Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog


Rule of Rose (Emulated/PC, 2006, Japan): Style and Sloppiness in Spades
June 10, 2011, 11:17 pm
Filed under: Rule of Rose (Emulated/PC, 2006, Japan)

I’ll begin this discussion of “Rule of Rose” (2006, Japan) with an exhortation: If you are lucky or wealthy or finicky enough to own a PC rig built for serious gaming (and you care about more than what flashy title is arriving on shelves next Tuesday), do yourself a favor and dig out those old-timey PS2 faves of yours, rip an iso of them onto your desktop, download the free PS2 emulator called PCSX2, and revisit those games on your PC. Do it now, just for the hell of it. If you’ve got the computing power, you will not believe your eyes when you see that favorite low-rez, last-gen game of yours playing smoothly at a 2000×2000 resolution on your high definition screen. (See the pic here which is a side-by-side comparison of hi-res PCSX2 rendering vs. low-res PS2 rendering–no contest.) It’s a serious wow factor. What kind of computing power is needed? I’ve got a 6-core processor (which doesn’t matter, since PCSX2 only uses 2 cores anyway), running at 3.8 Ghz, with a GeForce GTX 460 video card, and I can boot just about any PS2 iso without a hitch or a glitch. If you want exact minimum requirements, go visit the PCSX2 page at http://pcsx2.net/ (and then go take out a second mortgage and build yourself a new rig if you need to—it’s worth it).

This plea may be a little premature; I’ve actually only played through two games completely on PCSX2—“Forbidden Siren 2” and “Rule of Rose.” And I understand that not all games can be played on the emulator successfully—some run slow, and others are full of graphical glitches that impede progress. But with each game, I’ve been wowed. To understand exactly what I was seeing through the emulator, with both games I made sure to plug in my old PS2 console and play a bit of them using their native resolutions. And there is, of course, no comparison. Once you go PCSX2, you don’t go back.

There are a handful of late-comer PS2 games (mostly survival horror games post-2005) I never played because the next gen of machines had arrived at that point in time, and I was dazzled by the shiny new titles available. I had no time for that last-gen junk anymore. So, a few semi-old-school treasures like “Haunting Ground,” “Michigan: Report from Hell,” and “Kuon” flew below my radar as I was wading knee-deep into “Gears of War” or what-have-you. But sometimes good things come to those who wait, and this is most definitely the case with PCSX2. The screenshots tell all. Games, like “Rule of Rose”—which has style oozing out of every orifice–never looked this fabulous, ever. PCSX2 flaunts it all.

Actually, it’s questionable whether or not I should include this title on this blog, mostly because, like a number of other survival horror titles out there, “Rule of Rose” (which you might argue isn’t actually a survival horror title in a strict sense) has its own rabid fanbase, with its own wiki, and its own lore. It’s an underdog game for sure so it sits shoulder-to-shoulder with everything else on here, but it is rather well known by those who care about such things (some who pray to it and others who revile it). And I am unlikely to analyze the game in a way that reveals anything new or interesting about it (other than if you’ve not yet played it, I implore you to take me up on my PCSX2 advice).

If you’ve not played the game but are familiar with the title, this is probably because you may recall some faint headlines at release time about “Rule of Rose” containing possible references to incest, lesbianism among young children, child sexual abuse, live internment of children, and other types of ugliness—enough references that some countries moved to ban the sale of the game (namely Poland, in this case). Of course as is typical in these cases, when the rubber meets the road, nothing in this vein is ever explicitly shown in “Rule of Rose.” However, the game can be powerfully unpalatable at times. EVOCATIVE is the word that best describes what occurs in game. The gameplay, narrative, and characters EVOKE many things—both stunningly beautiful and strikingly ugly—but all the game actually ever reveals are shadows, hints, nuances of the profound. And this is what makes it great. Yup. Beneath its various clunky bits and funky bits, there’s a thoughtful, tense, strange, powerful game in here like none I’ve ever really played. You should play it. How’s that for a recommendation?

