If there's anything that being kids taught us, it's that other kids can be real bastards. They're petty, they're conniving and they can turn on you in an instant. And when they've got even a little power to lord over you, you're probably in for some pain.
And when monsters are involved? All bets are off, baby.
Set in 1930 and unfolding like a cross between Silent Hill and Lord of the Flies, Rule of Rose is a bizarre, survival-horror psychodrama that tells the fractured story of Jennifer, a shrinking, demure young woman. As the story begins, Jennifer finds herself stranded outside a mysterious orphanage late at night, which turns out to be inhabited by a vicious group of children. The kids, ruled by a gang of prim schoolgirls who call themselves the Red Crayon Aristocrats, press Jennifer into service aboard a gigantic, monster-infested airship and order her to bring them presents on pain of death.
That's how it starts, anyway. But the further you delve into Rule of Rose, the more surreal and incomprehensible it gets. If you like your stories laid out neatly, this isn't for you; the dreamlike narrative (which hints at childhood abuse and homoeroticism) seems to jump around randomly in time, and it may or may not be one big, Freudian flashback. It's hard to tell, because much of the plot and the events behind it are only half-explained by game's end, leaving you to puzzle out what's really going on. But at least it's captivating enough to keep you playing.
Unfortunately, it's the only thing that'll keep you playing. The story and visuals might be stunning, but the gameplay is bare-bones survival-horror fare. Jennifer roams from room to room, repeatedly covering the same ground as she hunts for specific items to bring back to the Aristocrats' lair. Along the way she'll solve simple puzzles and learn disturbing things about her hosts, and that's about it.
There is one innovation, though: Jennifer's dog, Brown. Brown is invaluable for keeping you on track, thanks to his ability to sniff out characters and items; if you have a piece of something you need (like the tail of a missing teddy bear, say), you can tell Brown to find it, and then follow him as he hunts it down. Sometimes he'll lead you to a blocked path, but most of the time his nose saves you a lot of tedious wandering around the gigantic, freely explorable airship.
There's fighting, too, but it's a frustrating hurdle that's meant to be avoided. Every so often, packs of imps - horrid little goblins who carry pushbrooms and knives - will creep out of the woodwork to try and murder you. Most of them look like ghost-faced toddlers, but plenty of them sport disturbing animal heads, and a few even wear giant bird-shaped costumes to deal out massive damage. Whatever their form, they're more unsettling than scary, and bashing or stabbing them to death is easy even for a cringing wimp like Jennifer. The bosses aren't a lot better, making the monster quotient pretty disappointing.
In fact, if you're expecting horror from Rule of Rose, don't. Granted, the kids are creepy and their pranks on Jennifer are horrific, and some pretty grisly things happen from time to time. But even with the Silent Hill grain filter, the dark halls and the taut string-quartet soundtrack, any suspense just falls flat. Maybe it's the sluggish pace, or maybe it's that you revisit the same places so many times, they eventually become familiar. Or maybe it's just impossible to be frightened when the only things that lurk in the shadows are comical, short and easy to outrun and outfight.
There's no denying that Rule of Rose is extremely pretty, atmospheric and disturbing. Unfortunately, it fails on just about every other level. The gameplay is tedious, the scares are nonexistent and Jennifer is such a cringing, passive non-entity that you'll likely identify more with her malevolent (but strangely endearing) tormenters. It's still worth a look to try and piece together its unsettlingly weird story, but as an adventure game, Rule of Rose just sort of wilts.