The Cave iOS Review: The Canterbury Tales

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the-cave-ios-review-the-canterbury-talesThe Cave is a puzzle-platformer developed by Double Fine Productions (of Tim Schafer) and created by Ron Gilbert (of Monkey Island). Like, Roger Waters, these gentlemen could release anything at this point and, as long as their names are on it, I’ll buy it. But I wouldn’t buy it because of the game, I’d buy it for the ideas, the story, the humor, and the art — which is better suited to a film or graphic novel.

Broken Controls

Before lavishing the game with praises, I’ll tell you why you shouldn’t buy it — after all, you don’t need a ‘good’ review to decide a purchase, you need a ‘bad’ one. To be frank, the game’s “controls” are broken. It needs a controller or, at the very least, something more exact than what it currently has.

For movement, you tap the left or right for your character to move. Specifically, they move to the exact spot you tap, which means your character will only progress to the edge of the screen before coming to a halt which, in a 2D side-scrolling platformer, is torturous. Simply ‘tapping’ will move you forward half a screen at a time, and when you account for the size of your character, you’re only taking 2 or 3 steps before an abrupt halt — and make no mistake the cave is BIG. Had the character models been smaller, or the camera was zoomed out, I might’ve been fine, but as it is, you stop-and-go like a rush hour traffic simulator.

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It is beautiful though.

Now there is an alternative, and with it comes its own headache. You can hold your finger to the side of the screen, so they keep running in that direction… but as I said, each half-screen is 3 steps, which means you’re going to run head-first into an obstacle, before you can react, every time. Whether its spikes, lava, a monster or pit, your character will die a lot. Which shouldn’t be an ordeal considering you can’t “die” in the cave… but here’s the rub, you respawn in — what I’m convinced must be — a randomized location. If you don’t respawn painfully far from your original destination, you’ll respawn too close to your death. Too close? Yes. I’d run into spikes, respawn and the character would keep running as though they never died… causing them to die again, and again, and again. One time, I had this situation with a laser beam (in the Scientist puzzle) and I could do nothing to escape the loop. I had to restart the game.

Then there’s the jumping… Imagine all those times you played a platformer and needed to jump over a ridiculously long gap. You grit your teeth, tense your body — curling like a dying spider — and squeeze those buttons down until the skin under your thumb nail changes from a pink hue to yellow crescents of suspense. As a child, it was kind of thrilling… but the thrill came from not knowing if you could make the jump. In The Cave, you can make the jump, but the controls won’t let you.

To jump, you must swipe up to jump straight up (which is good for nothing) and to jump across a gap, you must swipe in an upwards arc (like shooting a basketball). But if you release your finger too soon, your character will stop mid-flight and drop to their death. So, to make sure you don’t stop short, you need to swipe in an arc and hold to the left so your character maintains momentum… but if your arc becomes vaguely parabolic, you drop because the controls register that as “You must be finished with jumping, so let’s proceed on foot.”

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Then of course, there’s picking up objects… which is just as tenuous as the rest of the controls, but not nearly as dire so, for the sake of brevity, it gets a pass. In short, the controls are a nightmare on iOS.

Tedious Gameplay

You select 3 of 7 characters and this doesn’t change the gameplay, but it changes the puzzles. Each character has 1 puzzle centered around them… However, in order for you to segue into each one, there are 3 stock puzzles that you play no matter who you choose. Needless to say, this is bad design. With 7 characters and the choice of 3, that means you need at least 3 playthroughs to see everyone’s story. That means you need to replay those stock puzzles 3 times. It gets old VERY quickly — especially with the island puzzle. Furthermore, you don’t even need 3 characters for the majority of the puzzles. You can finish most of them with 1 character as the other 2 hang around holding doors open or barrels in place.

I was originally excited, and a little afraid (thinking this game would be well beyond my intelligence), since 3 characters must mean 3-person-based puzzles, maybe asynchronous contraptions like the Rube Goldberg machine… but no. They are basic puzzles and I mean basic especially for the creative minds behind Monkey Island who could turn the most ridiculous item into the deus ex machina.

