Designed by Knut Müller, Rhem is a first person step-through adventure full of mysteries, puzzles, and riddles set in a surreal world with panoramic views and more than 5,000 rendered images. Featuring non-linear gameplay (although many puzzles must be solved to advance to specific locations and accomplish certain tasks), Rhem puts players in the role of a hijacked rail car rider who is deposited in this lonely world with almost no knowledge as to why. Before long, however, the realization sets in that escape is only possible by finding four hidden components of a letter, which must be pieced together and delivered to its intended recipient, Zetais.
Reminiscent of the highly detailed graphics in Myst, Rhem's gameplay involves a varied number of puzzles such as operating pumps to regulate water levels, finding hidden doors and unlocking them by solving combinations, rotating bridges and walkways, and interpreting coded icons. Manipulating geometric shapes, understanding units of water in a reservoir, finding secret passages, solving grid and mosaic puzzles, and many more mind-twisting challenges await even the most seasoned solvers. Installation options include English, German, and French, and the game recommends only 16-bit color in 640x480 resolution.
Rhem opens with the player being transported along a track through quite a bit of interesting scenery. This had a bit of a theme-park ride feel to it, with an air of the transports in Riven thrown in for good measure. You are deposited in Rhem after this ride, and the exploration of your surroundings begins.
The story, or even the game goal, is not given to you right away; instead, an unusual amount of exploration must be done before any of this is explained. At the beginning of the game, a man appears, announces that he has been searching for a way to escape, steals the cart you've arrived in, and leaves you virtually stuck there to explore and solve the puzzles. As you explore, you find out that you will be able to get back to your own world, but only if you find four pieces of a letter a man named Zetais has written to his brother, assemble them, and take them to the brother. The plot is extremely thin - this is pretty much the entirety of it. So there are no lengthy tomes to read, nor any boring, overly complex, and badly written plot. It's just you and the puzzles, baby.
The game is slideshow-style, with some small animations in various locations, mostly at the beginning and end of the game. The water, and there is a lot of it, is beautifully rendered but static. Transitions, which can be adjusted, are very smooth. There are very realistic sound effects but no music or soundtrack, which, surprisingly, I did not miss.
Rhem has nice texturing. Some is not as detailed as that of the big-dog developers such as Presto, but the developer did a fine job in giving the player the feeling of being in a place with lots of stone and brick, old wooden walkways with rusted guardrails - all very believable. The overall look of the game reminded me of one of the worlds from Exile. In fact, the feeling I got as I played was as though one of the Exile worlds had been stretched out and made into a whole game.
The surroundings of Rhem give the air of being in a three-CD maze. Now before you get scared off by the M-word, understand that there are no mazes in this game. The surroundings are all different-looking, and once you explore a bit and get a grasp on the place, it becomes very easy to find your way around. But the way Rhem is built is maze-like. Paths curve and wrap around, buildings can be entered and exited from different directions as the game goes on, and the landscape is wildly vast. There are trap doors, sliding doors and ladders, sections of paths to be raised above water, and huge areas accessed or not depending on the flow of water, which is all around. I found this immensely fun, as I have always liked games with prodigious exploration. The expansive landscape does mean in a few instances you must do some back-and-forth hiking. Maps of the major game areas are built into the game so that you can more easily locate where you are and where you're going.
The degree of initial exploration is surprising. Right from the get-go, there are some pretty good-sized areas to wander around in. Each subsequent area that opens up as gameplay progresses has this same expansive feel. Unfortunately, the first major puzzle, which opens up the remainder of the game, is very ornate and has a similar degree of complexity as the infamous organ puzzle from 9: The Lost Resort. If you are not carefully deciphering clues at this point, this could be a real show-stopper. Once past this, however, you better understand how to look at the surroundings for clues and solutions. This is a "pay attention" game.
As for the rest of the puzzles, I must say, the designer really grasps the concept of environmental puzzles like those from the Myst series, where the player must pay attention to what's onscreen in order to correctly determine the next move. Puzzles are enigmatic to the extreme. The casual gamer is going to be put off by the depth and complexity of them, but for the gamer that likes to figure each part of a puzzle out over a period of time to a gigantic "aha!" this is going to feel like hitting the mother lode. I suspect these will really be a matter of taste for most people, as the difficulty will be off-putting to some. I found them very challenging and entertaining. Because there was so much environment to explore, I never felt like I was stuck or had nothing else to do while I puzzled over something.
The puzzles are all machine-style, and all fit into the context of the environments they are found in. There is logic to them, albeit highly enigmatic logic, which is really a puzzle unto itself - learning the architecture of how they go together as you progress through the game. One of the puzzles is reminiscent of The Neverhood's console puzzle, while most are similar to those in Exile or Riven.
Unfortunately, Rhem has the shortest endgame sequence I've experienced since The Crystal Key. Actually, this endgame makes The Crystal Key look like War and Peace. Don't say I didn't warn you! There is, though, after the game ends, a nice little movie fly-through of all of the game areas you've just finished playing. This is a fun little addition.
Another commendable thing about Rhem is its surprising length for an independent effort. Even with daily playing, it still took me a couple of weeks to finish, and once I completed it, I felt as though I had just climbed the adventure game equivalent of Mount Everest. I found myself consumed with getting the next thing figured out and ended up happily taking mountainous notes, a practice to which I am usually averse. It's rare to experience a game with such a satisfying feeling upon discovering the solution to an area. Did I mention the puzzles were hard?
Rhem is an ode to Myst for all point-and-click lovers, a very worthwhile indie project. Let's hope some of those who enjoyed Myst sit up and take notice, as this is a complex and cleverly designed game.
People who downloaded RHEM have also downloaded:
Rhem 2: The Cave, Riddle of the Sphinx: An Egyptian Adventure, Schizm: Mysterious Journey, Omega Stone, The, Real Myst, Return to Mysterious Island, Reah: Face the Unknown, Mysterious Journey 2: Chameleon (a.k.a. Schizm 2)
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