Rule of Rose (PlayStation 2) review
"Jennifer's about as comfortable (and skilled) with deadly knifes and other weaponry as one would expect the average teenage girl to be. Put a powerful lead pipe in her hands and watch as she swings, misses and takes what seems like an eternity to regain her equilibrium. Using short-range weapons like the assorted knives found throughout the game might solve that problem, but getting close enough to foes to make contact isn't always a good idea."
Growing up, I loved reading those classic fairy tales, particularly the macabre (oftentimes original) versions of those beloved stories. To my tastes, it was more satisfying to find out Little Red Riding Hood got chomped by the wolf instead of being saved by some random woodsman. Yeah, I’m sick in the head, but what can I say? I’m attracted to those dark fantasy worlds where happy endings should definitely NOT be expected.
Considering that, Rule of Rose was the perfect game to spend a few days playing. While this effort by Atlus likely will be labeled “survival horror”, I spent most of my time feeling I was living through fairy tales gone wrong instead of some epidemic of gut-munching zombies or other survival horror mainstay.
Taking place in 1930, the game puts the player in the persona of a teenager named Jennifer. On her way to the orphanage which is to be her new home, strange things happen and, before Jennifer knows what's what, she's all alone near an abandoned mansion. Well, semi-abandoned, as a number of creepy children have turned this desolate habitat into their own personal kingdom. Referring to each other as "princes" and "princesses", these kids have formed their own little aristocracy, ruled by a trio of the more assertive girls.
It doesn't take long for the "children of the damned" to capture Jennifer and take her to their actual home -- a massive airship (things just get more and more weird, don't they?). As the newest "member" of their group, she is outranked by everyone -- including the slow-witted, clumsy and incompetent Amanda, who definitely isn't considered nobility material by the bourgeois. A lowly peasant, Jennifer is ordered to search the airship for various trinkets desired by the three elite princesses. Succeeding in her tasks has the beneficial effect of ever-so-gradually enhancing her social status. And if she fails? Well, the others whisper rumors of something called "Stray Dog" that is NOT fond of lazy children.
Then again, maybe Jennifer's experiences aren't happening anywhere but in her mind. In her initial trip to the mansion, she is taunted by a mysterious boy in that place's attic. This enigmatic character constantly tells our heroine that she's been a "bad girl", but needs help to remember herself. Said help comes in the form of a series of morbid children's books, each of which serves as the intro to a new mission. After completing many of these airship quests, Jennifer wakes up to find herself back in the attic, only to read a new book and get whisked back to the airship.
Rule of Rose depends on its plot to keep things moving. A number of mysteries are established early in the game and the only way Jennifer can even begin to solve them is to give in to her captors' demands and slowly earn their respect. By doing so, she leads the player into a surreal realm where Alice in Wonderland meets Stephen King. In my mind, the potential for excellence was off the charts.
And that is the most disappointing aspect of this game. The premise was so intriguing to me that finding myself playing what felt like an alternate version of Silent Hill 3 was disconcerting to say the least. Much like Konami's series placed players in the control of heroes with next-to-no combat experience, so does Rule of Rose....except they take that concept to a whole new level. Jennifer's about as comfortable (and skilled) with deadly knifes and other weaponry as one would expect the average teenage girl to be. Put a powerful lead pipe in her hands and watch as she swings, misses and takes what seems like an eternity to regain her equilibrium. Using short-range weapons like the assorted knives found throughout the game might solve that problem, but getting close enough to foes to make contact isn't always a good idea.
In what seems to be a staple of virtually every game of this type I've played, Rule of Rose doesn't often seem to be fond of giving players the best of camera angles to challenge monsters. Many were the times I'd think there was no way I could miss a stab or slash, only to notice the opposition (a) wasn't taking any damage and (b) had just jumped on Jennifer, forcing me to pound buttons to shake it off before my girl really got messed up. After a while, I came to the conclusion that the smart player avoids combat, running away from everything but bosses and other forced encounters.
Not that I had to do much running for a good portion of the game. I'd played for a good long time before encountering anything more grotesque than a fat kid or two and even as the game progressed, it seemed Rule of Rose was more interested in testing my problem-solving abilities than challenging my ability to duck-and-run from a overwhelming horde of three or four diminutive imp-like monsters. Most of the game's puzzles are based around the faithful dog, Brown, that Jennifer rescues shortly after entering the airship. Brown's got a nose for clues and is very adept at sniffing out hidden items the girl has no chance of finding on her own -- as long as she can find a related item that puts the pooch on the scent.
Sadly, the execution of this innovative idea falls flat, only resulting in giving players what seems to be a never-ending series of dull fetch-quests. All Jennifer does is use Brown's "fetch" command on an item that is connected to another. The dog will start wandering through one narrow corridor after another until it finds its quarry. Our heroine will then pick that item up and (more likely than not) use her companion's talent to find something else. Eventually, the terrific twosome will find something REALLY important and monsters will start attacking, forcing them to move a bit more quickly or risk having to start from the last save point. After going through the initial few chapters of Rule of Rose, the repetitive nature of the gameplay started to wear on me, making it a chore to continue progressing. With most of the airship's side paths barred to the girl at any given time, Jennifer seemed to simply be going through the same few corridors over and over, occasionally entering a previously locked room.
Still, it's hard to condemn this game, as it has a certain style that comes close to making up for its flaws. The lengthy opening video (as well as just about all the game's cinema) is beautifully rendered and there was just something about the dark fairy tale nature of Rule of Rose addictive enough to keep me playing. Maybe it was the creepy voice intoning "and they all lived happily ever after" on those occasions monsters were able to put an end to Jennifer's life or perhaps it was the way the narration didn't refer to characters by name, instead calling my character "the unlucky girl" and recognizing the other children by their "prince" and "princess" titles. Touches like that added a sense of mystery to Rule of Rose and did nothing but make me more curious as to what was real, what wasn't and how Jennifer's supposed "bad girl" past tied in to everything.
Don't get me wrong -- Rule of Rose isn't a particularly good game, as I found much of the gameplay to alternate between frustrating (when I HAD to fight certain foes) and boring (when I was doing....anything else). Even though, it does have its merits, as Atlus did a fine job in crafting an eerie realm of dark fantasy where, at times, it truly seems like the possibilities are endless. If only the same creativity had been utilized in designing the gameplay, I'd be willing to call this one of the top PS2 titles I'd seen in some time. Instead, at best, it's an average survival horror title that isn't likely to get put back in my system any time soon.
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (September 12, 2006)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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