We all have a dark place in our hearts; that is if you believe the talking cave that serves as the setting, narrator and sort of antagonist in Double Fine’s The Cave. Yes, there’s a talking cave (and that’s not even the weirdest thing you’ll see), what else did you expect from Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert – the minds who brought you classics like Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle (and more recently Psychonauts and DeathSpank). On the surface, this cartoonish puzzle platformer appears to be a simple game about a journey of self-discovery, but as you go deeper and deeper into the Cave, you’ll start questioning your own moral fiber and the choices you make. However, the real question is how deep are you willing to go before the annoying camera and the endless backtracking drive you out?

While most video games let you step into the shoes of a hero, the characters in The Cave are not all that pure and righteous; in fact, some of them are downright devious. It’s a nice twist, and it certainly makes for a much better story. The game tells the tale of seven unique characters who, much like the Cave itself, hide dark, unspeakable secrets. It is within this mysterious cave that they’ll have to confront their sordid past and maybe even get a second chance to make things right (or not). It is a dark story told with plenty of dark humor and witty monologues – all coming from the all-knowing disembodied voice that follows the adventurers through their disturbing inner journey (technically, only one character is an actual adventurer, but still).

Each time you venture into the Cave, you’ll take along three of the characters with you. The ones you choose will alter your experience inside the cave, since each one of them has his/her own story and own unique area to unlock. This means that in order to visit the entire cave and see everything there is to see, you’ll have to explore its depths at least three different times with different characters. Unfortunately, some areas are common to all characters, and going through them three times, solving the same puzzles over and over again can get annoying real fast. However, once you arrive at a character-exclusive area of the cave the game really picks up and makes it all worth it.

While all of the characters’ stories are fun and inventive, some are naturally better than others in certain aspects. For example, the story of the time-traveler offers some clever puzzles, but a dumb plot, while the Hillbilly’s tale has a great narrative and impressive visuals, but rather uninspired puzzles that hardly utilize his special ability. In the Hillbilly’s case, that special ability is the ability to swim underwater for an infinite amount of time – an ability that could be very useful in an underground cave. Other characters have other abilities, like the Knight’s protective shield, or the Scientist’s hacking skills. These abilities hold the key to reaching each character’s unique area, and solving many of the puzzles there and elsewhere. This, of course, means that a lot of puzzles have several solutions: In one part of the game you’ll need to grab a hotdog guarded by a trigger-happy hunter. The generic solution involved a tape recorder and a monster, but with the Monk’s telekinesis you can just grab the meaty treat from afar, without ever alerting the hunter.

But even the many interesting plotlines and often creative puzzles can’t really save The Cave from its unnecessarily annoying features and design. Considering the fact that the game requires plenty of playthroughs to get the most out of it, it is really annoying to have to essentially backtrack through the same areas over and over again because of how the whole “three characters” mechanism works. The player can only control one character at a time, so moving forward is actually leaving the other two behind. This means that you have to walk through most areas three separate times – once with each character. It’s annoying, and very unnecessary to say the least. This problem can be solved by playing with two friends who control the other characters, but due to the introspective nature of the game, The Cave is one of those rare games that are better when played alone.

Other flaws include some problematic controls in the PC version (it takes the game a few seconds to realize you’ve switched from using the mouse to the keyboard and vice versa) and a rather long and boring segment at the beginning of the game (a sort of tutorial) you’ll have to go through each time you start over with new characters. Though once you go deeper into the recesses of the Cave the game does get a lot better.

As previously mentioned, The Cave boasts neat cartoonish visuals which give its dark and macabre tons an even creepier vibe. The seven characters don’t look quite human, with slightly grotesque features and animations – a fact that only compliments their inner secrets and twisted souls. Most of the locations inside the cave have a certain distinct look as well, and your eyes will never get bored while spelunking (there’s even a tropical deserted island within the cave), at least not while in the character-specific areas.

The Cave is overall a disappointing game, no matter how you look at it. Sure, it has the witty and somewhat whimsical style and writing we’ve come to associate with Gilbert and Schafer, but that’s simply not enough to make it anything more than a mediocre puzzle platformer that doesn’t offer any real challenge. Fans of a good narrative should still consider playing this one, since it’s hard not to enjoy the seven separate stories of self-discovery and poignant insight. You probably won’t find what you desire most, but if you are willing to push through the somewhat boring beginning, you’ll find The Cave hides more than mere treasure.

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