#184: Rule of Rose
Initial release: January 19, 2006
Platform: PlayStation 2
Whoof. Strap in folks, ’cuz you’re in for one fuck of a mindbending, depressing ride in this obscure, controversial (and crazy rare) cult classic survival horror for the PlayStation 2.
It’s 1930, somewhere in England. 19 year old (maybe) Jennifer has just arrived at the orphanage she’ll be staying in. There doesn’t seem to be any other adults around, and the children are deliberately hiding from her — but they’re watching her. It soon becomes apparent that there’s something deeply wrong with the orphanage — more specifically, with the children… and Jennifer herself is seemingly powerless against their bullying. Her only friend is Brown, a friendly dog she finds tied up. What follows is an aggressively non-linear narrative set in a dreamlike world of traumatic memories, playing on themes of fairy tales and childrens’ games, of abandonment and isolation, innocence and love, trauma and bullying.
It’s a lot, i’m saying.
Rule of Rose’s plot defies easy explanation. Much like Silent Hill and similar titles of the era, this is a game that relies heavily on symbolism, fakeouts, and surrealism. Things only begin to come clear towards the very end, culminating in a darkly depressing finale. Of course, true to contemporary cousins, this is a game that has all the foibles of the Golden Age of survival horror and then some. Combat is really bad; usually you can muddle through it but there are a couple boss fights that may be game enders for some people. Hit detection is the biggest issue — and the game even specifically acknowledges this by having Jennifer close her eyes when she’s taking a swing! Many enemies also have inexplicably long I-frames during certain animations, making combat a serious hassle.
The inventory system is… less than satisfactory. With only 12 item slots, you’re forced to manage your inventory carefully; while you can drop any item to the floor and it’ll immediately be stored, you must find a rubbish bin if you want an item back.
It’s not all bad. Brown is generally fairly helpful in terms of helping you figure out what to do next. Give him an item to smell and he’ll follow the scent, but sometimes he gets lost, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell which item is actually useful. See, there’s a side quest in this game that’s all about item hunting with Brown. Find special items and you can earn rewards, but most of these rewards are of dubious value — being able to rewatch the (admittedly gorgeous) FMVs, for example, or costume changes.
In spite of confusing gameplay and frustrating combat, there’s a lot to like about this game. Punchline have crafted one of the most gorgeous games on the PlayStation2, up there with the likes of Metal Gear Solid 3 or Silent Hill 3. The soundtrack is also on point, dark and melancholy piano and violin being the dominant voices in the score as you wander around Jennifer’s memories, slowly piecing together the disaster that is her childhood. The voice acting is also quite good, though curiously enough there’s very little of it — something like 80% of the in-game dialogue is text-only. It’s an odd choice, but given that Punchline was only a small studio, it was probably a financially necessary one. The audio design in general deserves commendation; children laugh and whisper in the shadows, the interior of an airship creaks and groans. Horror games live and die on atmosphere, and this game has plenty to go around.
It’s worth bringing up the controversy this game stirred up. The mid-00s were not a great time period for queer people and the trailer stirred up a shitstorm with its suggestions of youthful sexuality (thanks to how it was edited; it’s absent in the actual game) and queer themes. Not helping matters was an Italian magazine stirring up gay panic and moralizing about violence involving children; the end result was that the game was taken off the market in the UK by its European publisher, 505 games. (Atlus published it in the US after Sony backed out.) This is probably the reason why the game is so rare now; according to pricecharting.com the game as of December 2019 (when this review was originally written) goes for a whopping $305.50 for a complete-in-box copy, and well over double that for a new copy. In September 2023, 4 years later, a CIB copy is now $700+ and a new copy can go for up to an astonishing two grand.
But is it really worth all that money? Well, that’s up to you. This game plays out like an anxiety dream; in terms of atmosphere and story it’s brilliantly disturbing and depressing. but awful combat and confusing, repetitive gameplay mar what’s otherwise a solid title.