Review: Rule of Rose (PS2)


Rule of Rose
Genre: Survival Horror
Developer: SCEI/Punchline
Publisher: Atlus
Release Date: 9/12/06

I’d like you to bear with me for a moment as I attempt to make an analogy.

Imagine you have a fruit. The center of the fruit is very small, about the size of a cherry, but it is the single best tasting fruit on Earth. It’s sweet and juicy, and tastes absolutely amazing. The actual fruit itself, however, is about the size of a softball. The outside of the fruit is hard like a stone, and completely solid all the way to that juicy center. Now, I want you to imagine you have one of these fruits. I want you to visualize this in your mind, I want you to desire this juicy morsel inside of this rock hard shell. Got it?

Now I want you to imagine that the only thing you have available to cut open this rock hard shell is a dull plastic butter knife.

Rule of Rose is a lot like that.

Rule of Rose is, as far as I’m aware, the second “survival horror” title to come out of SCEI, the first of which was an amusing little game called Siren. I say it was “amusing” in the “perverse” sense of the word; it was an incredibly interesting concept with solid presentation that was completely ruined by miserable gameplay that all but sucked the fun out of the experience entirely. Well, those who forget history are condemned to repeat it, and so it is today, as Rule of Rose not only emulates its older brother, but also manages to surpass it in all respects; indeed, this is a truly stellar example of how to make something amazing, then break it completely. You’ll see what I mean as we go on.


1. STORY


Our story, set in 1930’s Great Britain (more or less, anyway) revolves around a young (nineteen, we’re led to believe) girl named Jennifer, who, while in the process of going somewhere by bus, finds herself in an orphanage ruled over by the “Red Crayon Aristocrats”, a group of young girls who abuse Jennifer. Jennifer is forced to endure various tortures for the personal amusements of the Aristocrats, and with the exception of her dog Brown, she is truly a poor, sad, lonely, unlucky girl. Which the game reminds us about every twenty minutes.

Now, here’s the thing, and I’m going to try and express this in the least gushing way I can manage: Rule of Rose has, easily, one of the best stories I’ve seen in a videogame in, oh, five years. The game works less off of storytelling and exposition and more off of emotional resonance and inference to tell a haunting story of emotional and physical abuse, love, and hatred, and does so admirably. Jennifer is a wholly sympathetic character, and even when we realize that she, like everyone in Rule of Rose, is tainted, we understand WHY she does what she does, and how it makes her feel. Some of the simplest scenes in the game are incredibly powerful, and the game subtly explores concepts that aren’t normally dealt with in video games; loss of innocence, sexual abuse, love and rejection, and torment and abuse are all dealt with here, and masterfully so. And the beautiful thing is, the game never really feels the need to specifically resort to absurd ends to get its point across; when Jennifer wakes up, tied to a post, drawn all over in red crayon, with crayons stuffed into her mouth, we understand. We understand how she’s been abused and humiliated, we understand how desperately she desires friends and attention, and we understand why she does the things she does.

We understand, because we’ve been there.

The game ultimately plays off of the “psychological horror” bent in a lot of aspects, but instead of the “oh look a giant head” sort of things Silent Hill might do, Rule of Rose is REAL psychological horror. If you can remember your childhood, if you can remember being picked on or beat up by bullies, hell, if you can remember it happening to others (or doing it to others), you can understand Jennifer’s actions and reactions, and ultimately, her. It might shoehorn the “evil monsters” and “unnatural environments” into the title, but they’re all symbolic, and they work perfectly well. This is about as good as storytelling gets, folks.

Story Rating: 10/10


2. GRAPHICS


Rule of Rose is visually acceptable, from a technical standpoint, but it looks a lot better than it should due in part to the style present. You spend most of the game in the various parts of an airship (dirigible, zeppelin, you know), which sharply contrast one another; the engine room looks dank and bleak, while the living quarters look bright and cheerful. The game makes great use of these various contrasts, combined with a grain filter (again, more Silent Hill tricks) to create a visually artistic presentation that’s almost perfect. The various characters animate nicely, especially Jennifer and Brown, and we come to appreciate them through their actions and reactions to things, which is surprising. The CGI cutscenes are also very nice and artistically well done, and through these and the expression of life in them we are brought closer to the characters, and very well at that. All of the characters show what sort of people they are through their well-designed exposure in the cutscenes, and even the subtlest facial animations are designed to convey important things, and do so admirably.

