Rule of Rose starts out with what has to be the best cinema sequence I've seen all year. It's a five minute short that does a quick overview of the many elements of this adventure game. It has sadistic children, bright flowers, a dog, a mysterious flying fish and a whole lot of suspense. This five-minutes-long sequence was enough to make me want to sit down and see what this game was all about; it was just weird enough to suck me in. All this before even the main menu had come up.
Unfortunately the rest of Rule of Rose is not nearly as intriguing as the cinema; it's really more of a flawed survival horror game with a few good ideas and very few real scares. You play Jennifer, an unlucky girl that has recently suffered through the loss of her mother and father. Early into the game she's shipped off to a new home, but gets side tracked by a kid and his story book. Before long young Jennifer is knocked out, buried alive and then held against her will on some sort of giant flying machine. There in her new surroundings our hero must do what it takes to survive, while secretly going up against the mysterious Aristocrats of the Red Crayon.
In this Lord of the Flies-style governance you learn that you will have to appease the "Prince" by finding various items scattered around the air ship. Much of the game has you tracking down clues that will aid you on your quest to find whatever it is the Prince is requiring of you. If you fail to live up to your forced agreement then something evil would happen to you … something worse than being buried alive and turned into a beggar on a creepy air ship, that is.
When you're not running around locating gifts for the Prince, you will be helping out other children, most of which come directly from The Shining school of horror acting. There's something not quite right about the way everybody acts, the entire cast is full of mysteries and darkness. A lot of the game's creepy atmosphere comes from the performances of the children; it's easy to get spooked by some of the evil things that they do throughout the story. These kids are ruthless and sadistic; they are the type of children that would make Rockstar Games' Bully want to transfer to the rich kid school.
Before too long Jennifer will be paired up with a loyal friend, a dog she decides to call Brown. Brown is used to solve most of the puzzles in the game and helps set Rule of Rose apart from the rest of the PS2 horror/adventures. The dog has three controls, all of which are mapped to a specific face button. You can tell Brown to stay, to come back to Jennifer, or you can give it something to smell and have him lead the way.
The latter option is what you will be doing the most in Rule of Rose. A lot of the game's missions and puzzles require little more than following Brown as he picks up the scent of your clues. The puzzles don't really change over the course of the game, they pretty much all involve you finding a clue, having Brown sniff out the second piece of the clue, which leads to a third clue, and so on so forth. You may occasionally have to dodge an enemy or two, but for almost all of this game you are doing little more but following your canine companion.
I won't say the enemies in Rule of Rose are bad, but they are certainly underwhelming. Instead of fighting the children, most of the enemies are midget-like creatures with masks on. From time to time you will run into enemies with large goat heads on, or a chicken head, or whatever creepy farm animal they could think of. They aren't as cool as Resident Evil's zombies or Eternal Darkness' cult members, but these doll-like enemies are actually pretty creepy.
For the most part you can dodge the enemies lining the hallways, but sometimes the game will actually force you to fight a couple baddies at a time. This is where Rule of Rose falls down, the game makes it extremely difficult to attack and defend yourself. Fighting is accomplished by holding down the R1 button and pushing the X button, but to make this process even more complicated you have to be looking directly at your enemy in order to actually hit them. The combat system is very unforgiving and often leaves you taking a few cheap hits after you miss by mere inches. And don't forget that the fixed camera angles are generally not positioned for a big fight sequence, something that puts you at a definite disadvantage.
This game play problem is especially apparent when you're fighting the game's various boss battles. You'll be going up against crazy people, a mermaid, and a whole assortment of other oddities, all of which are cheap and hard to take down thanks to the terrible combat controls. Many of the deaths in this game could have been avoided with a few minor tweaks to the controls, but as they are you will be forced to sit through far too many unneeded cheap kills.
The game itself is dark and very depressing. In fact, the game is so dark that I had to turn up the brightness on my TV just to see what was going on (oddly enough there is no way to adjust the brightness in the game's option menu). The game's biggest problem is the location, the air ship interiors just aren't that exciting and everything else is pretty boring. The game starts out strong, but it doesn't take long before the game gets into a rut that it can never digs its way out of.
While the in-game graphics aren't that exciting, at least the cinema sequences are aimed to impress. Each of the game's numerous cinema scenes is rendered with breathtaking detail. A lot of the scenes in the cinemas look like they could have come directly from a blockbuster movie, there is some real strong cinematography in Rule of Rose. Too bad the rest of the game is such a chore.
Too much of this game feels like it's an exercise in patience. Your missions often require you to do little more than follow the leader, you are constantly backtracking through one boring corridor after another, and you have to put up with far too many load screens along the way. Nothing in this game feels like it was added to be fun, it's all just a giant job. It doesn't take long before you start to wonder if it's Jennifer being held captive or if it's you.
Looking back at Rule of Rose I can't help but notice how short the game is. None of the missions are very hard and they won't take you too long before you're on to the next one. And while the game starts off strong, the middle half drags its feet and never quite picks up speed again. You really want to care about Jennifer's journey, but too much of the game is spent following the dog and collecting pieces of ripped up notes.
With its fantastic atmosphere and likable cast I really wanted to like Rule of Rose, but the game's slow pace and poor controls made it hard to get in to. If you can put up with some major game play issues you will be treated to what turns out to be a good story that is worth experiencing. Just be ready for hours of boring missions and bad lighting.