RHEM 2 Review

In RHEM 2, Knut Müller continues a theme that he began in the original work Rhem. This time, the brothers Zetais and Kales want your help in exploring a vast underground city. You are thrust into a strange -- sometimes surrealistic -- environment that is laden with a myriad of analytic puzzles. As in the original game, there are more puzzles than story development, and only a very brief "goal" is provided to the player at the beginning of the game. Most of the game focuses on solving the dozens of puzzles that stand between you and that goal.

RHEM 2 is a standard first-person puzzle adventure game, in the tradition of its predecessor. Scenes are pre-rendered, with movement between static scenes being provided by a "dissolve" transition when moving forward, or a "sliding" transition when moving right or left. After playing RHEM 2, I anticipate that most gamers are likely to fall into one of two clear camps regarding the game -- they'll either love it, or hate it, with very little in-between. So let's start by talking about what there is to "love" about RHEM 2.

The two most prevalent features of RHEM 2 are the graphics, and the puzzles. Although the scenes are all statically pre-rendered, many of them are highly detailed, and quite beautifully crafted. However, other than the opening and closing video cut scenes, the entire game is played underground -- so be prepared for quite a few dark scenes. (This can be critical, as many of the puzzles are visual -- i.e., highly dependent on diagrams, figures, colors, symbols, etc. that are encountered throughout the game.) At times, the level of detail can become a bit overly-tedious -- and even distracting. Yet this seems to fit in quite well with Müller's standard "stump the player" approach to the design of every facet of the game. You may spend time pixel-hunting through an extremely detailed scene, only to discover that there truly is nothing there, other than an extremely detailed scene!

In most scenes, the texture mapping is quite good -- providing very realistic images of rusting metal plates, wood-grained handles, railings with paint peeling from them, metal walkways, etc. Sometimes, though -- as with all of the graphics -- this can become a bit overdone, resulting (for me, at least) in near-headaches just due to the "busyness" of many of the scenes. Still, the quality of the graphics is nothing short of amazing, coming -- as it does -- from the handiwork of a single developer.

The puzzles are by far the most prevalent feature in RHEM 2. In fact, you can't get away from them. You won't really "just explore" the world of RHEM 2, as you might do in other adventure games. The reason is that you can never go far without being stopped -- by a locked door, a blocked passageway, an inaccessible elevator, a closed grate, an unpowered switch, or simply an apparent dead end. Virtually every few moves in the game result in being confronted by a puzzle, before you can move along. And the puzzles take a variety of forms.

Most are highly analytic, and yet a great degree of intuitiveness is needed to solve them. The reason for the latter is that very few puzzles are stand-alone, "in-place" puzzles -- i.e., puzzles that can be solved with no other input (such as a sliding tile puzzle, which may be able to be solved with no other information other than playing with the puzzle). There are mathematical puzzles; there are what I would call "Mensa-style" puzzles (e.g., here's a bunch of shapes -- figure out what they have in common, or where they might be used, and what to do with them); there are color-based puzzles; there are mazes. Then there are the many, many "complete the power circuit" puzzles. Virtually everything in the underground world of RHEM 2 is powered electrically. (I would hate to have to pay their electric bill!) And, as might be expected, the game begins with power supplied to almost nothing. Hence, a repeated theme throughout the game is determining how to make sure that there is a completed circuit from a power source, back to the object requiring power. This may be through wires, control panels, switches, buttons, or a variety of other means -- all of which need to be deciphered, enabled, and properly utilized.

And it is the very profusion -- and range -- of these puzzles that will likely be the dividing point between the two camps mentioned earlier (the "lovers" and the "haters" of RHEM 2). This dividing point can be summed up in a single word -- frustration. From my own personal experience, the best adventure game puzzles are those which provide enough clear, intuitive clues so that when you do discover the solution -- whether on your own, or with additional assistance -- the response is "Oh, that is so obvious! What a great puzzle." Unfortunately, a great many of the puzzles in RHEM 2 elicited a much different response from me -- one that was more along the lines of "How in the !@$#%&#! was I supposed to figure that out?!?!?"