In fact, the only thing I really feel the need to complain about are the “blood” effects. When you hit an enemy in combat, the enemy “bleeds”, which I use quotation marks for because it looks less like bleeding and more like your opponent has spontaneously begun expelling Smuckers jelly from their body. Now, I honestly think that the enemies bleeding in general takes some of the impact from the story (blood is used sparingly throughout the course of the storytelling, which would make it have more of an impact when used if not for this), but regardless of that, the effect looks ridiculous. It’s absolutely hideous and, frankly, the blood effects in the original Mortal Kombat were more convincing. Aside from that, however, the game looks pretty great, and the blood effects are merely disappointing instead of being outright game breaking.

Graphics Rating: 8/10


3. SOUND

The in-game music in Rule of Rose is incredibly appropriate, both to the theme and the period. All of the music is orchestrated, and incorporates violin, piano, and other classical instruments to bring about music that is beautiful and haunting. Outside of the game, mind you, it’s basically any other classical music, but within the title itself it’s awesome and very well composed.

The voice acting is also pretty good, and all of the actors play their parts well, conveying the appropriate emotions when needed (especially disdain), but there’s not really any break out performances. Still, Atlus did a good job casting the voice actors, so thumbs up. The sound effects are also reasonably solid, and the noises the various enemies make are all largely pretty good, but again, nothing ground breaking. All in all, everything compliments everything else nicely enough to provide a solid presentation, and while it’s not the best aural performance I’ve heard this year, it works very well with the rest of the presentation elements, and is overall very nice.

Sound Rating: 7/10


4. CONTROL/GAMEPLAY

And here’s where everything falls apart. And I mean everything.


The gameplay of Rule of Rose can be solidly divided into two types of gameplay: adventure gaming and Silent Hill-esque survival horror combat. The adventure gaming essentially involves Jennifer running around doing what needs to be done to progress the story, which is fine. What is not fine, however, is how it’s actually implemented. On the few occasions that the game simply leaves you to your own devices, it either gives you a vague clue as to what you’re to do next, or tells you nothing and expects you to just blunder along until the game takes over again. Most of the time, though, the game provides you with some random item that relates to the story, and at that point Brown comes in to play. You can assign most of your inventory items to the “Find” button, which instructs Brown to find whatever it is you’re looking for, and he’ll tear off to go find it. There are two major problems with this: first, it completely removes the need to explore from the game, which leaves the experience hollow, and second, Brown’s not incredibly bright, and will on more than a few occasions direct you to a door or passage you can’t possibly access, leaving you to blunder around stupidly until you find your way. It’s kind of cool that he can seek out hidden items by you telling him to “Find” using a normal inventory item, but the fact that you basically have to spend most of the game following him around limits the experience a lot.

Another thing that kills the “adventure” experience is the distinct lack of anything to do. Most of your quests in Rule of Rose are fetch quests; go here, get this, bring it here, get this, and so on until the end of the chapter. Puzzles are few and far between, and frankly, they’re not even remotely puzzling (unless you have severe problems with mathematics). This all conspires to create an experience that is far inferior to the presentation of the title; the items you transport might be interesting in context, but running them around the game world certainly isn’t.


This all pales before the combat, though. The combat mechanics are similar to your atypical survival horror schematic: hold down a button and Jennifer will take a combat stance, then press the action button to attack. It’s a time-honored tradition that works fine here, but that’s about all that works. Jennifer is cast as being thoroughly incapable of doing anything worthwhile in battle, as she’s not a combat-oriented person, which is also understandable, and her animations convey that. That said, the collision detection is absolutely hideous. Weapon strikes will miss enemies entirely as other enemies will either bounce off of you or fly entirely past you more than a few times. Some enemies will attack with strikes that knock Jennifer over, and a lot of times she’ll rise up only to be knocked down instantly. Combat is often a losing proposition, which often leaves you better off running like hell, which would be easy except that 1.) many times, the game FORCES you to engage on combat, which is just absolutely the WRONG thing for the game to do, and 2.) often there will be so many enemies in so small of a space that running simply isn’t possible, or is so difficult that death is a distinct possibility. There are also three actual boss battles in the game, and each is more of a pain than the last, though they’re substantially more workable than normal combat, mostly because the boss battles involve one enemy with set patterns, though this is negated by the massive damage the bosses do. You can also find various different weapons throughout the game to equip, but their differences feel mostly negligible, as I went from the dinner fork (yes, really) to the various selection of small knives to the lead pipe with no noticeable differences except in animation. Honestly, if the combat had been excised altogether, Rule of Rose would be about five times better a game, even with the lacking adventure elements. The combat in the first Silent Hill was more user friendly, and better, and THAT’S saying something.

