The Cave sees acclaimed adventure-game developer Ron Gilbert revisit the multi-character concept last seen in acclaimed classic Maniac Mansion for a downloadable title due in January.
This platformer-cum-adventure that sees seven characters from across time and space - including an adventurer, a knight, time-traveller and a scientist - join forces to explore a Cave that magically brings their desires, hopes and dreams to life.
Players must choose three of these seven characters to explore the Cave in a single playthrough. On the journey you'll encounter worlds suited to each respective hero -the knight's dream is to rescue a princess from a castle, for example - and each has a unique ability that helps them solve puzzles and reach all-new areas.
Re-imagining the adventure game
This multi-character concept is something that acclaimed adventure game maker Ron Gilbert has wanted to return to since making Maniac Mansion 25 years ago, and has joined forces with Double Fine Productions - a studio run by fellow Monkey Island creator Tim Schaefer - to help him realise it.
"I always felt that was a really interesting part of [Manic Mansion], but it was the first game Gary [Winnick] and I ever designed, let alone an adventure game, and I don't know if I did it to its fullest potential," said Gilbert. "So with The Cave, I really wanted to look at that again."
But instead of a traditional adventure game, The Cave features light platforming elements and a number of design decisions to take away the sour taste that many old-school point-and-click games leave in the mouth.
Gilbert said that inventory systems in adventure games had "gotten out of hand", where puzzles were merely shifting through your collected items to find the right one before simply slotting it into place.
"I really wanted to look into that," he said. "In The Cave there's no inventory, there's what's known as a three-slot mode. Each person can just carry one thing at a time."
The platforming elements that bridge each thematic realm and puzzle was decided upon to keep progression interesting, as opposed to the monotonous act of clicking environments with a mouse to move back and forth.
"The other thing I wanted to look at was just traversal, moving from place in the game, from one puzzle to another, making it interesting and a lot of fun to do," he said.
"That's why there's this very light platforming element to the game. There's no opportunity for missed jumps, or means to get better doing it, it's just there to make traversal get that [interesting] moment-to-moment gameplay, something that's really fun and engaging when you're solving puzzles."
Taking to the carnival
The end result are a series of puzzles that often requires players to split up their trio of characters, sometimes for their respective abilities, but mostly to use items cleverly strewn around the environment.
The Hillbilly's dream, for example, is for him to fall in love with the carnival's main attraction, the two-legged lady, who desires a pink bear which is redeemed by winning tickets from various fairground attractions, which act as puzzles.
Some of the tasks here are very straightforward. For example, finding a sledgehammer means you can waltz up to the strong-man machine, smash the record and simply take the ticket.
Others are a little more obtuse and have you split up your team. A colour-guessing game is impossible to predict without the help of a fortune teller across the other side of the carnival, so you must switch between characters to find out what colour is next.
Another is finding a barbell, which you easily figure out should be used to trick a weight-guessing game, but you're not sure how. A magician's tent nearby can vanish items, however, and so from there it's up to the player to link the two activities together.
Aside from the Hillbilly's ability to breathe underwater (he can blow a snot bubble that engulfs his head) other character-specific abilities aren't required to solve most puzzles, meaning you won't ever trap yourself by not choosing the right team.
There are, however, some advantages to specific characters. For example. the scientist can avoid getting electrocuted, saving you time when unplugging the carnival's giant Ferris wheel to power the aforementioned fortune telling box.
Better with friends?
The three-character setup also naturally lends itself to co-operative play, where friends or family can hook up extra controllers and wonder around alongside you.
It's a seemingly natural idea that we found was heavily hindered by a confused camera which couldn't decide which character to follow at any one time. This problem was obviously not present in single-player, and with a month or so before release, this co-op specific issue could be fixed in good time.
Finally, having the likes of Ron Gilbert and Double Fine Productions behind The Cave means it has some excellent writing. From the titular Cave that narrates our heroes misfortunes to the Carnies that attempt to trick the trio out of tickets, the writing is snappy and very funny.
The Cave is an adventure that perhaps plays more like retro classic Dizzy than a traditional point-and-click game like Manic Mansion, but its lashings of humour, smart puzzle design and interesting multi-character conceit means it has the same strong, intoxicating whiff of Gilbert's games of old.
The Cave is available on Xbox Live Arcade, PSN, PC and Wii U eShop in mid-January.