One of the reasons for this response is what I will call the "integration" of puzzles. As already mentioned, few puzzles stand alone. More frequently, the solution to one puzzle will provide additional information that will be used in solving another puzzle. And while I have a high regard for this approach -- in fact, I much prefer inter-related puzzles, as they help a game "hold together" -- it is one more thing that is taken to an extreme in RHEM 2. It is not uncommon to find, for example, that to solve one puzzle, you must first solve two other puzzles, which each contribute different information to the solution of the first puzzle. But you cannot solve either of these other two puzzles until you have first solve several other puzzles, which "feed" into their solution. It's an iterative process that becomes even more frustrating, when you discover that some of the puzzles that "seed" this entire process will not be discovered until much later in the game -- meaning that you have to do a lot of work before you begin seeing much satisfaction, in terms of actually accomplishing anything -- and there are often few intuitive clues as to which puzzles provide clues to others, or where they might be found.

Much of the time, while playing the game, I really had no idea of what I was doing, or why. There were no clear goals (other than one statement in the opening of the game -- which didn't say much); nor was there any link between the things I was doing, and the one goal that was given to me at the outset of the game. Thus, I really had no way of identifying if I was making any progress, or not. There is virtually no interaction with other characters (other than a few brief video snippets of the two brothers, and one or two others of a third unidentified character). So the end result is that, even as I continued to solve puzzle after puzzle (after puzzle after puzzle), my normal reaction was "What did that accomplish???"

Besides the puzzles themselves, possibly the second most frustrating aspect of the game was simply navigating it. Once again, we have the dichotomy between what might be considered by some as nothing short of pure genius, or by others as a nightmare from hell. To say that navigating the game is difficult is severe understatement. RHEM 2 is one of the "biggest" games I've ever played, in terms of total number of locations, and means of accessing those locations.

Not only has Müller spread out the game over a vast underground landscape, he has also implemented several other design characteristics that raise the "difficulty bar" significantly. The first is that many places in the game are multi-dimensional. Put simply, much of the game is played on multiple levels. So you must remember not only in which direction something lies (or from which direction you just came, for example), but also what level you are/were on. Ladders are everywhere -- moving you from one level to another. Elevators not only abound, but are also part of one of the wildest navigation challenges in the game. And if you're not confused enough by the vastness of the environment, things like revolving rooms and turning walkways are in abundance. Their primary purpose seems to be to insure that -- if you did, by some chance, begin to get familiar with the layout of the game and navigating from one place to another -- that familiarity can quickly be changed.

Considering the non-intuitiveness of many of the puzzles, as well as the apparent lack of any indication of progress toward a goal, the result is not only a feeling of frustation, but also the impression that the game was far more difficult than it needed to be. And there is a definite difference between making a game more difficult, and making it more challenging. For example, one might increase the challenge level of a particular puzzle by "hiding" clues in a more intuitive manner. (These are the ways that typically elicit that first response from me -- "Wow, that is a great puzzle!") But to simply say "If one maze is hard, then multiple mazes will be harder; if linking 4 puzzles together to arrive at a solution is difficult, then linking 6 puzzles together will be even harder," focuses only on difficulty for difficulty's sake. And all the while playing the game, my impression was that this was actually the driving goal behind the design of RHEM 2 -- to make it virtually impossible to play successfully (without outside assistance).

In fact, this is one of the few games that I have ever played (and I've played hundreds of adventure games) where I not only had to resort to outside assistance to complete a particular puzzle, but where -- by the time I was halfway through the game -- I had literally given up, to the point of seeking out the walkthrough link on the RHEM 2 Web site, and simply playing the game from the walkthrough. Frankly, I challenge anyone to play through the entire game of RHEM 2 with absolutely no outside assistance -- just the player, and the game. Because I'm not sure that it can be done.

Finally, after managing to make it through the game, the ending was so incredibly disappointing -- such a let-down -- that it only added to my frustration. Agreed, there was very little story anyway. But the "emptiness" of the ending accented the lack of story even further. I left without any sense of accomplishment, other than being able to say that it was over.

The bottom line is that, while I would not pick RHEM 2 as one of my favorite puzzle adventure games, it will have a following. A cult following, perhaps -- a following of highly-dedicated, highly-analytic (or is it "highly-anal"?), dyed-in-the-wool puzzle-solvers. And those people will love the game. It was engineered well, I had no problems running the game, and everything played smoothly. The graphics are attractive -- even captivating, in places. Based on all of that, I give it a "good" rating. It's just not the kind of adventure game that will have the wider appeal of a game like Myst.

-- Frank Nicodem