Rhem 3: The Secret Library

Posted by Joseph Howse.
First posted on 17 June 2008. Last updated on 25 November 2012.
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Rhem 3: The Secret Library
Kales rather sketchily briefs the arriving player about the game's mission.
Rhem 3: The Secret Library
A building with turrets lies in the canyon.
Rhem 3: The Secret Library
A ladder leads to an area of many more ladders, crossing over water and descending into manholes.
Rhem 3: The Secret Library
A single desk sits in an otherwise unfurnished complex of buildings.
Rhem 3: The Secret Library
A woman in red offers inexplicable insights into what the player needs to do next.

This game is part of the Rhem Trilogy re-released in 2010 by Lace Mamba Global.

Rhem Trilogy

The compilation includes 3 games in the Rhem series previously released separately in 2002-2007:

Rhem

Rhem 2: The Cave

Rhem 3: The Secret Library

Rhem 3: The Secret Library is the third title in the series of "pure puzzle" adventure games created by German indie game developer Knut Müller. Like Rhem and Rhem 2: The Cave, Rhem 3: The Secret Library is set in an unexplored compound, full of mechanical obstacles that the player must decipher in order to find an artifact. Although the world of Rhem is expansive and open to nonlinear exploration, it ultimately feels empty in many ways. The storyline and characters are sparse to the extreme. The setting is bunker like, with few humanizing features. Hundreds of screens are merely undecorated walls, yet the player must explore them or risk overlooking something crucial, such as an unobtrusive button or crawlspace. The graphics engine suffers from poor rendering and texture mapping. The music seldom changes, and the sound effects are not realistic. The puzzles depend on the player recognizing obscure visual and auditory patterns, scattered across the whole game world with little indication of when or where they will be used. In the end, "pure puzzle" simply sinks into pure confusion.

The game starts when 2 brothers named Zetais and Kales (who also appear in previous games of the Rhem series) ask the player to enter an unexplored part of Rhem in search of an (unspecified) artifact. Once inside the unexplored compound, the player must navigate mazelike networks of doors, bridges, ladders, and elevators—all controlled by enigmatic machines. As the game progresses, the player enters a subterranean gallery and encounters a (nameless) young woman in a red overcoat. (She appears in Rhem 2: The Cave as well.) She promises to help the player find a green crystal (which ultimately is connected to the artifact Zetais and Kales want) if the player can bring her a so-called "octagonal drawing".

Throughout the game, the player acts as an unseen, silent protagonist. A few other characters appear in low resolution video footage, superimposed over the game's backdrops. The script is also short, linear (allowing no dialog choices), disjointed in terms of story and unexpressive in terms of character. The acting is hesitant and flat.

The graphics engine uses first-person perspective with pre-rendered, non-panoramic nodes. With few exceptions, the player is limited to looking directly ahead (not up or down) and making 90º turns left or right. Considered individually, most nodes in the game are rather unattractive. Texture resolutions are low and repeating patterns become visible in furrowed cliff faces, chipped walls, and so on. Screen resolution is limited to only 800x600. Pixelation and posterization (the appearance of reduced color depth) are clearly visible, especially in areas of either shadow or gradient color (such as the sky). These flaws are probably compression artifacts, suggesting that the game's graphics engine is not efficient enough to handle finer images.

To the developer's credit, the game succeeds in creating an extensive and geographically nuanced game world despite the shortcomings of its graphical building blocks. The lines of sight in many areas are carefully designed to enable the player to observe routes and machines elsewhere. This attention to lines of sight sometimes (but not always) compensates for the inflexibility of the player's straight-ahead perspective. Some of the game's vistas are also visually more attractive than the confined regions that interconnect them. However, even outdoors, broad areas of lookalike textures tend to dominate the view.

Although the compound in Rhem is clearly supposed to have inhabitants, its appearance and layout do not realistically reflect this. A mere handful of the rooms have furniture or any other practical or decorative objects. The mechanical obstacles seem to have confined some inhabitants in unlivable conditions. (The woman in red, for instance, appears in an underground area that the player has just drained of water.) The rectangular, layered design of many buildings further reinforces the austere atmosphere of the compound.

