Caves of Lore review: Caves of hardcore

An old school RPG with room to explore and grow
Caves of Lore screenshot. Image courtesy Mike Robins.
Caves of Lore screenshot. Image courtesy Mike Robins. /

Game: Caves of Lore
Developer/Publisher: Mike Robins
Platforms: iOS, Android, Steam (reviewed on)
Release: 1/21/2024

Does anyone have fond memories of playing Ultima or Baldur's Gate on their Windows 95 computers? Do you wish there was an easy way to relive the fun of old school Runescape on a phone? Mike Robins might have figured it out.

Caves of Lore is an indie RPG with the intention of reviving the classic RPG elements of the keyboard and mouse days. But Caves of Lore is tuned to be played on the phone. RPGs of the 80s and 90s do not hold your hand or give you a straight answer for your quest, but encourages exploration. Though that is not to say that Caves of Lore is aimless.

The story is about a hero and his dog that get stuck in a cave with no memory. As you traverse the cave you realize a lot of the inhabitants of the world lost their memories as well. Now you are in search of the truth.

Caves of Lore favors a very thick menu UI to help with character stats and abilities. You will need to keep an eye on your perks, strengths, inventory, abilities, and magic to ensure you are taking care of your team. Every fight is a turn taking battle grid. Characters need to learn how to best use their magic and skills to win a fight.

As you traverse out of the cave, you can finish town quests, upgrade items with ingredients, or collect as many cave items as you can to win the upcoming battles. You have 100% percent control over any character's strength and weakness so it is wise to vary your party with barbarians, magic users, and archers.

The Positives:

Mike Robins is very faithful to the genre he is honoring. Old-school RPGs are more about meticulous management and survival over finishing the story. There is a lot for the party to do. You can collect food, hone magic skills, make your own potions and gear, or develop a stable team. Stat building between levels determines what kind of weapons and skills you want to increase.

The graphics and sound are made from scratch. Animal and creatures have their own sound FX. The design feels like a cross between Terraria and PS1-style graphics. Little attention to detail like the shadows cast by cave objects or the ambience of bats flying keeps the player engaged.

There were certain times in Caves of Lore when I had no idea what to do, but I didn't mind because the thrill of exploration and leveling up kept my interest. Even if you are not involved with the story, there are secret tunnels and passages that can lead your party to some neat stuff. It feels like a 2D demaster of Skyrim because trying different attacks, abilities, and magic increases different stats. A player who uses only their melee attack will only be focusing on their strength, while a magic user will master the spirit stats much faster.

The game has a thick learning curve, but the one thing I think that was done quite well was the camping option. Whenever your party is low on health or knocked out, you can camp anywhere in the dungeon. This also comes with a fun risk because monsters might be able to ambush you. This element takes the frustration out of trying to find a health potion all the time.

The Negatives

Even though this game was advertised as an iPhone app, I was given the Steam download to try. Upon booting it up with my Steamdeck, I learned that the game has lots of different button combinations for shortcuts. Holding B and pressing the RT ends a character's turn in the battle, while holding holding X and pushing down switches characters in the inventory screen.

For some game elements I did not have a shortcut so I had to use a combination of the touch screen, the right pad mouse, and whatever button helped me confirm my selection. It seems like there was no easy way to map the buttons to the controls as sometimes the A button was used for confirming a mission, while in a different part of the menu, the X button was needed to confirm a spell or a stat. Another tricky part was the fact that the menu would cancel or switch windows if I hit the wrong button.

This is just nitpicky, but there are no fast ways to heal your character. If my character needs six potions to heal then I need to select the character, find the potion, and click the eating button (which there is no gamepad button for) six times. I quickly learned that the Steamdeck would be my least favorite way to play this game, but a gamepad with no touchscreen or mouse would be impossible.

This game was made for touchscreen as the play space is filled with buttons you can easily push on a six-inch screen with your thumb. Playing with your mouse and keyboard is easier, but the interface was clearly designed with phones in mind. The game's map design can be a little confusing. Sometimes it is hard to tell if you are being offered an entrance into a new area or if it's just a set design. Sometimes you have to push A to go to a different part of a building, while other times you can just walk into it. There's an auto-lock feature that highlights when you are near people you can speak to or doors that can be opened, and I needed to use it a lot to find out what things I could interact with.

Caves of Lore screenshot. Image courtesy Mike Robins. /

There are a lot of menus to navigate, which is par for the course in an old-school RPG, but there is not a lot of understanding of how they work. It took me three hours to understand how abilities and talents were upgraded.

I like the idea that the player has to discover it on their own, but I felt like I was doing a major disservice to my party because I didn't know how to level them up properly. For example, I didn't know that adding stat points to single-handed weapons is how you build your stat strength. For a solid chunk of my playthrough, I thought I had no control over my team's stats. The tutorial was great at guiding me through combat, but I think I missed the part where it explains how your characters level up.

The game has plenty of missions and side quests and it is up to the player to decipher where the quest is and how to accomplish it. Sometimes a side quest I got an hour ago will finally be satisfied and I will have no idea who to go back to to get the reward. It's easier just to forget about it. Other times, the game will expect me to know where the mayor is based on a vague sheet of information and a pixelated figure. It's fun to throw off your duties and just level up your characters and look for secrets until you reach an area where enemies are killing your team with one hit.

Caves of Lore (PC) Score: 6.5/10

Caves of Lore can be addicting for any adventurer looking for variety and diversity in RPG exploring. I would caution anyone looking for a straightforward saga with easily accessible quests, Caves of Lore is for stat managers and detail oriented gamers. It would seem that Caves of Lore is already picking up praise as the game has won the Gold Award from Games Without Borders and has a 96% positive rating on Steam. Mike Robins spent a lot of time and details on making sure this gem scratches that old-school itch and he nailed it.