I didn’t need a single hint. And no, I’m not done talking about this stupid game yet.
Perhaps it is more correct to say that I did need hints, now and again, but was too stubborn to give in to temptation. I hope I didn’t cause my brain any serious, long-lasting damage by forcing it through the various corkscrews, loop-de-loops and violent desk-banging sessions this game demanded of it. There were times when I booted up the game, took two steps, then shut it back down. There were times I did nothing but run laps around the maze, so overwhelmed by things I didn’t understand that I couldn’t even muster the energy to start experimenting properly. There were times when I just sat and studied my game notes without booting the game at all.
But in the end, I defeated it… with naught but wit, elbow grease, and a mechanical pencil.
I already talked at length about one particular puzzle RHEM 4 threw at me. As I expected, it was neither the hardest nor most diabolical puzzle in the game. This game had puzzles which, in retrospect, I can’t believe I solved. If someone came up to me this time last month and described the paper roll puzzle, or the rock spires, I wouldn’t have believed them. In terms of the game’s expectations of you, they would have sounded totally unreasonable. This, naturally, only serves to heighten my sense of accomplishment.
The sense of puzzle design in the RHEM games is exquisite. The designer uses (and often re-uses) a few very clever tricks to enhance the puzzle-solving experience. These tricks are so skillfully used, in fact, that they’re virtually invisible as you’re playing the game. The goal of these tricks is to force you to really solve everything, as opposed to resorting to brute force or random chance to get through even the most minor of puzzles. This is perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay an adventure game: RHEM 4 makes you not want to be lazy.
Here’s how I think he did it.
First off, the game world is not as snarled or complicated as previous RHEM titles. It’s still a maze, and you still have to shape and manipulate parts of it, but you eventually reach a point where everything lays pretty much open to you. There is much less emphasis on moving ladders and bridges into place, or rotating towers, or doors that open one path while closing off another. The game has these things, but they don’t get in the way of simple navigation the way they did in the prequels. Since you’re devoting fewer brain cycles getting around, you’re more likely to remain on-task.
Those brain cycles have to go somewhere, though, so there is a more concentrated focus on self-contained “puzzle rooms”. By which I mean, you walk into a new area of the maze. The area contains a group of diagrams and machines. Everything you need to grok the solution is close at hand, but you won’t get anywhere until you start plugging away at them. In previous RHEM games there was almost no reason to touch a strange and wonderful new device until you’d seen the diagram it was paired with (which was likely posted on the back of a door or at the bottom of a reservoir halfway across the map). In RHEM 4, however, the device itself often is the clue.
Maybe I should break that down a bit. Most every RHEM puzzle is a combination lock of some sort. Solving a puzzle involves writing down the combination and then plugging it into the right button box. Getting the combination generally requires piecing together multiple clues from god-knows-where in precisely the right way. As a result, you spend a lot of time wondering whether you have enough information to solve a given puzzle you’re stuck on. Indeed, there is often a strong temptation, when faced with a particularly difficult task, to simply walk away from it. “That looks hard! Good thing I don’t have to worry about it, since it’s obviously not time to solve it yet!”
The trouble with that set-up, of course, is that the player eventually reaches a point where his list of “not yet” includes every puzzle he’s seen in the game. This was particularly harrowing in RHEM 2 and RHEM 3 where you always had clues to a dozen or so puzzles but only clues enough to solve perhaps two of them. Devoting energy to solving a puzzle you have all the bits for is difficult enough without the nagging (and often correct) sensation that you don’t have everything you need.
That’s what RHEM 4 avoids. You still have to compile notes from every nook and cranny of the game world, but the areas that are set apart are very obviously set apart. There’s no point walking away in search of the piece you’re missing, because it’s not likely you’re missing anything. When you check the map and see you’ve already been everywhere, that just leaves getting your hands dirty. Now you have no excuse.
Another neat trick that helpfully guides you towards playing with puzzles rather than walking away from them: a lot of the clues you do find look very similar. Symbols and designs turn up over and over again, used repeatedly in unrelated and unconnected puzzles. Early on, you will find a piece of paper that has a design that looks like a six-spoked wheel. You will notice that wheel, or pieces of it, or variants of it, turns up everywhere. As a result, you spend a lot of the game in a state of uncertainty as to which clues go with which puzzles. On its face this seems fiendish and unfair, but the game is actually helping you out; since the six-spoked wheel seems to go with everything, that means you’re going to try and apply it to everything. That means you’ll play with puzzles you otherwise might not have played with, and you will discover things about those puzzles you otherwise wouldn’t have learned.
