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Rule of Rose

Developer: Punchline
Publisher: Atlus USA
Release Date: 9/12/06
Rating: M
Platform: Playstation 2
Genre: Survival/Psychological Horror
Mode: Single-player

Mellifluous laughter. Vibrant crayon drawings of domesticated animals. Frequent frolics through fragrant rose gardens. This last alliteration aside, such picturesque images have been known to characterize an idealized childhood. The notion of the "innocence" of childhood has become something of a cliche, however, for in reality, childhood is far from innocent. The death of a family member or a beloved pet, the fear of social ostracism, or simply an agonizing loneliness, are far from alien experiences to a child, as many of us can attest. Childhood is often a time of turbulence and imprisonment, or even a period that many must forfeit as they are forced to assume adulthood early in life. It is such a bleak perspective of childhood that materializes in Rule of Rose. While the game presents a fairly novel idea through this redefinition of childhood, its execution of this idea is poor. An intriguing visual style and a dark, profound story emerge. However, a lack of plot clarity, insipid gameplay, and minimal replay value conflict with the game's strengths, undermining the overall experience.

Jennifer is a lonely girl residing in England in the 1930s. Riding a bus one night, she encounters a mysterious boy who offers her a storybook entitled "The Little Princess." Bewildered by this, she attempts to follow this boy, entering a bizarre world in which she is subject to the malicious treatment of the Aristocrat Club. Led by several young girls who torment Jennifer and coerce her to follow their merciless rules, this club and its inflictions upon the timid Jennifer begin to shed light upon Jennifer's own past and self as she struggles to endure the tyranny of this society with a dog named Brown as her only companion. Ultimately, the game emerges as one whose protagonist seeks to awaken memories of her identity (interesting how the term "survival" horror has transitioned from a focus upon bodily survival to a psychological survival of a fragile mind).

Rule of Rose is largely a perverse fairy tale (though one that differs from American McGee's Alice). Players assume the role of Jennifer, a girl whose appearance itself seems to border both childhood and adulthood as they are thrust into the distorted realm of the Aristocrat Club, forced to bear the cruel yet ridiculous conventions of this club run by adolescent girls. The game is presented in a manner resembling chapters along with intermittent narration through text, with players receiving a twisted version of an innovative storybook that functions as a symbolic representation of each chapter's plot and objectives. While these fairy tales may be initially confusing, the completion of each chapter sheds light on the meaning of these tainted tales.

It is in fact these tales and the uninhibited cruelty of the young "princesses" of the Aristocrat Club that comprise the game's greatest strength. Rule of Rose transforms elements such as laughter, colorful drawings, and rose gardens into grotesque symbols of twisted youth as Jennifer must tolerate terrible physical and psychological trauma. These young girls bind Jennifer to a wooden pillar, dangle a live rat into her face, color her skin, and bury her alive. Such depictions of torture prove intriguing and disturbing only because they are executed by children and by childlike means (crayons become implements of torture). Drawings of domesticated animals such as pigs, birds, and goats litter the walls of the game's environments, yet blood and pain surface within these drawings. Even the simple act of a child applying lipstick to mimic an adult is no longer endearing or natural, but appears disquieting and unnatural. It is such a reinvention of conventional childhood "innocence" that proves inventive and interesting, though there's also a display of the corruption and distortion of authority and adulthood as well.

The Aristocrat Club consists of a social hierarchy that brings to mind the contemporary characterization of junior high and high school popularity cliques. Consisting of different classes of various princesses, these are essentially ruthless children that attempt to exhibit "adult" social conditions and values. Characters such as the "cold" princess, the "frightened" princess, and the "strong-willed" princess comprise this club, with Jennifer and an animalistic girl named Amanda designated as mere peasants that must toil their way to the top of the hierarchy. I found this element particularly interesting; though each "princess" is characterized as a one-dimensional caricature in terms of distinct personalities and roles, they collectively function as a class hierarchy, one into which the "innocent" Jennifer must assimilate. The game requires Jennifer to find a gift each month to appease the club's reigning Princess of the Rose, whose identity is divulged only in the ending. For each of the 12 months of the year 1930, players receive a certain storybook and must search for a particular gift corresponding to this book. Depositing this gift into an offering box permits players to progress to another chapter/story.

If all this sounds perplexing, that's because it is, on some level. Despite this contrast of a corrupted childhood and the "adult" concepts of social hierarchy and tyranny, I found myself somewhat lost as the game progressed. And while I enjoyed the contrast of a predominantly surreal atmosphere of fairy tales and a sense of reality instilled by the inclusion of specific months and years, the game's presentation of a good story is not done well. The presentation of the plot is somewhat incoherent until the very end of the game. I found it difficult to converge plot fragments to make sense of the overall story's purpose and its complex twists, along with the reason Jennifer inhabits this world (particularly since each story and its corresponding month are not necessarily in chronological order). My frustration grew until the very end; in addition to the ability to alter the order of the chapters in the middle of the game, players are presented with a significant choice only during the game's final battle that can alter the ending. Particularly since Jennifer herself becomes a slave to the machinations of the club, the ability to choose places Jennifer in a momentary role of power.