There are other less important technical issues that also impact play as well. For one, loading times are quite a bit larger than one would expect from this genre of game, and as you’re going to spend most of your time wandering around, this only contributes to the tedium. Two of the last three chapters (assuming you get the good ending) feature this sort of thing, where you’re tasked to wander around for indeterminately long periods of time trying to figure what to do or where to go, and between the ambiguity of the quests and the long loading times, it becomes a chore to even play. For another, there’s no notable way to sort your personal inventory, save for dropping things into the rubbish bin and taking them back out in the space you’d like them in, which is mildly annoying. And speaking of items, the game is entirely too fixed on physical ownership of things; practically every single thing you find is represented by an actual, physical item that refuses to go away after its use has been spent. Jennifer has a “File”, but this seems to serve absolutely no purpose, because every single “file” she’s ever given, she also keeps as a piece of her inventory. More importantly, items she no longer has any use for simply continue to sit in her inventory until you throw them away (one way or another), which is just stupid considering how many other games do this exact thing. And speaking of useless items, you’ll find an awful lot of them, from clothespins to ribbons to socks to marbles. Do they have a function? Yes. Does the game tell you what it is? Not that I can find. And the various weapons and curatives you find never tell you what they DO in the least; in a game like Silent Hill or Resident Evil, there are maybe three curing items that are clearly marked, and weapons make a rough attempt to distinguish their damage potentials from one another. Not so here; weapons all seem to be identical (as I noted above), but more importantly, the game never bothers to distinguish the effects between Chocolate, Lollipops, Minced Pie, Biscuits, Scones, and Candy (they all heal different amounts of life energy), leaving you to guess. I mean, yeah, it’s great that all of the items are British foodstuffs (the game’s set in Britain, after all), and such an amount of variety is really cool, but if I can’t figure out what it does relative to anything else, what the hell’s the point?

Actually, that’s a question I was asking myself a lot playing Rule of Rose: “what’s the point”? What’s the point of having such an awesome concept if THIS is the gameplay you attach to it? What’s the point of making such a large game world if I have to follow Brown everywhere? What’s the point of having so many enemies in the game if I can’t fight them worth a damn? Answer: there is none. The gameplay is, at its best, mediocre, and at its worst, abysmal. That it is attached to such a wonderfully presented game is an honest-to-God sin, and whoever developed the gameplay engine should be mortified that this game was published as such an uninteresting or unplayable mess.

Control/Gameplay Rating: 3/10


5. REPLAYABILITY

Beating the game once with the good ending unlocks a secret room with a few extra costumes to pick (each is equipped with a very strong weapon to go along with it). You can also find various special items and weapons through the trading of other special items to the Aristocrat Club (via the item dump box on the door), as well as movie reels and records of the cinematics and songs from the game (though these can only be accessed in-game, don’t carry over to new saves, and can only be used from your active inventory, which is all kind of lame). On the other hand, the story remains identical through every play, and the gameplay remains such that there’s absolutely no reason to WANT to go back to the game, regardless of how much cool stuff a second playthrough has to offer. In other words, there are a bunch of cool things to find to bring you back, but absolutely no reason to want to go through the game again.

Replayability Rating: 5/10


6. BALANCE


The puzzles, as noted, are of negligible difficulty, and you could pretty much play through the entire game without getting stuck on anything once (except possibly where to go next, but that’s rare). Combat is of variable difficulty; fighting one or two enemies at a time is manageable, and most enemies are stupid, but in large groups it tends to become a losing battle, especially further into the game when facing pig monsters and such. Bosses tend to be fairly easy to dispatch if you pay attention to what they do, if highly damaging, and save points are sprinkled around liberally enough that you should be able to find one when needed, but not, say, before boss battles or nasty fights in general. In other words, the only real difficulty involved in the game is figuring out what the game wants you to do when it doesn’t tell you anything, and fighting against the combat controls; the rest of the experience is pretty easy. In case you couldn’t tell, that isn’t meant to be complimentary.

