Reviewed: September 12, 2006
Released: September 12, 2006
Iím not usually one to say this. Itís justÖ wellÖ the Japanese are weird. Where else would a game have been developed in which the main character is a twenty something woman who is kidnapped by children and then forced to complete various tasks in order to not be killed by them, all because she has been a very naughty girl.
Despite the slightly unbelievable premise Rule of Rose is a very stylish survival horror title, which does something that most titles in the genre do the opposite of; it implies a lot of the gore and violence in favor of focusing on the more psychological elements. In other words, where Resident Evil has a lot of gross out and ďjumpĒ moments Rule of Rose is just flat out creepy all the time.
As with all survival horror titles, you wander around in the third person through weird environments that are poorly lit in search of the items you need to survive, get to the bottom of what is going on and stop it. Rule of Rose is no different, except instead of trying to find out why zombies are suddenly running amok you have to find a rabbit who has escaped inside a dirigible, or capture a butterfly to give as a gift.
What sets Rule of Rose apart is that for the most part youíre better off avoiding combat and many of the items that you need in the game are not found by you, but instead by your dog. Combat avoidance is usually something that happens early on in most survival horror titles Ė that is until you find the shotgun, or enough ammo to not have to worry about wasting a few clips on the next shambling monstrosity. In Rule of Rose the enemies, when they appear, are basically endless so running is pretty much your only option.
This is good and bad. Good because it fits with the character who isnít exactly the poster girl for the next action star, and it does a lot to fit in with the over-all feeling of helplessness and confusion that is a part of the game. Bad because the controls in general, and for combat specifically, are kind of like trying to do brain surgery with a thick pair of gloves on. Sure it can be done, but why would you want to?
I wouldnít make such a big deal out of it if you could completely skip fighting in the game, but there are times when you just have to fight. Most of the problem comes from it being difficult at best to line up your attacks, which you wouldnít think would be a problem because all you have are melee weapons. It is nice to see your character sort of flail away in what looks like a completely ineffectual manner, and when you think about it that also makes a certain amount of sense, but at the same time it makes hitting things chancy at best. On the bright side though, most things that attack you donít do a whole lot of damage so even though combat is sort of clunky at least it is also very forgiving.
So you are avoiding combat as much as possible, that means the bulk of the game play revolves around something else, most likely puzzle solving. The nice twist that has been placed on finding the pieces you need to solve these puzzles is that you have a helpful nose on four legs to track stuff down.
Early on in the game you find Brown, a sort of tan colored mutt who is your loyal companion, distracting would be attackers, and faithfully following any scent you give him. While this is a novel concept, like many in video games, it becomes more than a bit over used, and you end up basically just having Brown find the scent of everything you pick up in order to find the next item or place you are supposed to go.
Worse is that you canít find most of these items on your own, so unless you are using the dog to find something you canít come across it just by wandering around. Needless to say, there are a LOT of hidden items in this game.
The only other really bad part about the controls is that some things have a very wide activation area, so you could be trying to check a corner of the room and accidentally open the door, or look at a nearby item that youíve already examined. There arenít too many places where this causes problems, but it does happen.
From the rose petals used in the title screen, to the expressions and pliability in peopleís faces, down to the chalk drawings on the sub-menus and childrenís books that you find Rule of Rose is visually stunning and absolutely disturbing. It is so effective because of the seamless blending of visual styles and just the right touch to make it all off kilter. Not only do you have an overtly creepy situation, a bunch of children in an apparently abandoned orphanage, but there are just enough elements of simple innocent childhood play (fanciful chalk drawings, paper bag masks, and signs and letters in crayon) to make things uncomfortable.
On the one hand you have a feeling of sort of light fantasy, but smashed right up against that is a table with a bunch of bloody scalpels. Even worse, and this has to be deliberate, a lot of the movie cut scenes have an element of sexuality to them, nothing overt really, just little hits like the focus or the angle of the camera, or the posture or body language of the characters. So you feel not only this sense of impending doom, or perhaps a messy end of childish things, but there is also a sense that something just isnít right about whatís going on.
As far as technically, the graphics are amazing for what you would have expected to be a budget title. Itís a company youíve never heard of, from Atlus who doesnít usually produce the next visual blockbuster, so itís a bit of a surprise to see such detailed textures, especially on the clothing and hair. The character models are also fantastic. As mentioned above the facial expressions on these characters are nearly perfect.
To see a little girlís face go from fearful and nearly crying to maniacal glee in the space of seconds is not only chilling, but to see it accomplished graphically is something that very few studios have accomplished. The only real slam I can give to the graphics is that occasionally they are mapped on to the characters awkwardly. There is one scene where a characterís neck just doesnít look right, like the drawing is in the right place but the form underneath doesnít match it properly.
While the lighting in the game doesnít go into all the DOOM 3 engine spectaculars, this is a part of the game that not only lends the proper tone, but also is accomplished well. There is generally a low lighting spread through most areas, but sometimes there are over turned desks with fallen lamps, or little rents in the wall which light pours through.
Finally, and what is a nice touch, unlike all the other survival horror games Iíve played, in Rule of Rose you have some camera control. While you cannot rotate it through 360 degrees, you can flip it to get the reverse angle of where you are looking right now, so with a little effort you can search a whole room just by rotating your character.
Very few games take a minimalist approach to sound, especially the soundtrack. Usually there is always something going on, be that forgettable BGM tracks, or simple blips and beeps that follow you around through menus. Rule of Rose stands out for creating a rich sound with very few effects and tracks that are not only gorgeous, but also unique in that they are usually only one instrument pieces. The title screen track is a mournful cello, while much of the in game music is piano. There are pieces that have more instrumental breadth to them, but what stands out is the simplicity and beauty of the music, even when youíre running from a room full of rabbit headed imps.
The effects also set just the right tone, from children giggling over a fence at you as they duck out of sight, to odd screeches and groans, to crying or heavy breathing. Everything is either just too normal or just off so the whole just ends up sounding disturbed.
I do sort of wish there were more voice acting to this game, but the little that is there is perfect. The characters sound crazy when they need to, and all the lines are delivered in a believable tone. It kind of makes you wonder why more games canít get it right.
The game can be breezed through if youíre very focused in something like fifteen hours, but thatís skipping a lot of the hidden items and not really exploring everywhere. While that is a little short, what makes the game worth it, is not only a bit of quality over quantity, but it plays long if you arenít just intent on blazing the quickest path you can. What I mean by that is that even though you just sat down and played the game for an hour, while you were playing it didnít seem like it was only an hour. This is both a good and bad thing.
Also, and this is a personal thing, but I found I really couldnít sit and play for more than a couple of hours at a time. Something about running around trying to appease psycho children just makes one uncomfortable, at least if that one is me.
This is one of the few titles that Iíve ever felt really bridged a gap between cinema and games. There are just so many things about it that make you feel like youíre watching a psychological thriller as opposed to just running around in a virtual environment solving puzzles. Obviously if you donít like survival horror titles, nor being generally creeped out by your games then this one is something that is best left on the shelf. However, if you do like either of those things, and are looking for something more than just another grotesquerie then go pick up Rule of Rose.