I hate platforming games. I don’t know if I can express that enough. Yes, there are some that inject some alternative mechanics like Jonathan Blow’s Braid and The Odd Gentlemen’s P.B. Winterbottom, but for the most part they all have felt the same since their inception as a genre nearly 30 years ago. I think the last one I truly enjoyed was Contra III: The Alien Wars on the SNES in its heyday.
Game Developer magazine states “A successful game environment does four things: It teaches about the player’s relationship with the environment; in doing so, it directs and focuses the player’s behavior; generally it obscures this manipulation from the player; and so through the invoked behavior, it evokes in the player a certain mood or mindset.” Apparently Penny Bridge took a page from this book because they did so many of these things correctly in their new delightful release, The Deep Cave
The Deep Cave will have players bouncing upside down, right-side up, and every which way. The excellent game design forces players to frequently make use both the top and bottom of a particular platform, as the character passes through a green orb which reverses gravity. Quick wits, a steady hand, and precision timing are all necessary to make it through alive. Adding to the complexity, yellow bars run through some scenes and attract and reject the player like exchanging polarities of a magnet. Part of the success of this title is due to its excellent game environment.
The story is simple enough: a boy stumbles across a hole in the ground buried deep within the trenches of a mysterious forest. The hole leads him deep down in a cave and he must work his way through, dodging creatures of the night and blue spikes along the way. Oh, and a giant worm that swallows you whole, two minutes into the game. But who plays an 8-bit platformer for the story, right?
The first thing you’ll notice about The Deep Cave is the phenomenal soundtrack. No, that may be an understatement. Whether or not you are a fan of chiptunes, or 8-bit soundtracks, you will absolutely have a blast with this score, which keeps you pressing on despite the punishingly difficult title. Honestly, that’s a major factor in what kept me playing after my 100th death.
Oh did I say 100th death? Yeah I wasn’t kidding. Hell I died over 130 times before I realized I could save! It wasn’t until my 237th death that I realized I should have been in bed long ago and figured I would need some rest so that I could pick it up again the next day. This begs the question, “Why don’t more platformers have the ability to save?” Despite my increasingly large number of deaths, my frustration was kept to a minimum. Never was I cheated or killed in some cheap fashion; I quickly realized my demise was due to my impatience. Fortunately, death is not something which players are punished for, as a simple skull flashes on the screen along with your kill count, and your character immediately spawns to the front of the frame. On a number of occasions, the thought of placing my somewhat-food-encrusted remote on the table and walking away popped into my mind, but I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. I wasn’t going to allow this game to get the best of me. Perhaps that’s why I found myself playing the same section over nearly 50 times before getting through.
What I appreciate most about this title however is the manner in which even the most simple of gameplay mechanics are executed. Taking a page from the book of outstanding level design, The Deep Cave may not necessarily grant the player the option of pursuing different paths, but it creates the illusion that such choice exists. For example, on the section titled “The Choice is Yours,” players are led to believe that a number of paths can be taken to continue towards the next section, although upon further consideration, it is apparent that only one is correct. As my eyes gazed at the level, the correct path lit up in my mind and I was finally able able to navigate the puzzle. This is what makes this particular game so impressive and difficult to put down. Despite the crushingly difficult challenge it possess, there is an answer to every puzzle.
So while you’ve got some time away from work this holiday, sit back and treat yourself to this little gem. The Deep Cave proves that you can’t judge a book by its cover. Each track of the soundtrack is worth $1 alone, so the whole package is a steal at only 80 MS points. What disguises itself as a simple 8-bit platformer quickly reveals itself to be one of the best titles in the Xbox Indie catalog, and is currently the front runner for my indie game of the year.
This review is based on the retail version of The Deep Cave which was purchased for 80 MS points ($1).