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Rule of Rose (PlayStation 2) artwork

Rule of Rose (PlayStation 2) review

"While coming on strongly like a survival horror title, Rule of Rose nods to some of the genre's mechanical demands in an almost obligatory fashion, being basic at the basics and downright bad at combat. The game's power and meaning are instead invested in atypical areas; in a weird and chronologically difficult mystery story, in its transgressive subject matter and in the wide range of moods the game is able to conjure up."

Rule of Rose asset

A decade into the age of console survival horror, Japanese developers Punchline sought to create what they described as "a new type of horror game, one which wasn’t the usual zombie, ghost and slasher type." The result, Rule of Rose, is set in 1930s Britain and drops the player amongst a group of orphaned girls who have formed a club called The Red Crayon Aristocrats for the purpose of wielding vindictive social power over one another. The game's depiction of an all female, all young world of ribbon-wearing sadists prompted the greatest moral panic of the PS2 era before the game was even out. Distributors in many territories voluntarily aborted its release in anticipation of attack from the kind of moral wowsers who had already dragged the game onto the front page of the UK's Daily Mail.

I like to feel the aura of danger that radiates from a controversial game when I hold its box in my hand, though inevitably such games turn out not to be what you might expect. Rule of Rose is definitely disturbing, but it's much weirder as a game whose emphases don't hang easily on established gaming genres. While coming on strongly like a survival horror title, it nods to some of the genre's mechanical demands in an almost obligatory fashion, being basic at the basics and downright bad at combat. The game's power and meaning are instead invested in atypical areas; in a weird and chronologically difficult mystery story, in its transgressive subject matter and in the wide range of moods the game is able to conjure up. It is also a graphical wonder of the PS2 with some striking lighting decisions (EG one level set in a house infused with the almost horizontal blaze of the setting sun) and a sonic wonder, too, ditching the typically abrasive audio design of horror games in favour of Yutaka Minobe's 100% string quartet and piano score.

Rule of Rose asset
Orphans, Aristocrats – Diana, Meg and Eleanor

Your character in Rule of Rose is fearful teenaged orphan Jennifer, who arrives at the Rose Garden Orphanage by bus one evening where she is abducted and tossed into a crate by a gang of paper bag-masked children. She awakens, inexplicably, aboard a huge luxury airship in mid flight. Trapped in the sky with a clique of malicious kids led by fourteen year old beauty 'Duchess' Diana, she is inducted into the Red Crayon Aristocrat Club. The club demands trophies from its members each month, things like butterflies and lost pets, and doles out a series of increasingly harmful and humiliating punishments to those who fail to find them. As Jennifer, you must appease the Aristocrats by searching the airship for trophies, enduring the girls' cruel tricks and also staving off attacks by mobs of horrible little imps which seem to have emerged from the children's storybooks.

The airship makes for a strange and novel setting. Stretches of luxury accommodation intended for the 1930s elite alternate with dingy wooden maintenance areas suspended by ropes in dark caverns of air. The airship shaped map is very long and very narrow, and the vindictive girls do all they can to complicate your passage through it, including tripping you up, slamming doors on you, sending you on dangerous goose chases and even keeping you away from save points and item boxes. Poor Jennifer is one of the most cringing heroine avatars in survival horror, constantly being shoved around and humiliated. She doesn't even speak in the FMVs, though everyone else does, and on-screen messages creepily refer to her in the third person. That she also appears to be taller and older than her antagonists but doesn't fight back can be exasperating, but without spoiling anything, I will say that Rule of Rose is not a game in which apparently curious design choices are made without reason.

To compensate for Jennifer's rather miserable lot, the developers added Brown, a big golden retriever, to the game, to be the player's friend. (I know this is the reason they added him because they said it was in an interview.) Once Brown has been rescued from the airship's maintenance room he becomes Jennifer's loyal partner. Three buttons on the controller are devoted to the dog so that you can order him to Stay, Come or Fetch. The vivid depiction of Brown's behaviours is not only touching, but leads into the area of the game's one mechanical innovation: the dog's ability to track down new items and other characters by scent. You can give him a sniff of any object in your inventory and have him try to find someone or something related. Brown will then guide you towards the target, snuffling along the hallways and scratching at doors he wants you to open. This actually makes him your main vector through the story.

