The titular narrator of The Cave is a wacky cross between Bastion’s guiding voice and The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling, quipping that “the rules of time and space are not set in stone, so to speak.” This mordant cave is the perfect host—literally and figuratively—for what follows: a lighthearted glimpse into the dark hearts of the seven explorers whom you’ll be attempting to guide through the cave. The actual journey, on the other hand, is far from perfect, as you’re only able to bring three spelunkers in at a time, which means that you’ll be replaying chunks of this two-to-four-hour game several times. Combining the mechanics of The Lost Vikings or Trine (in which you utilize the separate powers of three characters to maneuver the entire party to an exit) with the comic conventions and outrageous puzzles of an adventure game like Maniac Mansion (which, like The Cave, was also designed by Ron Gilbert) is a good idea in practice, but in sluggish execution, the gameplay is often reduced to a series of gorgeous but simplified morality plays.
Such marvels are interesting for your first playthrough: You’ll explore a gift shop, appease a crazy old miner, dispatch animals from an old zoo, and slightly improve your situation by going from being marooned on an annoying hermit’s island (within a cave) to just being stuck in a cave. In addition, you’ll also encounter unique zones for each character, though these are fairly simple, as you know puzzles will showcase/rely upon each explorer’s special power: the Adventurer’s grappling hook, the Monk’s weak telekinesis, the Twins’ ability to create ghostly doubles, the Knight’s invincibility, and so on. The individual zones for each character are all catchy and well-designed, but as you’ll only be able to see three at a time, completionists will find themselves re-solving a lot of puzzles. (The most rewarding of the three are the Hillbilly’s carnival, the Scientist’s nuclear lab, and the Time Traveler’s journey into the past/present/future.)
These puzzles aren’t especially taxing, even the first time through. Solutions are less about unraveling a devious construction and more about remembering where each item is, as you can only carry one at a time: Bring the wrong one with you and you’ll need to backtrack—and even when you’re correct, you’ll often still find yourself returning to the other end of a zone, to return an item or to swap the used item for a now-needed second one. This isn’t creative sleuthing; it’s plodding, backtracking-filled labor. It’s neat to see the detail that’s gone into showing how each character would carry a specific item (or scale a ladder), and there is an atmosphere evoked by having to journey through the entirety of The Cave (no level select upon completion, a la Portal), but there’s ultimately no reason for artistic appreciation to have to clash with gameplay.
Still, despite the relative ease of the puzzles and the frustration at having to repeat many of them, it’s worth noting that The Cave’s sardonic comedy and claymation-like art direction is compelling enough to encourage at least a second playthrough—just perhaps not immediately after the first.