You Are In A Maze of Twisty Passages, All Alike…

HIGH It’s Colossal Cave, in 3D!

LOW It’s Colossal Cave… in 3D. Also, “Orient Room?”  Really?  In 2023?

WTF Is murdering dwarves fun for you, adventurer?

Disclosure: The author is friends with a member of the Colossal Cave QA team. They did not discuss this review in any substantive way, and the score was not influenced by this friendship.

Colossal Cave Adventure, created in the late ’70s by William Crowther fascinated Roberta Williams when she played a version in 1979.  She famously pored over the hand-drawn maps based on the game’s text-only descriptions and obsessed about finding solutions to its devious puzzles.  It ultimately led Ms. Williams to create some of the most well-loved adventure games of all time.  Now, in 2023, Roberta Williams has come full circle by reimagining the very same Colossal Cave that inspired her. 

It’s remarkable to see what were originally just lines of text and a parser converted into a fully-realized 3D world.  As someone who has difficulty converting 2D and 3D images in my head (just ask my organic chemistry professor) I am blown away by the planning that must have been involved in creating an internally consistent and logically-connected series of 3D rooms and environments. 

I am equally impressed by the conversion of typed commands into an intuitive point-and-click and/or keyboard-controlled free movement system which includes a clever mechanic allowing players to “say” magic spells discovered within the cave. I fully acknowledge that it’s a marvel seeing Cave with actual graphics for the first time, but now let’s look at the rest of it.

To begin, there’s precious little story here.  The player is an adventurer discovering themselves standing in front of a building in the middle of a forest path.  There’s a cave to explore and treasure to find.  Along the way, the player encounters various puzzles, obstacles, and enemies to overcome.  The game ends when the player quits of their own volition, becomes stuck in an unwinnable scenario, or escapes the cave with all treasures and sees the true ending.  Even then, they may not have collected the ultimate total of 350 points, awarded by locating treasures and achieving other goals, which may encourage replay. 

Mechanically, Colossal Cave handles like a first-person adventure.  The player explores locations and interacts with various objects and creatures attempting to solve the many puzzles.  A handy automap feature takes the burden of remembering every location off of the player’s shoulders, although the old-school among us are free to turn this off and go pen-and-paper like Roberta Williams did. 

The puzzles range from simple (bribing a troll to cross a bridge) to impossibly obtuse (dropping a particular item in a specific spot for… reasons?) and Colossal Cave allows saving at any point and offers a healthy number of save slots, allowing experimentation without fear of losing too much progress if a mistake is made. 

Speaking of puzzles, their design has definitely evolved over the years, and Colossal Cave shows its age in this regard, particularly with its reliance on backtracking, and use of not one, but two sets of twisty mazes, one of which required players to somehow intuit that they need to drop items to help determine their place in the labyrinth.  

Frustration is not limited to the labyrinths, though, as many of the puzzle solutions aren’t intuitive in any way.  Spells and items have unclear functions, and many treasures are tucked behind seemingly impossible challenges, at least to this novice adventurer.  I found myself asking “How could I possibly know to do this?” on many occasions, and in my view, some challenges are so bizarre that the answers simply won’t ever occur to players.  This kind of ‘challenge’ might have worked in the ’70s and ’80s, but it doesn’t fly now. 

The developers must have known this on at least some level, as they have cleverly created an old-fashioned Fantasy Help Hotline where players can call a real phone number and use a series of button prompts to get a nudge in the right direction.  It’s not as easy as looking up a walkthrough online, but’s it’s a great taste of what we had to do back in the ’80s, minus the colossal phone bills – sorry Mom and Dad.

It’s tough to say exactly who Colossal Cave is for.  ‘Experienced’ fans who remember it might be overjoyed to explore its passages once again, now visualized, but the novelty will wear off once they’ve blazed through an adventure they likely know the answers to — it’s possible to speedrun the game in under an hour.  Younger fans of adventure games may be curious to see a revamped version of how the genre started, but may become frustrated by the bizarre ‘logic’ behind the challenges. Ultimately, it’s a fascinating look back in time, but it doesn’t always translate to enjoyable play.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Cygnus Entertainment.  It is currently available on PS5, Switch, and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 6 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed several times. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E and contains Fantasy Violence. The game exhibits violence against realistic looking humanoid creatures (throwing axes to slay an enemy).  There is no blood or gore.  There are implied deaths from falling, attacks, etc., with the game fading to a red and/or black screen.  The game is safe for children.  There are a few minor jump scares when a monster or foe attacks, and there are some screams of agony during a player death.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game offers subtitles. (See examples above.) The subtitles cannot be altered and/or resized. All spoken narration/dialogue in the game can be subtitled.  All gameplay-based audio cues have a visual component.  Ambient sounds (grunts from enemies, screams, etc.) and ambient music do not have a visual marker.  The game is therefore NOT fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.

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