As the teen and young adult male populations tend to consume the profit-making minds of game developers, anything (even superficially) deemed too "kiddie" or "girly" is often left out. Females that aren't either boring sex ciphers, perky and cute anime archetypes, or unrealistic, token "strong women" are a rare sight in the video game universe. Young children in active roles are practically non-existent.
It's encouraging, then, to see Rule of Rose break these two annoying trends. The player takes control of Jennifer, an English schoolgirl who arrives in a bus at a big, spooky house. The premise may seem entirely generic at first, but this is intentional. Absolutely nothing is know of Jennifer's past or even her life at the outset. However, as the plot unravels, more and more is revealed until we learn her devastating history.
As a mystery/horror story, Rule of Rose is a sparkling success. Jennifer runs into and is basically imprisoned by the girls of the Red Crayon Aristocrats. Each girl has a widely different personality, but they are all sadistic yet vulnerable. The Aristocrats function as a sort of female version of Lord of the Flies. Those on top are treated as royalty, while those on the bottom are treated as sub-human filth.
This game achieves what so little others do: The player strongly feels for Jennifer and is worried for her. While playing, I felt as Jennifer felt, and desperately wanted her to escape.
The children accentuate this by being perfectly voiced, with not a rotten apple in the bunch. Everyone has genuine English accents, which is vital for believability. Nobody sounds as if they are simply reading lines, and I never even thought about the voice acting while playing. Which is as it should be.
Slow strings are the musical medium of choice for much of Rule of Rose, and they go well enough with the atmosphere. Slow, tense music plays during suspenseful moments, dramatic songs play during emotional scenes, and faster, intense strings play during battle. Again, it all fits the mood nicely, but there's nothing here that's memorable or of interest outside the game.
Clever visual motifs further engross the player into this strange world. Wiggly, child-like animations are used quite a bit, such as in loading screens, chapter introductions, and in books (which serve a similar purpose as memos or notes do in other horror games). These childish doodles often portray brutal content, making them surreal and creepy.
The in-game graphics are at about the standard for PS2 horror titles. There's nothing here pushing system limits, but nothing noticeably sub-par either. The main cast are understandably much more detailed than other characters.
With such a nice environment and theme, the developers had a real gem in their hands. It's too bad, then, that they actually make you play the game.
As Jennifer explores, she will inevitably encounter odd, child-like ghouls. Sadly, she will virtually only encounter these creatures. Lifeless, malicious zombie children? Sure, that's pretty creepy. Unfortunately, the scare factor is completely eliminated when you see them every other step.
Jennifer must use whatever she finds lying around to fight her pursuers. Not many guns or swords here. Sure, Jennifer shouldn't be a naturally gifted warrior, but she should cause damage when her entire weapon and arm go through a fiend's body.
Even worse, most foes can harm Jennifer with punches or stabs from several feet away! Or sometimes, even when they're facing the other direction! Horrid hit detection mars Rule of Rose consistently and significantly. This is an unacceptable game design flaw, as it makes combat almost unbearable.
This nagging problem particularly shows its ugly face during the few boss fights, which should be the peak of enjoyment in most games. The bosses in Rule of Rose are uniformly monotonous, cheap, and tiresome.
Most of these bosses are challenging for all the wrong reasons. They perform the same actions again and again and are entirely predictable. It doesn't matter, though, for along with the monstrous hit detection, Jennifer is as slow as a slug. Both in terms of running speed and arm swing, my 87 year-old grandma is faster.
These flaws make battles more a game of luck than a test of skill. Did you see that move five seconds in advance? Too bad, you die regardless. Did you work to get behind an enemy and stab him in the back? Oops, missed anyway!
The exploration elements aren't much better. The game is primarily set in a bizarre, 1930's-style airship, and that's where you'll be exploring most. While this airship is fascinating at first, you will quickly grow tired of it as the game requires you to traverse the same areas over and over. Jennifer's lethargic trot doesn't help matters here, either.
Jennifer is accompanied by her dog Brown through most of her journey. While he helps a tiny bit in combat, Brown's main function is to sniff out hidden items. You can let Brown sniff most items in the inventory, and he'll find something related. While this is a novel and interesting aspect, it can get tedious after a while. It does help the player feel affection for Brown, at least.
I often found myself struggling through the game in order to see what happens to Jennifer next. I'm not sure who's crueler: the Aristocrat girls for their evil antics, or the developers for creating such an irresistibly addicting yet agonizingly flawed game.
Judging games like this, ones which have disastrous gameplay yet are good to perfect in every other area, is always difficult. Should you play Rule of Rose? It ultimately comes down to personal taste. If gameplay is categorically the most important part of a game to you, with no exceptions, then absolutely not. If you're willing to ignore severe blemishes to witness a wonderful drama, then yes.
Personally, I am willing to trudge through the depths to find beauty.