Date: February 2006
Release Year: 2002, Developer: Knut Muller, Publisher: Knut Muller, PAGODA Link
After the success of Myst (1993), many developers were attracted towards designing puzzle adventure games that take place in surreal environments. After a while, there were so many games with similar themes, they won a title (or a sub-genre if you like) of their own, “Myst Clones”. That is a very repulsive title in my opinion, because it makes these games sound like cheap imitations. This is not an unfair accusation, since most of these games lack logical puzzles (for instance Atlantis series) or a world with a deep and solid background (for instance Reah). As a result, many adventure gamers dislike such games and have a certain prejudice towards the “Myst Clone” brand.
Rhem came out at 2002 and everything about it was screaming “Myst Clone”. Because of that and the fact that it was an independent game with very low production values (the whole game is designed and developed by a single guy, Knut Muller), the game didn’t get much attention from the gaming scene and I didn’t bother playing it. However since I am an avid Myst and puzzle adventure fan, I decided to give it a shot..
Well, I can’t hide my excitement anymore, without a doubt, Rhem is clearly the best puzzle adventure game since Riven, and in general it is one of the most intelligently designed games I have ever seen. I have so much respect for Mr. Muller right now, I can even consider being his assistant without asking for any money. Alright, now that is out of my system, I can start the review.
There is almost no story in Rhem. You are a nameless, genderless, voiceless hero who enters the world of Rhem in a trolley. After opening some doors and climbing some stairs, you discover a prisoner, who soon escapes and instead you find yourself trapped within this strange world. In the rest of the game, you basically try to get out of Rhem. So actually the only purpose of the story is to give you some motivation to solve the puzzles within. Rhem is not interested in telling you a story, or introduce to you more characters.
So what is Rhem like? I guess the best word to describe the world of Rhem would be “Industrial”. Most of the environments in the game looks like an abandoned water treatment plant; there are walls, pipes, bridges, tanks and stairs everywhere. In contrast to other Myst Clones, there aren’t any magical, mystical environments or floating islands. Everything looks rusty, metallic and realistic. Unfortunately, the game’s budget is very low, so graphics looks really poor and muddy. However, the world of the game is so huge, even with low-res graphics it still manages to fill 3 CDs.
Surprisingly, there is no music in the game at all! Usually games of this type have some amount of ambient music, but even that much is absent from this game. Fortunately, there are lots of sound effects, which you usually hear when you open a door or pull a lever.
So this game does not have any story, music or stunning graphics. Then how the hell does it deserve a near perfect score like 9.5??
I don’t know where should I start praising this game. First of all, Rhem is definitely not a game that consists of isolated and disconnected sequence of puzzles. It offers much more than that. The first discriminating feature of the game is, almost all the interactions are based on real world physics rather than magical events we are used to see in these type of games. That means you won’t find any teleporting devices or magic runes in this game. If you want to cross the river, you should figure out a way to rotate the bridge, or if you want to power a mechanism, you should follow the cables that goes out from the machine. It seems simple when you put it like that, but it is amazing how everything makes sense and your physical and geometrical intuition is the most powerful tool to solve the puzzles in the game.
Speaking of geometry, this is a game that makes ingenious use of simple 3D Euclidean geometry. Well, this is not a completely novel concept in adventure games. If there is a locked door in front of you, you look for alternative ways to enter the room from a geometric perspective. For example, you look for an entrance to the room from beneath, sideways or from the ceiling of the room. Rhem takes this simple concept and brings it to a whole new level. There are tons of rooms and passageways and somehow they are intertwined into each other in a very complex manner. Most of the time there are multiple ways to go from point A to B, and detecting these alternative routes and discovering secret passages are a big part of the gameplay.
In the beginning we have access to a very limited part of the world, but as we solve puzzles the game expands. Even more, the passages also expand and change dynamically! So you have to keep revising and updating the maps you have been drawing all the time.
It is a bit difficult to explain this experience to a person who hasn’t played the game. But I can tell you this; imagine the famous rotating room puzzle at the beginning of Riven and then turn that into a huge world in itself. I think this is the best way to describe the world of Rhem.
Furthermore, some of the passages do not only serve the purpose of transportation. There are large amounts of clues embedded into the walls and doors in the game, but they can be only seen from a certain perspective. Hence you end up traveling the whole gameworld back and forth, just to approach a side of the building from an angle you haven’t seen before. Best way to solve this type of navigation puzzles is to draw a map and keep updating it. You can find very detailed maps on the internet, but believe me, it is much more fun to create yours.
As you have clearly understood at this point, Rhem is all about puzzles and exploration. In the previous subsection I tried to describe the navigational puzzles. The rest of the game is filled with mechanical puzzles, combination locks and pattern matching type of puzzles, which are abundant in any Msyst clone. However, Rhem also outshines other games in its sub-genre by taking these familiar puzzle designs and giving them it’s own twist.
It is not difficult to design a challenging puzzle, anyone can do it. In my opinion, you can rate the quality of a challenging puzzle by your reaction when you look at the solution of the puzzle in a walkthrough. If your reaction is “This is bullshit! Was the designer expecting me to read his mind??” then it is a bad difficult puzzle. On the other hand, if your reaction is “This is brilliant! How come I did not see this! I guess I wasn’t paying enough attention..”, then it is a good difficult puzzle. I am so happy to tell you that all of the puzzles in Rhem are in the second category, they are certainly difficult (in fact this is the most difficult game I have played in a long time) but they all make sense and they are all solvable if you pay enough attention. This is definitely a rare treat in a puzzle adventure game nowadays.
Most of the puzzles in the game require you to apply a clue you found at some part of the world to a mechanism at another part of the world. However, the actual puzzle is to identify which clues apply to which mechanism! For instance, you find a pattern of colors drawn on a sheet and you think “So I guess at some point in the game I will see a terminal where I see a color sequence and then I will input this code”. However, you roam through the entire world and do not find a lock/terminal that looks like that at all! This forces you to think “Maybe the colors mean something else? Where did I see these colors before? Can I match them to an object? ” and then suddenly a bulb lights up on your head and you discover the solution. This is the basic thought process that you need to go through in entire game, and believe me, I am oversimplifying it. Actual puzzles in the game are much more complex.
Another beauty of the puzzle design is, very much like physical locations in the game, puzzles are often intertwined within each other. Most of the time solving a puzzle just yields a clue for another puzzle rather than a direct reward, and sometimes solving a puzzle just helps you to understand how some other device works on another part of the environment. As a result of this design philosophy, you don’t feel like you are solving a sequence of random puzzles, instead you feel like you are slowly unraveling the mysteries of a grand design, and believe me there are only a handful of games that succeed at giving you such a feeling.
Rhem is basically a puzzle adventure gamer’s wet dream. Designer Knut Muller takes everything that makes Myst and Riven so good, adds his special flavor and offers you a puzzle solving experience that you can never forget. If you are into puzzle adventure games, you should immediately purchase this game despite its low production values.
The Good: Ingenious use of geometry. A very large world filled with novel and challenging puzzles. Simply the best game on its own sub-genre so far.
The Bad: Graphics are very low-res and look muddy. Weak animations. Lack of ambient music.
The Ugly: Accent of the guy in the video you watch in the middle of the game.