A scientist, a monk, and a knight walk into a cave...
Anticipated by fans of the adventure game genre, The Cave is the brainchild of Ron Gilbert, one of the creators of such classics as Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island. The Cave attempts to marry point-and-click adventure-style puzzles with conventional 2D platformer mechanics, and while the game has more to offer fans of the former than the latter, the experience should prove rewarding to everyone who gives The Cave a chance.
The game opens with the narrator (the titular cave itself) setting the tone of the game by providing descriptions of the characters on the selection screen and hinting at the horrible deed each is about to commit in other to get "what they desire most.” It is immediately clear that the game has great dark, self-aware humor, written and delivered expertly. The playable characters (a scientist, a knight, a hillbilly, an adventurer, a monk, a time traveler, and a set of creepy twins) stay silent aside from grunts, with their stories related by the narrator and revealed through solving their respective levels within the larger, interconnected map.
It is worth pointing out that you choose three individual characters here, and not a team. Each character has his own story, his own unique ability, and a section of the large interconnected Cave he has exclusive access to. But you do not mix and match abilities. No combination of characters is more potent than another. In fact, the unique abilities seem almost an afterthought, with the real differentiator between characters being the types of puzzles encountered inside their level. The adventurer's section, for instance, has her doing platforming inside a tomb while her imperiled companions step on pressure plates to open the way for her. The monk's section is less mechanical, instead using brainteasers to block his path to enlightenment. The time traveler's section has you messing with causality in the past, present, and future. The type of puzzle you encounter in a character's level is as much a part of his identity as the unfolding story, and I am deeply impressed by this thematic coherency.
While classic adventure game fans will find lots to love in the Cave, platformer fans probably won't fall head over heels for the platforming. It serves more as a means to an end: 2D platforming is a better fit for console controllers than a pointer interface. The design doesn't get in the way of the puzzles and you won't find yourself cursing a character who refuses to stand where you want, but it's not inherently fun and it creates moments of tedious travel as you switch between characters.
The Wii U's unique features are neglected in this port: the touch screen just duplicates the character selection buttons, and the title isn't compatible with Off-TV Play. The basic Miiverse functionality can be useful when you are stumped, however, if charitable people happen to respond to your queries. Friends can use the Wii U Pro Controller or a Wii Remote and Nunchuk for local co-op, but poor implementation spoils the experience. This could have been a good way to alleviate the backtracking problems, if it weren't for the off-screen characters being absolutely incapable of performing any action.
Ultimately, it will be easier for fans of Ron Gilbert's previous works to look past the niggling flaws and appreciate the game, but anyone should be able to enjoy writing and puzzles of this caliber. Lose yourself in the atmosphere, discover the sordid stories of each character, and the game's problems just fade away.