You play as a 19-year-old orphan named Jennifer in 1930s England. Jennifer has lost her memory and is thrust into a dark, counterintuitive, volatile world ruled by the Red Crayon Aristocrats, a “Lord of the Flies”-like hierarchy of other young orphaned girls. Jennifer, as the newcomer, is on the lowest rung of the social ladder and is treated like garbage by the others. With the help of her trusty canine companion Brown, Jennifer must complete a variety of fetch quests—many of them seemingly senseless—and suffer some pretty ugly endurance tests (…anyone want to get rubbed in the face with a maggot-infested rat corpse tied to a stick? Nah, I didn’t think so…) in order to gain social collateral and become an aristocrat herself. While her higher-ups are generally unlikeable, bratty, manipulative, unsympathetic jerks, Jennifer (though older and significantly taller than all her peers) is weak, timid, cowering. By making you play such a spineless character who can only barely swing a fist to defend herself when the need arises (and who doubles over out of breath if you run more than a dozen steps…seriously?), the developers are clearly sending you a message—you are powerless in this upside-down world, so get used to it. From the perspective of a traditional survival horror game, all of this makes sense in helping to create a sense of tension. However, in “Rule of Rose,” Jennifer’s timidity and her compliance with her tormentors also has a negative effect—it makes it doubly difficult to identify with her or care for her very much. As I played, while I surely didn’t want anything bad to happen to Jennifer, I couldn’t escape the feeling again and again that she needed to grow a pair—at least a small pair—and take a stand for herself. And while the tide of the game eventually turns in her favor (dependiing on which ending you get), overall she shows herself to be repeatedly incapable of self-care throughout the bulk of the game.

Why Jennifer must bow to this humiliation, and where most of the game occurs, is left purposely vague. Some of this opacity is justified because Jennifer has lost her memory, and the events in her life are jumbled up–so the game is accordingly confused itself. The game’s location seems to shift randomly from a creepy, dilapidated old mansion that clearly serves as an orphanage, to an equally empty, creaking airship (a multi-level, industrial-looking blimp) floating in the clouds miles above God-knows-where (we may be somewhere between England and India?), to a smaller house and rose garden presumably located somewhere near the orphanage. The location changes are usually accompanied by Jennifer conveniently fainting after some ordeal, only to awaken in a new area, with a new set of humiliating tasks to perform. Usually these tasks are accomplished by finding an item—say a tail that has been torn from  stuffed teddy bear—and allowing Brown, your mutt, to use it as a locator. By giving him the “Go!” command, he will lead you through the various creepy locales to another piece of the puzzle, uncovering one piece at a time, until your task—whatever it may be—is complete.

SPOILER BEGINS: If you have played the game and are wondering about the actual chronology of events, here’s what I’ve read: Jennifer was the lone survivor of an airship crash and was rescued by Gregory, who has recently lost his own son, Joshua, to illness. While he does nurse her back to health, he also keeps her locked up in Joshua’s old room so she cannot leave him. Wendy shows up one day from the nearby orphanage and jailbreaks Jennifer, who is sad to leave Gregory but also knows she has to go. She then begins her life at the orphanage, still with no memory of her parents or her life before the accident. Wendy, though, is highly jealous when Jennifer begins to make friends with the other children at the orphanage. Wendy is especially miffed when Jennifer finds her best friend, Brown the dog. Wendy wants Jennifer all to herself. (This is where the potential lesbian-ish overtones are suggested.) To regain Jennifer’s attention, Wendy devises the Aristocrats to basically give all the other children an excuse to treat Jennifer like crap, thinking that if Jennifer feels poorly towards all the other children, Wendy can once again be her only friend. Wendy’s shenanigans eventually lead to the death of Brown, but Jennifer reacts violently, overthrowing Wendy as the leader of the group. In retaliation after her fall from grace, Wendy saunters back over to Gregory’s house and, pretending to be his dead son Joshua, manages to coerce the emotionally bereft Gregory into acting like a dog himself. She even names him Stray Dog and trains him to walk with a leash on all fours and to attack. (Yeah, this Gregory guy ain’t quite right in the head.) She then leads Gregory back to the orphanage, where he kills all the children–including Wendy herself–but not Jennifer. The story ends either by Jennifer shooting Gregory with the one bullet in the gun she has acquired, or by giving Gregory the gun when he “asks” for it, and he ends up committing suicide. Jennifer is then rescued. Whew. SPOILER ENDS.

