent.
In terms of gameplay, The Cave is tough to nail down. First and foremost, it's an adventure game, packed with exactly the kind of brainteasers I had hoped to encounter. You pick three of the seven characters to round out your party, and each has a unique ability with which to tackle the various puzzles encountered. Me and my co-op partner were discussing possible solutions aloud, experimenting with different ideas, and sometimes exploring more to see if we missed something. More often than not, we had—a path we never saw or an object we didn't think to interact with. Despite looking like a platformer, The Cave definitely nails the elements that make the adventure genre engaging.
Surprisingly, it's everything else that has me a bit concerned at this stage. While I see the genius behind replacing the point-and-click standard with something more fun and interactive like platforming, some tuning is definitely in order. Characters feel clumsy and heavy when jumping, and while that doesn't spell death (usually), it does make exploring the environment more of a trudge than it needs to be. And you'll be exploring, and re-exploring a whole lot.
This is due to the fact that you control a party of three characters, but can only control one at a time. The thing is, the ones you don't control don't follow you, so if you set out with, say, the Monk and you make your way to an area that requires the breath-holding ability of the Hillbilly, you'll have to select him and make your way through again. Essentially, in order to keep your party together, you'll need to assume direct control of each of them and traverse the same area three times, and keeping them together is often necessary to solve puzzles. Needless to say, this is a bit tedious given that the platforming isn't exactly a joy in the first place.
The easy way to combat this issue should be to take advantage of the three-player drop-in/drop-out co-op. This way, everyone controls a character. But while it solves the issue of having to redo what you've done multiple times, it comes with a few others, the biggest being the lack of split-screen. The camera always follows one character at a time, and if you fail to keep up, well, you just don't exist anymore. You can “steal” the camera back, but then they can't see what they're doing either. The impression I got from the devs was that this camera ganking was meant to be an element of fun, but I don't find losing my character off-screen amusing. Maybe I'm a weirdo.
What's more, there are instances where party members have to split up, either because only one of them can access an area or because they need to coordinate actions from different screens. So when my buddy holds his breath to swim through a long underwater passage, I can't explore on my own or even see myself. All I can do is watch them play, or decide to be a jerk and steal control of their character from them, something else you can do.
I could see that being useful in cases where your friend is just inept at making a jump and you need to take the reins, but that doesn't change the fact that chunks of co-op can be spent off-screen doing nothing while your friend soldiers along. Again, split-screen would solve all of this. As far as how it all works when playing online: You can't, so we'll never know. A three player co-op title with no split-screen and no online play? Things that make you go… WTF?
[Double Fine should explore the freeform split-screen of the Lego titles, where the camera splits if one player wanders far away from each other. ~Ed. Nick]
Reading all this, it might sound like The Cave is a lot worse off than it is. To be clear, there was a lot of positive too. The Carnival, the area of the cave my demo took place in, had a well-worn, sleazy vibe to it that was only thinly veiled by a pretense of whimsical fun. The atmosphere and writing are on point, and the game's concept is positively brimming with potential. And it's that potential, coupled with my love and respect for this studio that guides my chubby little fingers as I type this
The Cave isn't an entirely pleasant experience just yet. But with the right tweaks, I believe it can be. If Double Fine can improve the feel of the platforming and amend their camera system somehow, their game has all the makings of an adventure classic. The Cave is due out in Q1 of 2013.