However, there is truly only one "proper" ending to this game, and it is solely because of this ending that I raised my score. The plot points and confusion that culminate throughout are largely clarified through this ending- I strongly advise you to pay thorough attention to its every detail, which itself is done in a rather unconventional, admirable style. After the ending, I was able to appreciate the maturity and depth of the story, yet it would have been more effective to make certain plot twists slightly more apparent and comprehendible throughout. The game seemed to neglect developing the purpose of the club and Jennifer's existence in it until the ending, where suddenly several aspects of the game, from the existence of malformed enemies to the Aristocrat Club's existence and malice, make sense.

However, there are still a few plot points that are left ambiguous and unclear. Though the ending of Rule of Rose does lend itself to analysis, it still may leave some questions that really should have been expounded more clearly. The game also alternates between text and spoken dialogue, though this dialogue is relatively sparse. The story emerges primarily through files more than dialogue as well. Though this emphasis on the written rather than the spoken initially appears an effective method for players to piece the story together, given that the feeble Jennifer is rarely given an opportunity to speak or voice her fears, it becomes somewhat exasperating to analyze files repeatedly to gain some semblance of meaning.

Despite the focus upon hierarchy and class among children, the game transitions to an exploration of individual pain and anguish particularly towards the end, one that I appreciated after I understood the game. A dichotomy of a childlike and adult self emerges within the child, which proves interesting, especially since the story transitions from embodying children as a collective group to children as suffering individuals with both renewed and severed relationships. If anything, I'll likely revisit the game to see if I can trace these themes with more clarity now that I've viewed the ending.

Rule of Rose was shrouded in controversy because of its supposed erotic themes involving minors. While it is true that eroticism and seemingly romantic relationships among young girls become an integral aspect of the game, I didn't see it as offensive or problematic. In fact, they arguably enhanced the storyline's intrigue and thematic elements.

The inclusion of the dog Brown is also an element that must be addressed. As a silent, loyal companion to Jennifer, Brown seemingly reflects the silent Jennifer bound to loyalty to the club, though I will say that Brown is quite significant to the plot. However, the purpose of his presence ends here. If the game's development of the storyline is bewildering at times, the gameplay is far too simple. Combat as Jennifer is very much like Silent Hill, involving simply the R1 and the X button pressed repeatedly as players are given an array of melee weapons, from forks and kitchen knives to steel pipes. Players can acquire a pistol once they're well into the game. And while this manner of combat isn't exactly thrilling, it feels appropriate given Jennifer's frailty and the focus upon the storyline rather than gameplay. But where the gameplay fails is the player's utter reliance upon Brown. Once he is found, players can command him to "stay," "come," , and "find." The Find command requires players to command Brown to sniff an item; he will then lead you to another related item (which bears a similar scent).

While I've never played Haunting Ground, I've heard that this reliance upon a friendly canine is present in that game as well, so it's not a novel concept (though I'm certainly not suggesting that Rule of Rose simply mimics Haunting Ground; it seems significantly different in presentation and plot, and Brown may function differently). And while it initially seemed convenient to find an item in plain sight, have Brown sniff it, and follow him to the next, this quickly became repetitive and dull. The whole game becomes "follow the leader"; Brown apparently has an incredible sense of smell, since he is able to track items that are nearly on opposite ends of an environment as you simply pursue him. Yet gameplay primarily involves simply following this furry navigation system as he tracks item after item, ultimately leading to a boss battle or cutscene. Neglecting to use him is sadly not an option, since the environment is so large that it would be exasperating to explore the multitude of rooms (not to mention that most items can only be seen and retrieved after Brown locates them). Though this method does allow the game to move quickly, I saw it as a primary downfall.

Fans of Resident Evil are well-acquainted with the legendary item box and typewriter to store items and save the game, though Rule of Rose employs what is known as a rubbish bin and a bucket knight respectively to perform the same functions. Though players have to retrace their steps to find the locations of these bins and knights (for some reason those are the only things Brown can't sniff), players can simply drop items once their inventory is full, and it will magically store in the rubbish bin. Convenient, if not childishly simple. The valiant bucket knight, which is essentially a makeshift scarecrow, also offers hints every month in addition to saving the game if players feel lost on the quest to retrieve a gift. Though the hints are wonderfully poetic and symbolic, they're otherwise relatively futile.