The game's music consists mainly of high frequency humming. At its worst (notably, during the game's loading sequence, which the player is not able to skip), the music sounds like a tuning fork in front of a microphone. The same style of music, albeit toned down, plays throughout most areas of the compound, sometimes with background sound effects such as gurgling or dripping water. A couple of other sound effects resemble sheet metal being banged back and forth. These effects play whenever something does not work, such as a door that does not open or a button that fails to activate anything.

The game's point-and-click interface features rollover icons that indicate whether it is possible turn, go forward, handle something, or pick something up. However, the icons are not particularly distinctive, as they closely resemble certain Mac operating system cursors. For example, a pointing gloved hand is the game's default cursor and a pointing white hand is the rollover cursor for handling something. Due to this generic look, the rollover changes are not very noticeable.

The gameplay consists of very complicated pattern recognition puzzles but very basic inventory puzzles. The inventory puzzles simply involve finding an object somewhere and placing it someplace else, for the purpose of unlocking or activating something. The pattern recognition puzzles involve several tired formulas. One formula is that the player must locate devices with wires that are color coded to each other. Some combination of turning dials and pressing buttons on the color coded devices makes something happen somewhere. (Exactly what happens or where is not always obvious without exploration.)

Another formula is that the player must count the number of symbols somewhere and perform some action that involves the same number somehow. An example is a puzzle involving 5 squares that appear on the wall of a room. The room has a single light switch inside it and another light switch outside it. The 5 squares light up one by one if the player holds down the light switch inside the room for 5 seconds. Then, glow-in-the-dark writing appears on the room's wall. This is not the end of the puzzle, however. The room also contains 3 paintings behind curtains. For each painting, the player must switch on the light from outside the room, go in and open the curtains, leave, switch off the light, wait 5 seconds, go in and reopen the curtains to see glow-in-the-dark writing on the painting. The player reaches this puzzle fairly early in the game but does not need the clues from the glow-in-the-dark writing until much later.

For some of the game's pattern puzzles, the formula is even more abstract. For example, the compound contains 7 trees (far apart from each other) and the player can take leaves from them. A bird is heard singing in each tree but it is not obvious that these sound effects (being heard far apart from each other) differ from tree to tree. Later in the game, the player hears similar sounds on a radio, which is near a book. The solution to this puzzle is that the player must match the sounds on the radio to the sounds of the birds singing in the trees and place the leaves in the book in the same order. To further complicate the puzzle, an eighth leaf is found elsewhere in a book instead of on a tree. The concept of a particular leaf matching a particular birdsong of course defies any real world logic.

Some solutions in the game entail extensive backtracking in order to recheck clues and exhaust combinations of machine settings. The interdependencies among the major puzzles are complex, rather than being linear in any foreseeable way. The upshot is that the player feels free to roam and experiment, and certainly does not feel spoon-fed in terms of puzzle progression. The downside is that this impression of freedom is sometimes misleading. The game allows significant scope for the player to go off on tangents, struggling to reason out puzzles before it is possible to do so.

Due to the game's nonlinear structure and the difficulty of its puzzles, the length of gameplay is likely to vary widely, depending on whether or not the player discovers an efficient path through the game. At minimum, the game seems to offer 20-25 hours of play.

The game disc includes separate installers for both the PC and Mac platforms. The installation process is somewhat unusual in that it does not complete until the game is launched for the first time. The installation disc also includes Apple QuickTime, which the game requires to run. Once the game is installed, it can be played in either English or German language. The game does not come with any hardcopy documentation.

Overall, Rhem 3: The Secret Library offers plenty of puzzles and screens but falls short in commonsense and artistic sensibility. The graphics and sound are poorly implemented. The puzzles are frequently unintuitive. The placement of many clues is merciless, as players who miss them the first time will have to do lengthy backtracking later in the game. Players who are not purely interested in the puzzles will also mind that the story and characters seem tacked on as incomplete afterthoughts. Sadly, these rough edges currently place the Rhem series far behind other competing adventures.

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