Rule of Rose is an ambitious, provocative, and satisfying work when taken as a whole. The engrossing story and imagery have the feel of a well-crafted arthouse horror film and the themes of lost innocence and friendship gone wrong left me wistful and nostalgic. Overall, it's quite an accomplishment, except for one thing: it's decidedly lacking as a game.
"Are we too cruel?" "Heavens, no!"
If you know anything about Rule of Rose, you probably think of it as "that creepy pedo game." The fact that the back of the box features a closeup of a girl's mouth sucking on someone's finger doesn't do much to dispel that perception, and neither do the widely published images of that same leering pubescent girl juxtaposed with scenes of bondage and humiliation. There are definite sexual undertones to some of the action - the cinema that runs before you start the game revels in it - but anyone looking for a socially acceptable hentai substitute should look elsewhere. Surprisingly, the game holds more appeal for feminists than for guys in sticky raincoats.
The protagonist is a weak, timid, conservatively dressed young woman named Jennifer, who is much more a damsel in distress than an action hero. The story begins with her sleeping on a bus ride sometime around 1940 and continues through scene after scene of Jen being mistreated by the pre-teen inhabitants of a bizarre orphanage. Why and how a mysterious child leads her to the building is left for the player to unravel.
If you are into story above gameplay, this is a four-star must-play. Like a good movie, it kept me fascinated until the very last, poignant screen. There were frequent lulls in the gameplay, but I filled many of them with speculation about what was real and what imagined, the motivations of various characters, and how one particular event related to another. The player is presented with miles of questions. At first: Why doesn't Jennifer fight back against the girls? Where are the adults that should be running the orphanage? How does the fishtailed airship seen in the cinema fit in? Later on, it gets more confusing but no less fascinating. The first wave of enemies looks like patented Silent Hill-brand Dead Children, but later Imps wear costumes modeled on animals, much like (living) children would play in. Are you actually stabbing kids to death with a paring knife? But if they are kids, why do they keep coming - and how can the Fish Imps flop around like that?
The scenes of titillation are unsettling because the children are so young, but truthfully, it falls into the realm (okay, the outskirts) of what little girls actually do. The hierarchies and the cruelty and the infatuation are based on real life, but amped up for the small screen. If the first thing and the last thing you see are what you remember most, however, developer Punchline took pains to make sure you took the perversity with you after you left the game behind. Watch the movie when you first pop in the game and you'll see Jennifer undergo various forms of degradation, including having water poured suggestively over her passive body (in a fashion reminiscent of other "water sports") and having her face stepped on by the bare foot of a child - a scene which I did not come across in-game. And just when you think you made sense of it all, the last boss comes along and brings the whole thing into the land of perversion yet again.
It's nothing to call the FBI over, but expect some odd looks if anyone walks in during certain parts.
Challenging subject matter, easy gameplay
I purposely avoided giving away more than the bare bones of the story because I encourage you to at least rent the game and explore it for yourself. Even a careful, methodical player will log under twelve hours, and I suspect most first-timers will get to the end in eight to ten, so there's little reason not to. But one thing I'm not hesitant to reveal is Rule of Rose's shortcomings as a gaming experience.
About an hour and a half in, you'll meet up with your new best friend, Brown, a Labrador good for sniffing out items and barking at the ghoulish children while they attempt to eviscerate you. He is not controllable beyond three simple commands: stay, come, and find. It's his knack for finding objects that makes him indispensable, so don't think you'll have a rabid protector at your disposal. Interestingly, you cannot find even large items most of the time without Brown's assistance. You could pass over the same patch of floor a hundred times and notice nothing, but wave the right item in front of Brown and command him to find something related and he could discover anything from a piece of candy to a big reel of film in that very spot.
Still, following around a sniffing dog for a half-hour stretch can get fairly redundant, and with the hostile camera, every corner is an annoyance waiting to happen. Unfortunately, there is no relief to be found outside the story development. The combat is just plain terrible and makes you long for the item-sniffing segments. It really could have benefited from some - any - use of the environment. Instead we get a timid woman standing in one place or circling around, stabbing with a fork or awkwardly swinging a steel pipe. The good thing is that you can run from 80% of the fights, but you will miss some unlockables that way.
The last two complaints have to do with the interface and the difficulty. You will need to enlist Brown's help a lot, especially if you want to stock up on healing items and find some of the rarer goods. But instead of some kind of quick-switch scheme enabling you to efficiently scroll through available items, the developers chose to make you pause each and every time you require a new item. Since the dog will only find specific items if certain other items are used as a trigger, and since you have to be within a set distance of the room for Brown to pick up the scent, you will quickly find yourself frustrated with all the loading that's done for little or no reward. And that's really the hardest part of the game: enduring the finding and the fighting so you can get back to the story. Besides two mid-game boss battles that stand out from the rest, there is little here to tax the skills of even a moderately experienced gamer.
You'll notice I had nothing bad to say about the story and nothing good to say about the gameplay. Rule of Rose is a great game to rent and play through in a weekend or a perfect game to buy and save for a rainy day. It's a survival horror experience that doesn't rely on zombies crashing through windows or extreme overacting to keep your attention, but a rich story just isn't enough to make it a masterpiece.
Lord of the Thighs