Rhem 2: The Cave Download (2005 Adventure Game)

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The sequel Rhem 2 is a point-and-click adventure with a non-linear, non-violent storyline, similar in design to the classic Myst. Picking up where the 2003 original left off, players join Kales and the elusive Zetais as they begin to explore a surreal, subterranean city.

Rhem 2 is a first-person, Myst-like, slideshow-style adventure game. Except it's not exactly an adventure game. It's really one long string of puzzles that open up other puzzles that grant access to yet more puzzles until you solve the final puzzle and complete the game. There is quite a bit of exploration, but the cavern you spend all your time exploring is just a huge framework for the puzzles. There is no story. There is no action. There is a miniscule amount of character interaction, and it's superfluous at best. Depending on your inclinations, you'll view the game as either mysteriously intriguing or grindingly tedious. At times, I found myself solving puzzles, opening new areas and becoming completely absorbed in the mysteries hidden within the caverns of Rhem 2. At other times, however, I found myself stuck behind yet another insufferably difficult puzzle with no idea how to solve it even after hours of play.

I've never really completed a game like this before and, as you can tell, it wasn't a completely positive experience for me. On the other hand, I can't fault Rhem 2, taken on its own merits. It's well-designed and crafted with care. Incredibly difficult puzzles dominate the gameplay because that's exactly what the game designer intended. If you like this style of game, you'll love Rhem 2. It does what it does very well and, for the most part, doesn't pretend to be something it isn't. If, however, your tastes lean away from Myst-style slideshow games lacking any story or meaningful character interaction, you'll want to stay far away from Rhem 2.

I didn't play the first Rhem, so I'm not really in a position to tell you how this sequel compares to the original. A little research reveals that Knut Müller programmed both Rhem and Rhem 2. Just the fact that Rhem 2 is a one-man show in terms of design and programming is impressive in this age of mergers and consolidations. Kudos also to Got Game for making games from small developers commercially available. Enough already with the background information. Is the game any good?

The puzzles are the attraction in Rhem 2, and they come in a several varieties. Many are mechanical, such as the numerous ones that require you to find hidden clues and parts that power up wicked-looking machines or open locked areas. Some are mathematical, requiring you to figure out which values to assign to algebraic equations scrawled in dark corners of the cavern. Others are geographical, forcing you to work your way through complicated mazes designed to confuse.

The puzzles range in difficulty from easy to harder-than-you-thought-possible. One of the easiest comes early in the game when you find a swipe card and put it to immediate use. Piece of cake. One of the harder ones (for me, anyway) requires you to calculate the ratio between two seemingly unconnected sets of numbers to come up with a value that solves the puzzle. If you're one of those people who buy books of logic puzzles to occupy your free time, you're going to love Rhem 2. For everyone else, well, it may be more than a little daunting.

You'll have to pay serious attention to your surroundings to get anywhere. The developer has deviously and cleverly placed clues all over the place in plain sight in a manner that prevents you from noticing them unless you're carefully paying attention to everything you see and hear. In addition, having a poor memory is a serious detriment to completing this game. At the very least, you'll need to take copious notes to remember where you saw something. Puzzles solved in one area may provide critical clues to puzzles in some far-flung corner of the caverns that you visited days ago. I finished the game with 15 pages of notes detailing my struggles with the hardest puzzles.

Sometimes, paying attention to your surroundings and taking notes isn't enough. This is when you have to get creative in the cleverest ways. It's also when Rhem 2 is most fun. Toward the end of the game, you'll have to pass through a maze with glass walls. Most of the walls look identical. On top of that, you have to work your way through a series of doors. The problem is that opening one door closes another elsewhere in the maze. It's easy to get lost or confused. There is a map on one wall, but it's only partially helpful because it doesn't tell you how to get past the obstacles. After hours of struggling with this maze and getting lost time and again, I hit on an idea that worked beautifully. I made a copy of the map on the wall in the maze. Then I grabbed a small humanoid Dungeons and Dragons figurine from my son's collection. I placed the figurine on the copy of the map I had made and faced it in the direction I was moving in the game. As I wended my way through the maze, my son moved the figurine across my paper map and matched my movements and orientation in the game. Figuring this out was a moment of pure bliss after struggling through this same area 40 or 50 times over a couple of days.

