RHEM 2 review
Let's play a little game. I give you a phrase, you tell me the first thing that pops into your head. Ready? Okay, here goes.
If your thoughts were flooded with visions of chocolate, Christmas, or warm cuddly puppy dogs, play RHEM 2. But if your head was filled with images of lima beans, the dentist's office, and the worst blind date you ever had—run. As far away from this game as you can.
I'm just trying to be realistic. There is definitely a group of gamers that RHEM 2 will appeal to, players with infinite supplies of patience who just want to take their time wading through a peaceful slideshow of detailed scenes, turning knobs, pulling levers, and looking high and low for fragments of a broken key that have been scattered like breadcrumbs on the wind. Then there are those who are going to hate it on sight, for virtue of what it is: a Myst clone. If you fall into one of these two camps, not much of what I say in this review is going sway you.
What's that? You didn't think about chocolate or lima beans? The term "Myst clone" doesn't really evoke a reaction one way or the other? In that case, read on. I'll tell you what to expect, and hopefully help you decide if RHEM 2 is a game for you.
RHEM 2, the sequel to 2003's RHEM, is more or less a one-man production put together by a developer named Knut Müller. (I say "more or less" because there are a few other names listed in the credits, but he's the guy behind it all.) Both games were self-published, then picked up for commercial release in North America by GotGame Entertainment. Although I didn't play the first game, RHEM 2 was marketed as a standalone adventure that could be understood and enjoyed even by those who had not played its predecessor. For this reason, I didn't expect to have any trouble getting into it. This was my first disappointment.
RHEM 2's storyline is about as basic as they come. At the start of the game you arrive on the doorstep of a guy named Zetais, who is apparently someone you know from the previous game. He hands you a piece of a key and thanks you for agreeing to help his brother by exploring RHEM. There's no explanation as to what RHEM is, but I figured that must be coming. Next, you take a meandering train ride on very creaky tracks and arrive underground. By listening to a recording left for you by Kales, the brother, you learn that you must collect the other two fragments that go with the one Zetais gave you, and put them together to make a key. This key opens a door to another part of RHEM, which you must explore to find an artifact. Kales needs you to take a photograph of the artifact (using a camera that's secured to the wall in one of the rooms near the where the train drops you off) and bring it back to his brother.
Right off the bat, I was discouraged by the vague and (dare I say it?) dull nature of this quest. The brothers don't even make it sound all that exciting. I didn't feel like I was embarking on a mission that I and only I could accomplish, but like Kales and Zetais didn't have time for it themselves and were sticking me with the dirty work while they went off to explore bigger and better things.
Contributing to the sense of drudgery is the fact that the little bit of acting found in RHEM 2 is extremely subpar. The FMV characters speak without inflection or enthusiasm, sometimes even stumbling over their words, and the subtitles don't always match the voiceover. I guess the advantage of having very little dialogue in the game is that the player isn't subjected to the bad voice work and inaccurate subtitles very often. On the other hand, because the game has so little human interaction, the fact that the few snippets we do get are not very well executed is a letdown.
Other than these early explanations of what the player needs to do, and a couple of recordings indicating that you're on the right track (but not giving any additional or more interesting information), RHEM 2's "story" might as well not be there at all. Some people will argue that the game's plot isn't important, since the thrust of RHEM 2's gameplay lies in the puzzles. Maybe they're right, but since the developer did choose to introduce a bit of story into the game, I can't help but wish it had been more imaginative. Even telling me what this "artifact" is and what's so important about it might have given me a little more motivation to hunt it down. When it comes to story, this game isn't like Myst, where the plot is relatively simple but you have the chance to uncover a lot of backstory as you explore. Except for the occasional glimpse of a mysterious female character whose presence is never satisfactorily explained, there is nothing more to RHEM 2's story than what I have just laid out. What you see is what you get: a great big underground cave with some unnamed artifact hidden somewhere in its depths.
In general, the puzzles in RHEM 2 serve one purpose: to get into locked rooms. There are a number of different types of brain-teasers in the game, but they pretty much all fall under the banner of logic puzzles. Numbers, symbols, and patterns are strewn all over the place; your task is to figure out which of the dozens of keypads or other mechanisms each set of numbers, symbols, and patterns correspond to. This requires taking a lot of notes as you make your way through the caves, jotting down everything in case you find a use for it later. And when I say "later," I mean much later. It's not unusual for a button to affect a door that's 50 screens away (believe me, I counted!), so running back and forth to see if what you tried is correct can be very time consuming. In one example, a puzzle involving a ball that moves along a track can't be solved until you've copied down information displayed on eight separate wall plaques, which are randomly distributed across all parts of the cave. Even then, once you've collected all this information and figured out how it applies to the ball on the track, the result you obtain must be used somewhere else, several rooms away.
If it sounds complicated, that's because it is. To get through RHEM 2, you'll need to either 1) take copious notes, often with no idea when or how the information will be used; 2) keep a walkthrough handy so you can mooch off the hard work of someone else who already took all those notes; or 3) do an awful lot of backtracking as you piece together which set of numbers / colors / dots / etc. corresponds to which machine / door / mechanism / etc. An automatic notebook would have been nice, or even better, a photograph option, especially since the main goal of the game is to take a picture of the artifact for Kales. Rather than having the camera built into the wall, why not let the player carry it around and use it in place of pen and paper?
I should mention that if you have a bad sense of direction, you will be hopelessly lost in the underground caverns of RHEM 2. I would not have been able to find my way from room to room without using a walkthrough, period. I have trouble getting my bearings in most slideshow games, but RHEM 2 was particularly difficult for me to navigate because every screen is so similar to every other. There are some differences as you travel from one area of the cave to another, sure, but overall when you are in a certain area, you're stuck traversing across at least half a dozen rooms that look exactly the same. There is an in-game compass, but I didn't find it to be of much help. I'm not suggesting that navigation will be a problem for everyone, but if you're one of those people who has to think about which direction you're facing when the sun is setting to your right (you know who you are!), you'll definitely have a hard time finding your way around RHEM 2. You might have trouble even if you're not directionally challenged.