Rule of Rose asset

Waiting to ambush you in dark areas of the ship are mobs of imps. The basic ones are gnarled little humanoids who whisper and shriek and attack you with knives, brooms and clubs, or just grab onto you to drain your health. As you get deeper into the game, animal-headed imps start to appear, and their mewling cries and strange movements are pretty frightening. Unfortunately, Rule of Rose gives the impression that it might rather not have included combat at all. Collision detection is elusive, the third button press attack takes so long you'll strive to avoid triggering it, and annoying physics can leave you ping-ponging helplessly between monsters. The old survival horror adage of "don't fight if you can run" works some of the time, but a frequent schtick used by the game is to suddenly lock all the doors of the room you've entered, and to only open them after you've killed everything in sight.

All of the uncertainty these issues generate cause Rule of Rose to fall into that subset of survival horror games in which a misplaced or lazy save can significantly damage (or just destroy) one player's' experience, while another player who does things only slightly differently may just experience the problem as: "The combat's a bit annoying." Cold Fear and Fatal Frame are like this, too. It's a dangerous way for a game to be, as it results in a lot of unnecessary polarisation of player response, but Rule of Rose puts so many eggs into so many baskets other games aren't even using that it's capable of making you not care about its stumbling combat.

The game's narrative is frankly challenging. Its events take place over the space of a year, with each level corresponding to a different month, but the months are not experienced in order. Nor is it explained, whenever you find yourself in a new setting, how you came to be there, or even where there might be. The aim is not to create a Silent Hill-like world of abstraction, but to manipulate the way you come to understand what might be going on. Rule of Rose is almost alone amongst console games in asking you to sort out its story, settings and the relationships amongst its characters yourself; not just to pay attention to a bunch of exposition, but to actually synthesise the connections after collecting information from a variety of sources. Reading, eavesdropping and spying through keyholes (which switches the game to a first person view) are all viable methods of doing so.

Rule of Rose asset

The game shoves you around with its structure so that you really feel Jennifer's powerlessness at the hands of the Aristocrats. When you complete a level in most games, you expect to get the carrot, but Rule of Rose more often gives the stick. The orphans usually set you up for failure when they assign you a task, or try to trick you into becoming the butt of some black joke. They might ask you to find their escaped rabbit, but at the same time they'll be chasing it around and trying to club it, so inevitably they will find fault with your efforts and punish you accordingly. Being tied up in the aptly named Filth Room, where you can struggle against your bonds by wiggling the control stick, turns out to be the least of your worries. One of the game's more infamous FMVs sees Jennifer held down while another girl low in the Aristocrats' caste system is made to prod her in the face with a live rat tied to a stick. In this scene, as in most of the game's punishment scenes, it's not the event itself which turns out to be so disturbing, but the general atmosphere of collusion and the sadistic glee vivid on some of the onlookers' faces. The FMVs are of such quality that they were selected for the 2006 Annecy International Animated Film Festival. Their content also attracted the attention of folks like the European Union Justice Commissioner, who started screaming for Rule of Rose to be banned, a chant picked up around the world in a minor media frenzy. Predictably, the people making all this noise failed to notice harder hitting but less ostentatious content in the game, like its allusions to the sexual abuse of some girls by carers at the Rose Garden Orphanage.

Rule of Rose asset

Such nasty episodes in the game sit immediately alongside others capable of evoking childhood lyricism. When you're able to explore the beautiful and largely deserted world of the airship with your dog and the string quartet is playing in the background, the sense is almost of a romantic adventure, of a fantasy world from a book. This kind of tonal shifting is Rule of Rose's most remarkable quality. The visual beauty, intrigue and mystery are woven around a series of ugly turns – orphans abusing each other, animal cruelty, adults abusing orphans, storybook nightmares coming to life. While playing, you can never be sure when the game might be about to shift gears on you again. This anticipation is a constant source of tension, and it works just as effectively as the more genre typical threats of zombies, ghosts or demons, though it is different in kind.

