Rule of Rose Review
When it comes to survival/horror, it's all about creating an atmosphere, one that's fittingly creepy and appropriately disturbing. The Silent Hill franchise has this down to a science, and the most recent Resident Evil captured the necessary environment nicely. But so often, when other games attempt this, they fall so far short, for a variety of reasons. Enter Rule of Rose, which presents a chilling, effective atmosphere...and unfortunately, not much else.
Visually speaking, the game offers a frustrating dichotomy of drop-dead stunning CG and overly-grainy, relatively bland in-game graphics. Although that graininess does add a certain appeal - it makes it run like a reel on an old-fashioned horror film - the detail leaves a little something to be desired. Even simple things like doors can be difficult to see, and the environments seem to be comprised entirely of brown, grey, and, um...different shades of brown and grey. You'll find yourself hoping for another cut-scene or FMV, and then wondering why the same valiant effort wasn't applied to the rest of the presentation. But as one definite positive, the game does sport one of the better cinematic intros in recent memory. That's something.
In terms of sound, Rule of Rose excels. Developers Punchline/Shirogumi utilize a haunting orchestral soundtrack to accompany your trek through a surreal world, and the voice acting is better than average. That low, plodding, oh-god-there's-something-around-that-corner soundtrack works wonders for at least a while, but they tend to grate after a few hours. There's an overall lack of variety despite the quality, and the more you play, the more obvious this fact becomes. All in all, though, the tracks, voice-overs, and effects are plenty solid.
As mentioned before, the atmosphere is essential in this genre. Set in 1930 England, you take the role of Jennifer, a timid and confused girl tossed into the midst of a mystery that includes psychotic children and a haunted orphanage. She knows she somehow fits into the bigger picture, but she has no idea how. Throughout the story, you will accompany this scared and likeable protagonist as she tries to sort through the appalling events of the past. You'll move through a series of sufficiently frightening areas, complete with blood-curdling laughs and cries, truly freaky children and other bizarre creatures.
So yeah, you've got the foundation. You've got exactly what you need for a superb game. But for whatever reason, the developers just don't follow through, and the gameplay in no way matches up with the stellar presentation. In the midst of good voices, an intriguing story, and a wonderfully drawn concept, you've got this clunky, tedious, and ultimately boring gameplay mechanic. This just defeats the entire purpose of an interactive video game, despite doing so many other things well.
The biggest problem lies in the control and actions of the main character, Jennifer. She'll instantly remind you of Heather from Silent Hill 3; a regular girl with no real combat skills thrown into an impossibly scary and potentially horrific situation. But the thing is, Heather may have had some difficulty with certain weapons, but at least she could use them. At least more than a few weapons and enemies actually existed. And once you got used to the control, she was even pretty effective.
Poor Jennifer is never effective. When you first start out trying to defend yourself with a fork, via a series of half-hearted, weak-armed swings and jabs, you know you're in for a rough ride. Yeah, you get knives and even a gun or two, but they come few and far between, and you're basically just hoping you connect with your attacks before Jennifer keels over. Which leads me to another problem: you never can tell just how hurt she is; her body language isn't always so tell-tale. But in case you're worried, just carry around some healing items and you should be fine.
And speaking of finding and using items, there is one aspect to the game that thankfully interrupts the monotony of running back and forth at a slow, plodding pace. Relatively early on, you will encounter your friend and hidden-item-finder, Brown. He's a very cute dog with a very sensitive nose, and by giving him certain items to sniff, he'll track down other hidden items for you. This may sound like it could pose some problems, but the idea is implemented surprisingly well (I only say "surprisingly" because it's basically the only aspect of the gameplay that is implemented well). You simply select an item in the menu, set it to "Find," then press triangle back on the screen and Brown will sniff out something useful...hopefully.
If there's nothing in the vicinity, he'll just ruefully hang his head and whine. But the item doesn't have to be in that room; it doesn't even have to be in that one area. We've already established that Brown has a heck of a nose, so he can smell something a good half-dozen screens away. The only downside is you'll find yourself following your dog around far more often than doing anything else, and that includes combat. Yeah, there are some of those evil little ghost children with faces that remind you of The Ring, but you can usually just run by them. There are a few somewhat intense boss fights here and there, too, but they ultimately fail to deliver and actually feel almost obligatory.
Another issue revolves around the story, which initially begins with a fantastic premise and a strong direction, but it quickly loses its luster. While the storyline itself remains loaded with potential, too much of the plot is presented piecemeal in a very disjointed fashion, and there are simply too many points that never get clarified. Everything sits shrouded in mystery and vagueness, and although that works for a while, eventually you have to at least toss the gamer a bone or two. It seems the creators got really caught up in the presentation, which is indeed excellent and quite intriguing, but they were too much in love with the foundation and just didn't follow through.
With sub-par control, a story that could be great but gets lost in a sea of loose ends, and very uninspired, tedious, and infrequent combat, Rule of Rose falls well shy of the intended mark. However, if you are somebody who really appreciates a top-notch concept - despite its failings - than you might want to give it a shot. You'll just really have to appreciate such things as the artistry, amazing CG, good dialogue, and fantastic atmosphere, because the gameplay itself is just too damn boring to recommend. The game gets points for originality and setting, though. And we don't see this anywhere near enough, so we can at least finish this review on a high note.
10/24/2006 Ben Dutka