As each puzzle is representative of a story, they’re not awful, but grow tedious. Had it not been for Stephen Stanton’s marvelous narration as The Cave, I would have quit before the end of my first playthrough. And even though his dialogue repeats itself through each subsequent playthrough, there’s so much character in his voice that the jokes never waned — especially omen-ous/ominous.

All that said… let’s talk about where Gilbert and Double Fine knocked it out of the park!

Story, Characters, and The Cave!

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Hysterical.

Ron Gilbert’s stories always put the classics on the mind. The Cave — despite its name — has less to do with Plato’s allegory and more to do with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. There are seven travelers, each with their own ironic tale of desire. Each of them represent ignoble intentions, which is further supported by The Cave — who introduces them lovingly enough — but as we descend deeper and deeper, it’s revealed that the characters’ prime motivations are greed, gluttony, pride, envy, and other sinful delights.

One of the best examples is the ‘Time Traveler’ who The Cave introduces as “A person on a quest to right a wrong…” but the “wrong” is her interpretation of wrong. Her story, as revealed through Easter Egg cave paintings and her puzzle, shows our hero as a disgruntled employee of a lucrative time traveling franchise. She feels like her successes go unrewarded and this is magnified when her co-worker is awarded “Best Employee of All Time.” The ‘wrong’ in her book, is she wasn’t dealt the same appraisal.

(As an aside, about half the stories are about jealousy.)

Obviously, after the first playthrough, there’s less shock that these characters are not the archetypal heroes they dress to be, but the stories are interesting enough that you are curious as to how they unfold. Heck, even when you can see how they unfold it can still shock you (see The Twins). Of course, the stories would not be nearly as fascinating without the art design.

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These little Easter Eggs make the replays easier.

The characters don’t talk, so all you have to go on is their cave paintings (which are art pieces) and their animations — both of which narrate their characters exceptionally well. Having always — and forever — been a fan of the Medieval time period, I chose the knight and he looks young. He twiddles his thumbs, is jittery, and the sound effects when he runs emphasizes the fact that the armor is too big for him. What’s particularly fun about his story too is that he’s more of a pathological altruist, “good intentions gone awry.”

The supporting cast are equally as fun — sans the hermit, who got old fast — and all of them are voice-acted marvelously. One of my favorite characters, the gift shop owner, I was surprised to learn was Stephen Stanton and that provides an interest meta-narrative since he’s the one that opens the cave to your “heroes.” It could very well be that he’s narrating the entire adventure and all so you’ll visit the gift shop.

… There is a caveat to the goodness though. Alternate endings.

Alternate Endings & Closing Comments

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Guess how this ends.

I played through the game three times to see everyone’s ending… only to get a notification on my iPad saying, “Unlocked all ‘Bad’ Endings,” which instantly irked me. There are 7 characters and you select 3, which means on my third playthrough, I was replaying 83% of the game. To find out that I could’ve done the puzzles differently at the very end infuriated me. There was no way I was going to play through the game 3 MORE times, so I looked up the alternate endings.

Turns out, you can’t complete the puzzles differently… and that doesn’t assuage my frustration in the least bit. Instead, you unlock the “good” endings by having a dialogue with the gift shop owner before leaving the cave. That’s it! The puzzles are engineered so that you have to be the psychopath. You need to commit murder, larceny, and arson if you want to finish the game… but having a dialogue to imply you’ve changed after committing the act is egregious — even if the cave is supposed to be a reflection and not the actual event!

Regardless, the other downside to this is that it doesn’t increase replay value, but shows how oblivious the designers were. After running through the same stock puzzles 3 times and everyone’s solo puzzle, why on earth would you replay the exact same puzzles another 3 times? Me? I went on YouTube and watched the “good endings” and in doing so, realized this is how the entire game should’ve been played — on a TV screen.

Why is The Cave a game when it’d make a great mini-series or movie? They have no shortage of talent, and I don’t buy the “it’s expensive” argument since Tim Schafer and Double Fine Productions have no problems with funding.

As it is, my recommendation for The Cave is to watch it on YouTube, because as it is, it’s practically unplayable.

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Maybe these 3 will be DLC in the future?

For more iOS reviews, visit Derek Hobson’s Article Archive

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