Review by Davo
Developer Knut Müller
Publisher Got Game
Released March 2008
Available for Windows, Macintosh
“The first Rhem game took place mostly outdoors. Chocolate. Rhem 2 occurred almost entirely within a cavern. Peanut butter. Where does Rhem 3 take place? Inside and outside. Chocolate and peanut butter.”
The Peanut Butter Cup of Adventure Games
I love peanut butter cups. The mixture of creamy peanut butter and delicious milk chocolate is irresistible. If you’re old enough (like me), you’ll remember those Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercials that had two people walking down a street on a bright day headed for a fateful meeting. From one direction comes a young man with a chocolate bar in hand. From the opposite direction comes a guy gripping an open jar of peanut butter. In the candy-filled utopia envisioned by the makers of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, it’s perfectly normal to march around a city with an open jar of peanut butter. The two protagonists approach each other obliviously when a distraction appears, usually a beautiful woman. Sufficiently distracted, our two heroes slam into each other with the thick chocolate bar penetrating deep into the velvety peanut butter (I know, I know, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but I couldn’t resist). Thus, a taste sensation is born. Chocolate and peanut butter. Rhem 3 is like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.
The first Rhem game took place mostly outdoors. Chocolate. Rhem 2 occurred almost entirely within a cavern. Peanut butter. Where does Rhem 3 take place? Inside and outside. Chocolate and peanut butter. I have to wonder if one of the protagonists of Rhem 3, Kales, was walking down a street with Rhem 1 in hand, while his brother, Zetais, was strolling in the opposite direction holding Rhem 2. A distraction appears. In this case, it’s probably one of the women in red from Rhems 2 and 3. Kales and Zetais are distracted. Rhem 1 and Rhem 2 slam together, the discs merge (it’s magic), and thus is Rhem 3 born. So there you have it. If you’ve played Rhems 1 and 2, then you’ve played Rhem 3. The puzzles are different, the graphics are marginally better, but everything else feels very much the same. That’s great if you love Rhem games. If you don’t, however, you may find more of the same to be a little too much “more of the same.” I know I did.
Once upon a Time … Not Much Happened
The Rhem games tell the wafer-thin story of an unseen dude (I think it’s a dude) who, for reasons unknown, is helping two brothers explore a mysterious and abandoned land known as Rhem. The world of Rhem is a barren, lifeless, mechanical world filled to the brim with mind-bending puzzles that protect its secrets. The two brothers, Kales and Zetais, speak with weird, stilted, somewhere-in-Europe accents. Actually, Zetais doesn’t actually speak to you. He writes you a letter. It’s Kales who has the weird accent, but I’m assuming his brother shares this quirk. There is also a woman dressed in red who appears for reasons unexplained. She has a task for you, but it doesn’t mean anything in the wider sense of explaining the world; her task is nothing more than a FedEx fetch quest. Rhem 3 begins exactly where Rhem 2 left off. You, as the never-seen protagonist of the game, have just exited from the caverns of Rhem 2 when you get an urgent message from one of the brothers stating that he has decoded information you provided to him and found a way to get you into a new section of Rhem. Embarking on an individual-sized train, the same one you used in Rhem 2, you creak off to the new area. Upon arrival, you get a message from Zetais that there is a “relic” that you have to find for him. Why? Nobody knows. Off you go to wrestle with the puzzles.
There’s actually even less story to the game, and the entire Rhem series for that matter, than I have related here. You see, Rhem 3 has no story, really. That was my chief criticism of Rhem 2, and it remains my chief criticism of Rhem 3. This lack of story is no accident. The world of Rhem 3 is a showcase for the game’s many, many, many puzzles. Whether the lack of a story detracts from the game will end up being a matter of personal taste for most gamers, I think. If puzzles of logic, reason, and mathematics are the pinnacle of gaming for you, you probably won’t care that there’s no plot. For me, the lack of story made the game feel claustrophobic, dull, and dreary in many spots. This being my second trip through the world of Rhem, I found myself less forgiving of the decision not to include more than a hint of story in the game.