Rule of Rose is conceptually clever in conveying the experience of being bullied through disorienting, push-you-around gameplay. Narratively speaking, it is also content to leave you disoriented about a great many things if you aren't prepared to do some heavy lifting. Children's various degrees of innocence, the logic of their behaviour and the strength of their passions can be hard to read or recall as an adult, and this idea is like a tantalising veil over the game's proceedings. Trying to work it all out will probably make you reflect on your own memories of childhood. The game's obligatory combat is crummy, but as most positive reviews of the game testify, everything else about it is so fascinating that it can make you overlook or forget that fact. Rule of Rose is definitely a case where I think we should be grateful for what we've got.

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Featured community review by bloomer (February 27, 2012)

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overdrive posted February 28, 2012:

Really good review. You had a different opinion of the game than I did, but I think it was more because of what we were looking for than anything. For me, the clunky action was a deal-breaker -- but you were able to look past that and really get into the storytelling and mood and visuals (which were all good).
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zippdementia posted February 28, 2012:

The clunky action always looked hard to sit through but you make me want to give it a try. I may, too. I actually have some affinity for those old school controls. I like how you describe the story as part of the gameplay; how deciphering it becomes part of the player's personal mission. More games should play with narrative that way and stop trying to be films.
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bloomer posted February 28, 2012:

Thanks guys.
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JoeTheDestroyer posted February 29, 2012:

I was cautious about picking this one up because I had heard that it was incredibly demanding. I think this review cleared up for me what kind of demands it makes, and I think I can manage. I did, after all, fully play through and enjoy the first two Fatal Frame games.

Great review, bloomer!
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threetimes posted March 02, 2012:

Superb review. I wanted to buy the game when it first came out in Europe and had to track it down from an Italian website after it was banned. Made me feel I had something really special! But the combat ended that feeling. I loved the game, but just had to give up playing after dying too many times surrounded by those damn imps poking at them with my fork. :p

Eventually I found Theresia, another survival horror with a girl trapped in a large building, which has a similar style of story telling (not chronological) but thankfully no combat. Though sadly, no dog.
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bloomer posted March 02, 2012:

Thanks threetimes. Wow, I never even heard of Theresia. I would've thought it would have shown up on Chris (of Survival Horror Quest fame)'s website. Maybe I should bring it to his attention?

Haunting Ground for the PS2 is in my horror games backlog, so I haven't played it yet, but it's also got a girl+dog team. Though it's a more combat-oriented dog than Rule of Rose's, as is my understanding.
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EmP posted March 02, 2012:

I'm curious: unless I'm wrong. it's illegal to own a copy of this game in your side of the world (rather than it simply not being picked up for distribution in mine). Bloomer: scourge of the law?

Anyway, I hate you. I've always consoled myself for not being able to play this game with the fact it got low-end reviews that focus on the clunky game mechanics. It's helped alleviate the secret crushing knowledge that I would probably love this game, and now you've confirmed it. I don't know how you'll ever make this up to me.

I tried watching a Youtube walkthrough, but it always has people taking throughout that annoy me in seconds.
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zippdementia posted March 02, 2012:

Turn off the sound on youtube and put on The Shining soundtrack.
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bloomer posted March 02, 2012:

The censorship history of the game is very tricky to follow. But the game never came before the Australian classification board because the distributors aborted its release here and in NZ. So it hasn't actually been banned in Oz, but it is unrated material in Oz. My copy is a European import with a French instruction book.

... Unlike Manhunt, which was banned here before I had a copy. Then again, Manhunt was sold here legally for awhile, but after they stopped selling it, I had to turn to overseas.

My understanding is that the most collectible version of RoR is one of the English language instructioned PAL promo copies that was released to game journalists in the UK. The distributors cancelled the UK release due to the media frenzy.
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threetimes posted March 02, 2012:

Theresia is on the DS and brilliant, although it didn't get much publicity and has since been overshadowed by 999 which isn't half as good.

Haunting Ground is very different. You spend half your time being chased by a big ugly guy who eats you if he catches you. I gave up on this too after suffering that fate far too many times. It's pretty disturbing, although the dog is lovely and the interaction with Hewie is what kept me playing for quite a while. Some pretty fiendish puzzles to solve as well as having to spend time hiding or attempting to run. Another very atmospheric horror game is Kuon with a similar kind of thing to HG where you start to get scared and lose control, although there's more combat in that game, and no dog.

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