Rhem 2 is at its worst, however, when it throws a puzzle at you that defies any normal sense of logic. More than a few puzzles triggered an unanticipated string of expletives from my gaping mouth when I finally learned the solution. "How the hell would I know that?" or "you have got to be kidding me" were common reactions. I can't describe any of these puzzles without revealing spoilers, but they were scattered throughout the game.

Gameplay is not exactly linear, but it's not entirely nonlinear, either. It's nonlinear in the sense that you can walk around in any of the available areas and solve the puzzles in pretty much any order you like and linear in that there are some areas you just can't reach until you solve certain puzzles. This, I guess, is the best of both worlds.

Much of my disdain for the harder puzzles in Rhem 2 comes from my own dislike of this type of game, and this is the only area where the game's promotional materials led me astray. The marketing claims that Rhem 2 has a deep and immersive storyline. Let's be clear about one thing: Rhem 2 has no story whatsoever. I had a hard time maintaining interest in the game without a narrative tying everything together and providing some motivation to continue struggling with the puzzles. I felt the game frequently ground to a halt when I was stuck behind an impossible, albeit clever, puzzle that prevented any forward progress until solved. Honestly, I never would have completed the game without the assistance of some excellent walkthroughs put together by some much smarter people than I. It may be that I'm too stupid to play this game. I can accept that. Mensa isn't exactly breaking down my door to get me to join.

Lacking a story, you end up with nothing but a bunch of unexplained mysteries that reveal themselves through a distant click or a locked door that you suddenly find opened. That's fun for a while, but after several hours with the game, I found the exercise somewhat pointless. The hidden caverns with their mechanical, mathematical and logic puzzles serve as the perfect setting for a story of murder, betrayal, mystery - you name it. There's a lot of unrealized narrative potential in this game.

One other problem with the game is the ridiculous compass. North is north and south is south. West, however, is east, and east is west. So if your compass is pointing east, you're actually facing west. Huh? Where did that come from? I don't really understand the reasoning behind that particular design decision.

Rhem 2 offers a very nice presentation. Even though Rhem 2's resolution is locked at 800×600×32, I thought the graphics were quite good. They managed to convey a damp, dank, dark cavern quite effectively. Even on the rare occasion when you're moving through the caverns in non-slideshow fashion, as when you take a train, the graphics maintain their quality.

Sound effects are also handled nicely. Rhem 2 is a great game to play while wearing headphones so you can experience every breeze, echo, drip and clank. There was always some creepy background noise lurking in Rhem 2's caves. Once, I heard a whistling wind that I swear carried the sound of someone humming. The only weakness in the sound stems from the noises that indicate whether you have successfully triggered a puzzle that affects some other area of Rhem 2. On several occasions, I couldn't tell whether the noise I heard was the success or failure ping. This resulted in some wasted time as I trekked back across the caverns to figure out whether I had triggered the puzzle successfully or not. It was a minor irritant but annoying nonetheless. There is no music in the game, but I never really noticed its absence, probably because of the large quantity of ambient noise.

The interface is classic point-and-click. If you can interact with something, your cursor turns into an open hand that grabs at the object when you click on it. You have a small inventory that you access by clicking on the bottom of the screen. Using an item is as simple as pulling it from your inventory and trying it on the target.

The game has 10 save slots that number your saves in sequence and tell you how long you've played but only for that individual save. If you save over an old slot, it won't provide you with an aggregate time. Again, not a big issue but a tad irritating. I like to know how long I've played a game without having to write my times down myself.

Is beauty truly in the eye of the beholder? It is if you're playing Rhem 2. Rhem 2 is a game geared toward a very specific audience: adventure gamers who love puzzles and don't need a story. I am not part of that group. To me, the most appealing element of the adventure game genre is, and always has been, story. Puzzles were always secondary to my enjoyment of adventure games. Even though I didn't like Rhem 2 much of the time, it gets a Thumb Up for being exactly the kind of game its creator intended it to be. It would be unfair of me to penalize the game based on my own dislike of the genre. I played for more than 40 hours, and that was with a walkthrough for a substantial portion of the game.


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