It’s positive reinforcement, people. Even if the damn wheel doesn’t go there, the simple act of having tinkered with the puzzle instead of leaving it alone (for now) increases your knowledge of the game — and your presence in the world.
So the puzzles were remarkable. I think these are right about at the high end of what my puny mortal brain is capable of unraveling. Any tougher, and I’m afraid I’d have woken up nights with grey gooey stuff leaking out of my ears and onto my pillow.
There were a few things I didn’t like about the game.
The graphics. The game looks fine, I suppose, for having been designed, drawn and rendered by a single man. I know I can’t expect the moon and stars from RHEM, but in 2011 can’t I at least expect a decent resolution? 800×600 is all you get. I didn’t want to play the game windowed, because it was tiny and I couldn’t see any details. And I didn’t want to play it fullscreen because it looked like a smudgy mess. Take the bad option? Or the bad option?
The “music”. The ambience and sound effects were fine, and about what you’d expect, but every menu screen is accompanied by this horrible buzzing/ringing sound that made me want to die. I have no idea what it was, but I hated going into my inventory or photograph screens because of it. Silence would have been preferable.
The story. This is not actually a complaint; some games need stories, some games don’t. RHEM doesn’t need one and has never had one. The more usual trend for games that don’t need stories is to have them shoehorned in anyway, and I’d rather have no story than a bad, boring one. Some people prefer bad, boring stories though, so I figured I’d mention it.
The puzzles. In a game where the puzzle-matter is this condensed, you do expect a few duds. RHEM 4 only has two bad ones, but they were both really, really bad. The first was the nine-door hallway, which demands a new, randomly-generated three-digit code each and every time you want to go through any of the doors. Each digit is entered with a single button, so if your code has a nine in it, that’s nine clicks. It got so bad that I started rejecting codes with too many clicks. “9-7-6? I don’t think so. 2-1-4? That’s more like it.” This stupid hallway sits smack dab in the middle of the world, and you have to go through it four thousand times. What a mess.
Then there was the rock spire puzzle. I’ve already given RHEM 4 such praise when it comes to locking you out of puzzle solutions until it is reasonably sure you have an understanding of their underlying mechanics. And the rock spires were no different! Piecing this puzzle together was challenging and fun, and it was a wonderful example of using the same scenery for two totally different purposes. The end of the puzzle, however, involved matching in-world scenery to a series of abstract print-outs, and the low resolution didn’t do the situation any favors. This matching involved some “it has to be exact” and some “well, it’s close enough”… and it drove me bananas. It was nearly forty-five minutes between the moment I figured out what I had to do, and the moment when I finally got the stupid machine to work. In a game with so many “I know where I’ve seen that! I know exactly where that goes!” moments, this stood out like a throbbing wart.
There are a few kinds of puzzles I’d like to see retired from the RHEM lexicon. I think we can all be done tracing pipes along walls, now. That’s not a puzzle anymore; that’s busywork.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there was too much magic. I suppose this is a kind of petty thing to be bothered by, but one of my favorite aspects of the original RHEM was that you could build it. If you had a couple million dollars laying around, a few years of construction time, and you could convince someone to follow a few simple rules (no jumping, no climbing, no swimming, and absolutely no breaking anything), you could put a dude on a train and he’d have a real life RHEM experience. But that’s not possible with RHEM 4 — at least not until someone invents pipes that glow as your hand passes over them, and paintings that can change their features, and miraculously vanishing rocks. This didn’t have any effect on the puzzles, mind you. The solutions were still as logical and as reasonable as you can get. It’s just, some of their components were fantastic things that would have been right at home in Myst, but which I did not want in RHEM.
I had found two clues I didn’t associate with any puzzles. One explained an interaction I’d alerady intuited from a particular machine (and, indeed, had already solved the associated puzzle). The other did as well, but did such a poor job that I only know what the clue was trying to say because I looked up its use in a walkthrough after solving the game.
Okay, now I’m done talking about RHEM 4. For now.