Along the way, there are various obstacles to overcome and enemies to fight using mostly melee weapons like an ice pick, butcher knife, axe, and pipe. To further even the odds, Brown can bare his fangs and bark to help distract (but not directly attack) some enemies (but he can also be harmed), and a single gun (with a single bullet) appears in the last moments of the game. Imps are pasty-faced, shin-high, shrieking creatures which swipe at you and jump onto your back to thwart your progress, slowly draining your health. There are a variety of imps that correspond with the focus of the chapter you might be playing at a given time, all of which have twisted fairytale themes—such as a fish imp, a goat imp, a pig imp. These are strange creatures that appear out of nowhere (they climb up out of the floor or drop from the ceiling), and I can say that I’ve never really seen “monsters” of this type in any horror game I’ve played. They don’t provide much of a wow-factor size-wise, but they are icky, numerous, and difficult to avoid given the oft cramped environs you must run around in. They are a nightmare-fairytale come to life. There are also a few adults in the game as well. One of them, Mr. Hoffman, is apparently the headmaster of the orphanage, but he appears in the game also as a kind of “mini-boss” monster, his limbs tied into strange configurations with ropes as he flails at you (and one of his attacks looks suspiciously like he is dry-humping you, no lie). Quite unsettling—not in a “Pyramid Head / Silent Hill” kind of way, but frankly in a much more subtle, complex, and human way (which is what you want in a game like this, which clearly focuses on psychological horror rather than physical horror). Another mini-boss is a young girl, known as The Mermaid, who is tied to the ceiling by her toes and lunges at you while cackling, spewing green vomit which kills. Pretty awful, bizarre stuff. Playful, yet deadly.

Speaking of the combat—it’s damn near broken. The game is not a hack-n-slash affair by any means. This title trades much more in exploration, clue-hunting, puzzle-solving, and cream-cheese-thick atmosphere, rather than fighting for sure. And while you may be able to shimmy past a great deal of confrontations, some fighting is of course required, and it is subpar. Hit detection is questionable, response time between attacks and button presses seems random, and Jennifer herself is so underpowered (and her recovery time after taking a hit is so painfully slow) that simply entering a battle often seems futile. Much frustration ensues. You have been warned.

The real star of the game is the music though. I’m pretty sensitive when it comes to videogame music. That’s my nice way of saying that in about 99.9% of the games I play, after listening to the music loop about three times, I immediately head to the options menu and switch off all in-game music. Yes, I tire of videogame music loops really, really quickly and find them highly irritating. Thankfully, there are always exceptions, and in “Rule of Rose,” the music is perhaps THE main attraction. Composed by Yutaka Minobe, the entire score was played by the Hiroshi Murayama Trio, consisting mostly of violin, piano, and cello. The lovely music is haunting, melancholy, silly at times, and decidedly creepy. It is art. The music in this game often had me on the verge of tears, frankly, even maybe when it wasn’t appropriate. The music is just an essential part of that lonely, scared, confused, evocative tapestry that “Rule of Rose” weaves so expertly. If you play the game, don’t turn the music off; turn it up, instead, and let it move you.

“Rule of Rose” is as close to seeing an Edward Gorey-style fairytale come to life in videogame form as anyone will probably ever get. Take advantage of its bizarre sadness.