Amidst all of this dog-following, enemies are either largely MIA or suddenly appear in hoards, serving as little more than annoyances that impede players from keeping up with our trusted canine on his hunts. What's worse, Brown apparently could not attack enemies; he simply barked unremittingly (which supposedly stuns enemies, though it mostly induced a headache) while I struggled with a kitchen knife to swipe batches of enemies that cling to Jennifer, rendering her immobile. The designs of enemies themselves were decent; the most common type of enemy you'll encounter is the Imp, a small, shriveled being that resembles a child in stature but a soulless, aged creature otherwise. Other enemies involve images of dismemberment- you'll witness diminutive bodies with the heads of goats, pigs, and fishes, among others.

I did find the design of these enemies interesting, particularly since they're based on popular subjects of children's drawings. Yet my interest ends there. Enemies usually cling to you or simply push you down, though this exerts such force that the frail little Jennifer immediately falls to the ground, unable to stand for what seems like forever. Most of the enemies you will encounter can simply be outrun in any case. Unless you're willing to waste precious minutes of your time attempting to strike groups of annoying little enemies with feeble swipes of a dessert fork, running is mostly effective.

The game's visual style is perhaps its greatest strength, from the gorgeous, detailed opening to the ending's unusual style. Both Jennifer and Brown share a health bar which can be viewed only when paused, though Brown can only faint rather than die (he can be revived with biscuits or bones). This interface is particularly well done, with inventories and lettering scrawled in a shaky child's handwriting. Items that are retrieved are represented by childlike drawings as well in the inventory, which is a nice touch. Cutscenes are wonderfully detailed and realistic, right from the lighting to intricate facial expressions and appropriate body language. Those involving Brown are particularly beautiful, establishing a sense of realism in a vastly surreal world of bizarre children. Yet I found myself frequently wishing for more since these scenes are quite sparse (they prove a welcome respite when they do appear; think of them as an oasis within a dreary, desolate desert). Environments are detailed as well, though the game primarily alternates between a vast airship and an orphanage, offering little variation in terms of levels. And while cutscenes and overall graphical details are impressive, the game's texture and lack of lighting are less than pleasing. Though I can understand the developers' desire to achieve an "old" visual feel to contrast the depiction of childhood, the addition of a "noir filter" causes the screen to become extremely grainy during gameplay to create the sensation of an old film, perhaps. After some time, it became quite difficult for me to see anything at all as the filter began to distort the graphics, though thankfully it can be adjusted at the start menu.

It was the constant darkness of corridors and rooms that truly compromised an otherwise wonderful visual experience. I began to yearn for light- the game plunges players into constant dimly lit areas, making it difficult to distinguish doors and relish the graphical detail even after adjusting the brightness level at the start menu. I practically felt blind. When rooms do have light, however, you can truly admire the level of detail in texture and scenery. You'll likely notice an overall resemblance, both in camera angles and environment, to Silent Hill 2, particularly since the primary environment of Rule of Rose is one large labyrinth. If only the environments were more varied- players are confined primarily inside an airship for the majority of the game, with new rooms in the ship able to be explored as you progress. But this environment quickly can become repetitive as well as you navigate through similar dim rooms and corridors multiple times.

Composed primarily of haunting piano melodies and an alluring violin, the music establishes an ethereal, antique atmosphere. I enjoyed the melodious violin and piano scores, particularly when they were combined. Yet certain melodies are recycled often and can become repetitive. And the battle music, which is strangely lively, seemed inappropriate and became somewhat unbearable. Voice acting is decent and colorful when present, though there wasn't enough spoken dialogue to satiate my needs. Much of the conversation relies simply on text and moving mouths, causing the game to move considerably slower.

Little is presented in terms of replay value. While there are technically two endings (a "good" and "bad"), only the "good" is worthwhile- I would say that this ending is crucial to gain an understanding of the story's plot. Aside from that, players gain access to a key which leads to various costumes after attaining the "good" ending; the only true incentive I have to replay this game, however, is to see if I can better comprehend the story's plot details the second time around.

Ultimately, Rule of Rose's complex storyline (once understood) and impressive visuals are rivaled by a lackluster gameplay, the lack of a clear sense of purpose to the plot, and little replay value. I would advise you to give it a chance, only because it is generally visually sound and does possess an interesting storyline. The game itself isn't terribly long; it took me less than 11 hours to play. In fact, it is solely because I was impressed with its complexity (once I could actually follow the nuances of the plot) and visual appeal that I've rated it this high. It warrants a look if the ideas of the reinvention of childhood and a traumatized childhood self entice you, though you may find yourself regressing to childlike tantrums out of sheer frustration.



Copyright by Anime-Source.Com All Right Reserved.

Published on: 2006-11-11 (19648 reads)

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