Review: Rhem 2

Rhem 2 (web site); Knut Müller (creator); Got Game Entertainment (US publisher); Virtual Programming (on-line publisher for Mac version)

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Nearly nonexistent
Writing and dialog
Weak, and poorly translated
Mostly very good, although with some poor hotspot placement
Puzzle density
Puzzle difficulty
Very hard, unless you are exceptionally observant, and then it's simply hard
Forgiveness rating
You cannot die or make a fatal mistake. (You can, however, make mistakes that force you to hike halfway around the game in order to retry them.)

I am an information junkie. I have realized this in the past few months.

My first clue was this: I took time this summer to learn the mechanics of Jabber (an open-source instant messaging protocol -- details not important, it's just an example). I spent three days reading specification documents. And re-reading them, because the first pass gave me enough context to understand everything I was reading on the second pass. After a few hours, my eyes were tired, so I adjusted the font size and kept going.

Then I did it all again, to learn the mechanics of SVG. (An open-source vector graphics format, but that's not important right now.)

And I felt good. I was mainlining the pure stuff, cool and blue and straight out of the pipe. The juice. The monkey. Clear-quill.

It's the same reason I read books, I suppose. The defining trick of fantasy and science fiction writing is to stuff information down your throat, as fast as possible, so smoothly that you never feel the burn. Pure high. When it's done right, that is. (Yes, we can all name authors who cut their product with coarse-ground exposition, unnecessary smut, or cheap powdered Ayn Rand.) (And yes, you need other tricks to actually make a good book, but that's not the topic tonight, so kindly let go of my digressions. Thank you.)

Information junkie, not data addict. Data is not information; data is the mass of world-description which you have not yet organized. Information is when you see how it means, so that you see what it means.

Knowledge, I suppose, is when you see why. Up at the level of people -- thoughts, motivations, messy subjects like that. I'm no better at those than the next guy. (Ask any of my ex-girlfriends.) But programming specifications, and adventure-game puzzles, are firmly at the "information" level. Programming specification design, and adventure-game stories, are perhaps knowledge... okay, now I really am digressing.

Remember Rhem? It didn't have a story. It wasn't about people. It was the information firehose -- you sucked it down, or the puzzles drowned you. Rhem 2 is the same thing, only the firehose has twice the diameter and four times the pressure. That's my review.

Okay, okay, I'm not done yet. First I have to talk about what a puzzle is. See, when I say "puzzle", the first thing a lot of people think of is... well, a fifteen-slider, actually. Or the Towers of Hanoi. (Kill me.) But skipping past the puzzle retreads, the first thing a lot of people think of is "Find the red key to unlock the red door". Or -- the equivalent in a Myst-style, inventory-light game -- "Find a picture of a circle, a square, and a triangle; then push the circle, square, and triangular buttons on the keypad."

Which is, if you're generalizing, the basic form of a puzzle. Yes. In the same way that the basic form of a fighting game is "Attack at the right moment." It leaves out all the art, all the sleight-of-hand, all the ways in which the author subverts your expectations to fool you into not realizing you have known the answer all along.

Rhem 2 has them all. It would serve as an excellent encyclopedia of, what shall we call it, puzzle rhetoric. The author has systematically analyzed the ways that players absorb information from adventure games, and done his best to bend every one in as many different directions as it will go.

I tried to write down a list of the variations I saw in the game. This won't be a spoiler, because (a) I've kept it abstract and (b) the list is too damn long to serve as a checklist...

And that list glosses over the idea of "physical connection" -- which really should be another whole list by itself -- but I'd have to do it in Labanotation. I swear that Rhem 2 is the most intensely spatial game I have ever played. It's more map-centric than platformers like Ico or Prince of Persia. Platformers are all about the precise locations of ledges and catwalks in a room; but Rhem 2 is all about the location of everything. Catwalks, corridors, chambers, caverns. A vast convoluted knot, which places each thread in a particular relationship to each other thread, and to the whole. And each relationship is a different sneaky variation.

So what should you take from that giddy description?

You are going to take notes when you play. You are going to draw maps. You are going to take notes in the corners of your maps, cross them out, swear, and redraw the maps bigger so that you can fit more notes in. There is far too much information here to keep in your head, unless you have a damnably good memory. It is the firehose. And it is all relevant. At any point in the game, when you find yourself asking "Is this important?", the answer is yes. (I was a good three hours in when I realized that I should have been writing down the color of each wire I saw -- not just what it was attached to and what direction it led.)

You will need to cross-reference your notes. (Where did I last see this symbol, which I have just found a replica of? What puzzle blocks that door, which my map says I have not yet unlocked?)

And you will need to map. The game is big, convoluted -- I think I said that already -- and the map is information. I'm not just talking about "I need to get to the green room, now where was that?" (Although you may need that too, if your spatial sense isn't great.) I'm talking about, "The blue wire leads into the wall -- what's on the other side of this wall?" I'm talking about, "I see half a clue through this barred window -- what unplumbed route could lead to the room on the other side?" I'm talking about, "If this pipe comes out over there, then what does it pass through in between, and how is that relevant to this puzzle?"

I have finished Rhem 2, and I have eleven sheets of notebook paper completely covered in notes. (One-sided -- I couldn't risk having two critical bits on opposite sides of the same sheet.) And I write small.

