Ron Gilbert claims to have had the idea for The Cave bouncing around his skull for 30 years, which begs the question: will it be 30 years out of date? The answer is apparent within minutes; Gilbert has made an adventure game whose features are a deft combination of old and new, classic and modern.
Humour defined many classic LucasArts graphic adventures, and The Cave is so comfortably funny and familiar that the intervening years wash away. Like Bastion, it features a narrator with an ear for a turn of phrase, in this case a talking cave with the kind of macabre sensibilities and lack of respect for human life that comes with existing for "hundreds, nay thousands, nay nay nay tens of thousands of years."
It's a mysterious, magical cave that seems to attract a long line of spelunkers to explore its depths in the hope of finding their biggest desire, and you can take three of seven in at a time. The adventurer, for example, wants to find lost friends and priceless treasure, but not necessarily in that order. The cave makes ominous warnings about what's in store for them, but it's your characters that do the most horrible things in the name of progress. It also, like Monkey Island, treats the player like a tourist: the cave itself is an attraction, with its manipulative gift shop owner and signposted tour route.
Even though The Cave looks like a platformer, running and jumping exist only for navigation. It's a decision that makes sense in the continuous, scrolling underground, but there's no challenge to it. Instead, there are plenty of puzzles. Characters can only hold one thing at a time, and without an inventory full of every item in the game, it's a little easier to work out combinations. For the most part they're logical, too, and the best puzzles force you to use all three characters at once, a feat the game manages without becoming fiddly. Each character has a unique ability, but there are times when using them can feel like a cheap solution to a problem, negating a more complex and rewarding answer.
As you descend through the game's seamless series of chambers, you'll notice that some areas can only be accessed with a particular character. These caverns are usually the most visually inventive-2D cutaways of the knight's castle and a nuclear launch facility particularly attractive-as well as offering the most complex puzzles. The few other areas offer similar challenges but become repetitive padding on a second playthrough.
The Cave is a carefully updated throwback. It's as funny as you would hope, with humour both warm and dark. It makes concessions where they need to be made, but recognises the importance of tradition. One shame is that your characters don't interact with each other, so there's no real reason to try different combinations. The lack of an overarching story seems unfortunate considering Ron Gilbert's pedigree, too. However there is a strong thematic link throughout the game: archetypes are turned on their heads by egotism, and by the time you make it to the bottom, one man's treasure has become another's trinket. The Cave, though, should be treasured.
Version Tested: Xbox 360