I was also confused about where RHEM is supposed to be located, and what logic it follows. Providing a little additional background would have helped with this, especially for those who didn't play the first game. By dumping you off in the cave with no explanation, the developer either assumes you already know what RHEM is, or has simply decided not to say. Either way, I was lost. Is this an alternate reality? Another planet? Or are we still on Earth, just underground? I assumed in the beginning that I was not on Earth, because of the brothers' funny names, and also because many of the symbols I found early in my exploration suggested that the people who left them behind use a different numbering and mathematical system than we do. But then, smack dab in the middle of the cave, I came across an algebraic formula, just like the kind I used to do in high school. Okay, so is RHEM's numbering system completely foreign, or is it exactly the same as the one we use in the real world? I never did figure it out.
In spite of seeming out of place, this algebraic formula was the only puzzle in the whole game I really enjoyed working through. Not because it was particularly well constructed (unless you consider notes hanging from various doors and pipes that identify what a and b equal a good setup). No, I enjoyed it because I've always kind of liked algebra. Which was lucky for me, I suppose, but not so lucky for those who have a hard time with it or haven't used it in so long they're irreversibly rusty. And as with so many of RHEM 2's puzzles, the game world doesn't help you out. Although there's an awful lot of information in the caverns, there aren't really any clues. If you don't know what to do next, the game doesn't help you along. Some people may enjoy this type of brain-stretching gameplay, but to me, it just seemed unfair, almost as if the developer didn't want me to figure it out.
RHEM 2 is a first-person slideshow game (like the original Myst) that's navigated with the mouse. RHEM 2 has an inventory, but this isn't used for much in the game. It's simply a holding tank for a few pieces that have fallen off keypads or machines, along with the fragments and artifact you're looking for. Items are used in pretty much the same way the rest of the information is applied in this game: you pick up a piece of something somewhere, and put it into a mechanism somewhere else. Logical, but not very creative.
I found RHEM 2's save system a bit frustrating. First of all, there are only ten save slots—way too few for an adventure game that requires so much exploration. You can't name your save, and there isn't a screenshot associated with it, which makes it hard to remember which save was made in which location. There were points where I would have liked to zip back and forth between locations by restoring an earlier save, rather than backtracking through RHEM's equivalent of twisty passages all alike, but not knowing exactly which save to restore made it more of a hassle than a convenience. The saves are numbered, however, so you can at least keep track of which is the most recent. This is especially important once you have more than ten saves and have to start overwriting the earlier ones.
The entire game takes place underground, in a network of interconnected caves and caverns that become fairly monotonous. In RHEM 2 you'll see an awful lot of metal doors, rusty ladders, keypads, funny symbols, and pipes. There are a couple of signs of civilization, such as an art gallery of sorts filled with pictures of ships, and a carpeted grand hall with ornate doors that open to reveal (you guessed it!) more pipes and funny symbols, but these are few and far between. For the most part, exploring RHEM 2 feels like exploring a sewer. It's certainly not somewhere you'd want to visit on vacation. The graphics themselves are well rendered, just somewhat dreary and not very interesting.
RHEM 2 has some animation, but this is used sparingly. Levers are pulled and doors swing open, usually with a slow, grainy effect (you can see each frame of the animation as it occurs). Even then, this is just one animation on an otherwise static screen. There aren't really any cutscenes in the game, unless you count the train ride at the beginning and end of the game, and a few scenes during which a woman who's also wandering around down there speaks to you in a language that's literally unintelligible. It's not uncommon for slideshow games to be relatively static, and I can't really say the game suffers from its lack of animation, but the world just didn't feel alive to me.
There's no music in the game, but you'll hear plenty of ambient noise, such as wind howling through the tunnels and echoes of what sounds like a wrench banging against a pipe in another room. You'll also hear gears shift and doors swing open when appropriate, as well as various chimes to represent that an action (such as pushing a button) worked or clunks signifying that it didn't. The ambient noise definitely sets a gritty, underground mood, but it becomes repetitive and annoying because it hardly ever changes.
The Final Analysis
While making my way through the monotonous hallways, tunnels, and manholes that are RHEM 2, a funny thing happened: I couldn't stop thinking about Myst. As I plodded through the chambers that all looked alike, up and down identical ladders, and through metal door after metal door, I yearned to turn a corner and stumble upon a linking book, something to get me out of that tedious cavern and somewhere else entirely. Not because I wasn't willing to give the game a chance, but because it was all just so similar. Yeah, the game has a lot of puzzles—very difficult puzzles—but they all follow the formula of picking up information in one location and applying it somewhere else, maybe with a little analysis in between to figure out where or how the information should be used. There's nothing particularly entertaining or inspired about these puzzles, nothing that made the light bulb go on in my head. It all kind of felt like homework, and I'm not just talking about the algebra.
If you've made it this far, you're probably asking yourself, "Why should I play this game?" I can think of a few reasons: you like logic puzzles and math; you enjoy taking notes and figuring out how to apply them; you're able to drive across town without getting hopelessly turned around; and you don't mind a game that doesn't have a strong story. If you possess all these qualities, I'll take a chance and say you'll likely enjoy RHEM 2. If none of these apply, don't torture yourself. You'd probably have more fun chowing down on a plate of lima beans during a date with your dentist. And if you're somewhere in the middle, simply looking for an adventure to beat Myst at its own game, there are better ways to get a puzzle fix. RHEM 2 isn't the first Myst clone, and I'm sure it won't be the last.