Does Rhem 3—or any game for that matter—even need a story? That’s a good question. And in all honesty, I think the answer is no. Generally speaking, a game does not need a story to be good. I’ve played many excellent games with no story whatsoever (Tetris Attack, Dr. Mario, Zuma). I’ve played many great games with little more than a story setup (Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Brothers, House of the Dead). Rhem 3, however, has such a fully realized setting that it begs to be fleshed out with a plot. Rhem is a world. It has a history. It has to, because it exists, someone built it, and something happened that left it empty. You walk through buildings, sewers, and caverns. You operate machines that still work. Why is Rhem abandoned? Who built all of those machines? Why is everything guarded by brain-shattering secrets? Where did everyone go? How old is the place? Who is that woman in red? Who are Zetais and Kales, and what is their relationship to Rhem? Where did they get those weird accents? None of this is explained. I don’t think any of these questions are even raised, and that’s the problem. In the end, it’s all about the puzzles with none of the innate mystery explained or even explored.
A Puzzling Dilemma
The puzzles are the real appeal of Rhem 3. This is the one area where the game reveals a significant effort by the developer to differentiate it from previous entries in the series. Most of the puzzles are quite different from the ones found in the previous games and unique enough to provide lasting appeal to lovers of difficult intellectual challenges.
The puzzles in Rhem 3 are a mix of the mundane and mind-boggling. Some of the routine puzzles involve simple tasks like closing sliding doors to reveal hidden buttons, raising and lowering bridges to access locked-off areas, or switching off a series of lights in a specific order to open a door. A more challenging puzzle involves first figuring how to get into a secret library, then figuring out a complicated opening-and-closing-of-doors sequence, then puzzling out what to do with a series of books once you get past the doors, then discerning how to use the information in the books to solve another set of mysteries elsewhere.
The more complex puzzles lean too much toward the unfair end of the spectrum, in my opinion. How so? There is a too-frequent lack of adequate clues to figure out what to do with the information you’ve gathered. You end up engaging in a lot of random trial and error tasks hoping that you’ll eventually stumble across a solution. As with Rhem 2, I’ll accept that I may not be smart enough to do some of the more difficult puzzles. I just didn’t have much fun wandering around Rhem 3 for hours and hours with no idea of what to do. Ultimately, I spent way too much time resorting to some of the excellent walkthroughs I found on the internet.
Groaning Under the Weight of an Aging Engine
Graphically, the Rhem series is really starting to show its age. The graphics looked grainy and dated on my high-resolution, flat-screen monitor. A few updates have been tossed in, most notably water that moves. But it’s becoming harder and harder to ignore the games’ dated look. Rhem 3 still treats movement the same way as in Myst. You move forward one screen at a time in “classic” slideshow fashion. Everything looks like a static picture, although there are a few animations scattered around. Lights turn on and off. There are moving shadows here and there. Nothing earth-shattering.
As in the other Rhem games, sound effects are top-notch. Rhem 3 is best played with headphones so you can immerse yourself in the dripping, creaking, groaning sounds that fill the environment with aural ambience. Rhem 3 is a game without music, but that’s not such a big deal, given the great use of sound throughout the game.
The interface is the usual point-and-click common to most adventure games. There is some pixel-hunting here and there, but mostly the mouse controls work just fine.
Technically, the game runs perfectly. Its system requirements are very low. I never experienced a crash, glitch, or freeze-up. The game has 20 save slots, but you can’t name them, so you have to take your own notes, with reference to the save slot number, if you want to remember what’s significant about a particular save.
A Niche Affair to Be Proud Of
In some ways, I feel bad for being critical of Rhem 3. It’s developed by one guy, with a clear vision of what he wanted to make and outstanding follow-through. I think Rhem 3 is exactly the game Knut Müller wanted it to be. Lots of puzzles. Interesting world. No story. No music. And I think Got Game should be commended for publishing a game that offers a violence-free, intellectually demanding, mystery-filled environment.
Despite my reluctance to say anything negative about Rhem 3, I feel I can’t ignore its lack of evolution. Sometimes, a sequel that plays exactly like its prequel can be a lot of fun. God of War 1 and God of War 2 come to mind. God of War 2 offered little that was different from the first game, but it was still a blast to play. A lot of that game’s appeal came from the story arc. It was interesting to learn more about Kratos, the enraged hero. I just didn’t have that experience with Rhem 3. It is so much like Rhem 2 that it feels like the same game in a slightly different setting, which is exactly what it is. The faults I found grating but forgivable in Rhem 2 were magnified by their reappearance in Rhem 3. Some people won’t see the lack of story and the ancient game engine as faults. Great news for them. But my time with Rhem 3 was split between interest and frustration. Unfortunately, I didn’t have as much fun as I had hoped.
Rhem 3 will likely appeal to that niche audience comprising gamers who want to solve puzzles and do little else. If that describes you, you’re in for a delicious peanut butter cup of a game. Alas, it’s just not a game that’s going to appeal to a huge audience the way Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups do.