Platform: PlayStation 2
Review Date: 11/3/06
Rating: ** or **** (depending on your criteria)
More twisted psychological horror from Japan that strongly reflects the country's seemingly increasing fear and distrust of children. Firmly in the mold of such games as "Clock Tower 3" and "Haunting Ground", "Rule Of Rose" features a timid and helpless teenage girl in a strange and unfamiliar British locale. The game plays out like a twisted fairy tale, where reality becomes increasingly bizarre and fragmented until the shocking (and perplexing) climax. The game opens in March 1930 as a girl named Jennifer comes across a scary old mansion populated by creepy children. The children belong to a group called The Aristocrats Of The Red Crayon and are governed by the Princess Of The Rose, who demands that a monthly tribute be paid to her. Since Jennifer is such a miserable, helpless, and unlucky girl, she suffers an endless stream of misfortune and abuse from the other girls, whose cruelty seems to know no bounds. The majority of the game takes place aboard a fantastical airship, where Jennifer meets her faithful canine companion, Brown. Brown is a crucial player in that he is able to sniff out clues that Jennifer can't find on her own. Unfortunately, this gameplay mechanic adds a large amount of tedium and randomness to the procedings, and makes the game a more passive "follow the dog" experience. It also disrupts the immersion and suspension of disbelief, because the items that Brown finds are often just sitting out in the open, and yet invisible to Jennifer until Brown starts barking. It also forces a lot of backtracking since certain items don't appear until other ones have been found, so even though you've visited a certain room twenty times, Brown might not find a particular item until the twenty-first time you go back. Brown can also be an aid during combat, but more often than not, he just gets in the way and ends up getting hurt.
Production wise, the game is a mixed bag. The graphics are beautiful and delightfully creepy, and the level design is very good. The pre-rendered cutscenes are incredible and really drive the experience home. The unusual soundtrack features a lot of strings and piano work and is very nice to listen to, except that it's very repetitive and can start grinding on your nerves the longer you play. The voice acting is good and the sound effects range from average to poor. Clipping is a serious issue, and Jennifer has problems navigating stairs. Things get much worse with Brown involved, as there is no collision detection between the two of them. Brown also has the tendency to get stuck in walls or trapped by a piece of furniture, but thankfully he manages to leap back to your side whenever you enter a new room. Loading times are frequent and annoying, and the gameplay is briefly disrupted every time you enter a new room, which is rather unfortunate. Navigation is a little clunky in that it's relative to the camera, so when the camera angle changes, Jennifer's trajectory needs to be reset. There are numerous times when the camera angle reverses, causing Jennifer to run right back where she came from, which can get very frustrating. The camera is also irksome in that there is no manual control over its orientation. The player can toggle between two preset angles, but there's no "look around" functionality, which I think is a pretty big flaw. For the most part, combat is difficult and tedious. Jennifer is a weak and timid girl, so she doesn't put up a very good fight. Most of the time, the best strategy is to just run away from enemies. If Jennifer is forced into a fight, there's a good chance she'll die since multiple enemies can take her down before she has a chance to fight back. To make matters worse, the first weapon she runs across is a simple dessert fork. Another minor complaint is that you can't access the options menu, or load a saved game once you've started playing. To do that, you have to reboot the machine, which seems pretty lame to me.
But in all honesty, "Rule Of Rose" isn't about the gameplay - it's about the fascinating and disturbing story. As a game it's only mediocre, but as an experience it's superb. The themes of cruelty, bondage, and filth are haunting and unsettling, and the game touches upon some weighty issues including kidnapping, torture, sexual abuse, abandonment, lesbianism, and gender confusion. You'll spend much more time coming to grips with the story than you will playing the game, and my mind has been chewing on its rich and tragic content for weeks. Great thanks must go out to Atlus for giving this game a domestic release, because you could NEVER get away with actually making this game in The States. The game even displays a disclaimer screen saying that the views and opinions expressed in the game do not necessarily reflect those of the publisher. I don't think I've ever seen that in a game before. While much of the game doesn't make sense from a conventional viewpoint, it's purposely vague and forces the player to put the pieces together and draw their own conclusions. This is probably the greatest reward the game has to offer. It's a hard game to recommend, but the payoff is phenomenal for anyone who truly immerses themselves in it.