Cube Escape: The Cave is the ninth entry in the Cube Escape series and the eleventh game set in the Rusty Lake universe. Like its predecessors, The Cave offers a steady stream of challenging escape the room puzzles presented in a surreal yet still matter-of-fact setting. The world of Rusty Lake has its own set of agreed-upon rules, and those rules allow body parts to emerge from walls, elixirs to grant eternal life, and everyone to be something other than they appear.
The Cave continues and expands the story of Rusty Lake that we’ve been slowly uncovering through each game, putting us back in the shoes of a familiar character in pursuit of a familiar goal. The Cube Escape games are most rewarding if you go in without much information—and almost anything could be considered a spoiler of that experience—so we prefer to remain vague about the plot’s details. But we will say that The Cave is strongly positioned within the canon, directly referencing many of the past entries including Rusty Lake: Roots, Cube Escape: Seasons, The Lake, and Case 23. Specific scenes from Roots and Birthday are recreated, and we learn a great deal more about the mysterious Woman that has starred or cameoed in so many of the games.
Because of its reference to and expansion on most of the previous entries, The Cave feels much more like a gift for returning fans and less like a jumping-off point for new players. And yet it introduces a couple of features designed to make the game easier for those unfamiliar with the series. The first of these is the addition of simple instructions when you first enter a puzzle: the game will say something like “drag” or “tap” to indicate how you should interact with the object before you. These clues are beneficial in confirming what actions are available within the world. But as longtime fans that have played all of the previous entries, we found these instructions unnecessary and distracting. Part of Rusty Lake’s mystique is not knowing what’s going on and having to play around to discover things. Having the word “drag” pop up in the middle of that exploration detracts from the suspense and isolation the series is usually so excellent at instilling.
The other new feature is an in-game hint system designed so you won’t have to leave the app to view video walkthroughs on the Rusty Lake website. But since hints require you to watch an ad to unlock them, you still end up being pulled out of the experience in some fashion if you need assistance. The hints themselves are hit-or-miss, with some tips perfectly clarifying what needs to be done without spelling it out completely and others being just as esoteric as the puzzle they’re trying to help you solve.
Those puzzles are a mix of point-and-click item collection and standalone challenges that live up to the high standards of the Rusty Lake series, for the most part. The Cave is split into two distinct halves, with the first half taking place in the eponymous cave. The puzzles here are clever and varied, tasking you with activating four spotlights around a door and solving the challenge projected by each spotlight on the flat wall across the room, in a route very reminiscent of Cube Escape: Theatre. Each of these four references past games, presenting interesting yet short tasks that paint recognizable events—the elixir creation, the elevator ride—in a different light. To activate these spotlights, you’ll have to complete puzzles around the cave, from untangling strings of bacteria to completing a photo album of Rusty Lake history.
When the cave portion is finished, the second half of the game begins—this half takes place below the lake, in a submarine-type vessel. Many of the challenges in this section rely on activating the submarine and guiding it to specific locations beneath the lake that house the memories (cubes) we are searching for. The task of getting the submarine up and running is reminiscent of The Mill, but it’s an event that must be done multiple times, as the machine stops running after each excursion and must be restarted. This creates a recurring, and admittedly tedious, set of puzzles that is our least favorite of the entire Cube Escape series. Most of the challenges in this section are more number- or code-based, with a few relying on recognizable themes like balancing weights or guiding fish to a specific destination. But even these smaller puzzles are less interesting and more repetitive than similar counterparts in past games: for instance, the fish-guiding must be done six separate times, with each playing out roughly the same and containing little of the surreal mystery that usually envelopes our time in Rusty Lake.
While the complexity of the submarine controls are admirable—using sonar to locate an anomaly, adjusting the rudder, filling ballast tanks with water to achieve depth—they feel almost overly mechanical and accurate for a Rusty Lake game. Where the cave portion gives us haunting hints of shadows dancing across the walls and the most disturbing use of the Hand yet, the submerged section attempts a shark jump scare that feels like a gag compared to the other things we’ve seen in this world. We can’t blame the Rusty Lake team for trying something a bit more subdued and based in reality, but the second half of The Cave doesn’t live up to the rest of the series or the promises of its first half.
Of course, even a weaker section in a Cube Escape game is still an experience worth having. While we were disappointed with the second half of The Cave, we still enjoyed the game overall, and its additions to the plot and mystery of the universe should not be missed. We may never have more answers than questions about Rusty Lake, but The Cave attempts to even the scales a bit and rewards longtime fans with details both surprising and satisfying.