Balance Rating: 3/10


7. ORIGINALITY

Rule of Rose does take a large bite from other, more established survival horror titles, but the style and presentation are very well done and feel very unique. The storyline is one of the more original I’ve seen in a video game, and the story itself takes a lot of risks (implied, but still) that are both admirable and unique. The end result is a title that feels familiar, yet completely unlike anything you’ve played, which is certainly a good thing, albeit one of few.

Originality Rating: 7/10


8. ADDICTIVENESS

Well, on one hand, the story and presentation are wonderful and engaging, and will keep your interest far longer than they have any right to. On the other hand, the poor combat and lack of anything terribly interesting to do will wear on you equally as much as the story strives to keep you interested. You’ll most likely be able to play the game through to the end, but ultimately less out of a want to do so and more out of a desire to see the story through, then never play it again.

Addictiveness Rating: 5/10


9. APPEAL FACTOR

Do you like great storytelling and awesome presentation? How about broken gameplay? Are you a masochist? THEN DO WE HAVE A GAME FOR YOU!

Atlus isn’t exactly known for their “wide appeal” titles, and Rule of Rose is no exception. It’s a niche title in a well-known genre, and probably won’t garner much attention, or if does garner any, it will most likely be the wrong type. Still, obscure Japanese horror has become the new “too much CGI not enough gameplay” these days, so there’s still some hope, however miniscule it might be, that someone out there will find interest in this and pick it up. Unfortunately, between the marketing and the actual game itself, I can’t imagine anyone picking this up cold, and after reading reviews, I doubt they’ll change their mind.

Appeal Rating: 4/10


10. MISCELLANEOUS

I have two separate observations to make here. I’ll try and wrap it up quick.


The first is that this is now the second time SCEI has handed to us, the gaming public, an incredibly solid, imaginative concept that completely bites the big one in terms of gameplay. Anyone out there actually remember Siren? No? There’s a reason for that: it sucked. Badly. But the underlying concept behind it (whole town turns into demons, rivers run red with blood, investigate the mystery, etc) was so awesome that to this day, I’m still baffled as to how that turned out the way it did. And now it’s happened again, only this time, Sony themselves were smart enough to keep the game overseas, leaving Atlus to take the blame. Well, deal with this: Atlus did a phenomenal job localizing the game, and they should be commended, but as far as SCEI and developer Punchline are concerned, well, I have to honestly believe that they made the game play this badly on purpose, as some kind of perverted performance art; as Jennifer suffers, so does the player. The only punch line here is that Rule of Rose sucks.

The second is that, after saying all of the above, I really think everyone out there needs to play this. Owning it isn’t entirely part of the equation, but playing it is. There are two reasons for this. First, as I’ve beaten into the ground, the story, atmosphere, and presentation are all simply awesome, and you’ll find a scant few games that do it better. But the other reason is even simpler: everyone who plays video games really needs to see this to understand exactly how easy it is for the greatest concepts to turn to crap. No matter how great your idea, no matter how wonderful your execution, no matter how awesome the planning and no matter how much money you invest, even the best ideas can die in development, and ultimately, that’s even sadder than the climax of the plot.

Miscellaneous Rating: 4/10

The Scores:
Story: 10/10
Graphics: 8/10
Sound: 7/10
Control/Gameplay: 3/10
Replayability: 5/10
Balance: 3/10
Originality: 7/10
Addictiveness: 5/10
Appeal: 4/10
Miscellaneous: 4/10

Overall Score: 5.6/10
Final Score: 5.5 (AVERAGE).

Short Attention Span Summary
Rule of Rose is a game I will remember for years. Unfortunately, it’s not for the right reasons. Atlus did a great job bringing the game to the US, and the plot and presentation stand out enough that the game could have been a “must-have” title. Unfortunately, miserable controls and a lack of game depth leave the experience hideously lacking, and ultimately, Rule of Rose ends up being a major disappointment.