Am I overstating this? Perhaps somewhat. I approach these kinds of puzzles very systematically, and I like taking notes. Possibly I could have used a more freewheeling approach, if I'd been willing to spend more time running around, reminding myself of things I'd forgotten.

Or possibly not. There were several points where I was seriously, completely stuck. I got myself unstuck by looking at all my notes, and seeing exactly what clues, what puzzles, and what locations were listed that I still didn't understand. The correlation of what I had to work with was frequently just as useful as the clues themselves.

I have now either described a game that you are drooling to get your hands on, or a torture chamber that you wouldn't stick your foot in for a pension. You know best.

But before I wrap up, let me address the few reviewing notes that are mixed into my puzzle notes (on one corner of page 1 of eleven...)

First: even though the designer is obsessed with subverting your assumptions, he knows which assumptions to leave intact. I can't quantify this distinction, but I know it when I see it. In Rhem 2, green means "on" and red means "off". That isn't a trick. And you will quickly learn to recognize the "sorry!" buzzer -- the sound which means, that button is not yet powered up or unlocked. These things are constant; the game would have been less fun if they were not.

Oh, yes, Rhem 2 has sound puzzles. Audio isn't a large part of most of the puzzles -- it's much more a visual game -- but a few puzzles rely on it, and there's a constant stream of those helpful, contextual "sorry!" or "yay!" noises. If you have hearing problems, beware.

I had trouble with color discrimination, too. Some puzzles require you to choose between red, orange, magenta, purple,... or blue, cyan, green,... and the shades are not consistent enough. I had to do some guessing; and my color vision is not impaired. If yours is, play with a buddy.

The game requires lots of running around. There's no avoiding it, no matter how copiously you take notes: you will find yourself travelling back and forth between different parts of different puzzles. Sometimes, several times in a row. (No single puzzle requires more than a couple of trips. But there are so many puzzles that travel is still a major element of the game. Plus all the times you go somewhere to check something, and then discover you were wrong, and you really had to go somewhere else.)

On the up side, travel is very quick, if you've done a full install. (You really want to do a full install. See the game's ReadMe file for instructions.) Choose "fast transition" in the preferences, and it's click click click down the halls, with disk delays that only occasionally approach a full second.

On the down side, you frequently have to stop for elevators, vehicles, slow doors, and other such animatory cruft. These animations cannot be skipped over, and I can't imagine why not. One cross-game route (which I took at least five times in one evening!) required about ten elevator rides. Slooooow elevator rides. That is, not horribly slow -- maybe ten seconds each? -- but a far cry slower than the click click click.

Fix this in Rhem 3, please.

The other travel nuisance is the hotspot placement for ladders. Half the time I'd try to climb down from a platform, and I'd wind up climbing right back up to it. A minor nuisance, but... no, I've changed my mind, it was actually quite irritating. Fix that too.

I was surprised at how resistant the game was to brute-force solutions. Most games with information puzzles are open to trial-and-error at some point -- particularly games like this one, where clues are scattered across a wide area. Inevitably you find yourself with 80% of a combination, and the remaining 20% takes only a few dozen guesses to search. And this does happen in Rhem 2; except you find, after you've brute-forced the combination, that you only get a little ways farther before you need an actual object. Or you need to flip a switch. In finding that object or switch, you find the 20% of the puzzle clue that you were missing. So, basically, you might as well have waited.

Not every puzzle in the game is set up this way, but most of the major puzzles with spread-out clues are. It isn't something you particularly notice (unless you get desperate and start random-guessing puzzles!) But some careful design must have gone in to get it right.

I haven't talked much about the graphics. They're a bit better than in Rhem, which is to say they're still about seven years behind the big commercial development studios. (And ten years behind Cyan.) Which doesn't bother me. I'm not in this one for the graphics; and I know the creator is one guy, not a stable of graphic artists. Besides -- I should not run the game down -- there is some very nice scenery in Rhem 2. Gloomy caverns with atmospheric lighting; volcanic vents; underground lakes. The sense of design is excellent. It's just that the polygon models are rather crude, and too many of the textures are weird algorithmic color-bump-muddle.

And the final note in my scrawled review-corner is: "I can't believe I solved this." Which I am not saying in order to frighten you! I did solve it, after all, and without looking at a single hint or walkthrough page. On the other hand, I am unable to avoid bragging about this fact, which should also tell you something.

There were times when I stumbled across some bit of information, and thought, "I can't believe I found that! Was ever I lucky." Really, I don't think it was luck -- because I found all of those bits, so I must have been playing right. The ones that I didn't find by luck, I found by being patient, observant, careful, and systematic.

Conclusion: If you like games where you have to be patient, observant, careful, systematic, and the target of an absolute firehose of puzzles and clues, you will love Rhem 2. You will love it for a long time, too, because it is huge. (Took me eleven days. Hrm. Eleven. Coincidence?) If you don't like any of those things, or if you're seriously dependent on plot and character development, perhaps you should pass it by.

(Mind you, I liked the appearance of the mysterious... no, it would be tactless to spoil the one plot element that Rhem 2 has. Cool though.)

This series: Rhem, Rhem 2

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