The Cave preview – can the Monkey Island master hit puzzling gold again?

It’s not a platformer. It’s not a platformer. It’s not a platformer. Repeat that to yourself ten more times before reading on. Finished? Good. It’s vital you did, because despite outward appearances the new game from Ron ‘Monkey Island’ Gilbert is very much a pure puzzler. Any leaping and jumping and falling to your death (fret not, you reincarnate instantly) is merely a means of whisking you from one riddle to the next.

The Cave preview

In The Cave, you (and up to two mates – seamless drop-in/out multiplayer is one of the big drawing cards) control any three of seven characters as you move through the eponymous underground world. Every member of the cast has, her or their (one ‘character’ is a set of twins!) own special ability – for instance, the Hillbilly can create a smoke bubble around his head by tapping triangle, thereby preventing him from drowning in the wet stuff. That ability is crucial as we meander him through an underwater cavern to access a carnival section of the game.

The objective here is to collect five golden tickets and thereby win a teddy for the object of his affections, ‘The Amazing Two-Legged Lady’. (Typical tongue-in-cheek Gilbert humour.) Each is earned by completing a puzzle involving a stall at the carnival – for one you need to trick a ‘Guess Your Weight’ expert into predicting your mass incorrectly. Merely jumping on and off the scales at random intervals does nothing; it’s clear that a little more thought is required.

It takes a few minutes, but after much trail and error – okay, and a few big swears – we eventually work it out: you need to collect a dumbbell from an incredibly weedy-looking ’strongman’, then have the local magician turn it invisible. Step on the scales and hey, presto! The carny is fooled and you have one of your five tickets. The genius is that for every puzzle, all the tools you need to solve it are nearby – and you get a brilliant ‘how didn’t I work that out before?!’ kick from every Eureka moment.

Seeking out the remaining four tickets and finishing the carnival area takes around half an hour – culminating in a tragic climax as The Hillbilly’s beloved turns him down for the pipe-limbed strongman, and you’re forced to find a lighter and, er, burn the entire place down. Cheery. The length of the section feels just right, but what’s especially intriguing is that you’ll never get to see it on first playthrough unless you select The Hillbilly at the outset.

See, you retain the three characters you choose early in the game for the entirety on that playthrough. No Hillbilly, to way of swimming through that water passage to access the carnival. Earlier in our hands-on, we see a tunnel down to what appears to be an underground castle, hidden behind a wall of flames – which we can’t access because only The Knight character can move through fire.

It’s a clever means of promoting replayability. Gilbert tells us he can finish the game in “around four hours” in one speedrun, but the idea is that you’ll be tempted to go back and access the bits you couldn’t first time around after your first play – a little like Travellers’ Tales’ Lego games, with the obvious advantage that this time out you select which characters to move forwards with as opposed to the game doing it for you.

Throw in visuals that are a little bit Limbo, a little bit Braid, and there’s a lot to like about Gilbert’s latest work of wonder. After the downloadable gem that was Tim Schafer’s Stacking – our favourite PSN game not called Journey – this looks like being another beautifully styled, craftily designed and delightfully wallet-friendly offering from Double Fine. It’s one cave even the most worrisome claustrophobic will love plunging into.