There are games out there that value substance over style, simple-looking games that hide a lot of depth within their gameplay. There are also those games that value style over gameplay. Everything meshes well, stylistically speaking, whether it's music or graphics, and the game is fun to watch, though it may lack any real substance beneath. Rule of Rose is of the latter, opting for an intriguing and perplexing story set in a rich 1930's setting, while skimping heavily on gameplay elements.
You are Jennifer, a 19-year-old girl whose parents have just perished. You're off to an orphanage, which would sound odd for someone that old to go to, but trust me, you'll find out why. But this isn't just any orphanage. Set in the lonely British countryside, this is the kind of place you never want to go to as a kid. Run by the 'Aristocrat Club,' a creepy cabal of young girls, this orphanage is home to creepy creatures, a peculiar past, and some seriously confusing plot. The gameplay is your standard survival-horror fare, but there are some key elements that differentiate how the game is played. Whether that's enough to actually warrant a purchase is another matter.
The plot of the game is probably the most important part of it, and likely what'll keep you playing. It's...it's something else, I must say. Those uninitiated to the psychological-horror genre need not apply. It's hard to actually describe the plot without giving any of the key points and twists away, so I won't try. Suffice to say, it's like a giant jigsaw puzzle that the game expects you find the pieces to and then put together. You'll need to actually think about what's happening, what you saw happening, what you read, who said what, why, and so forth to get a tenuous grasp as to what exactly is happening to the unlucky girl (as the narrative describes her), Jennifer. If you just play through the game expecting to suddenly be revealed the inner workings of the story, you're going to be left scratching your head at the end. So if peculiar plots and strange twists are your thing, then this might be something to look for. Though I warn you, this can be confusing. We're talking about reading a children's story book in a mansion and looking up to find yourself suddenly in a rose garden. And when I say story book, I'm talking about one where goats get torn in half. Yes. Those kinds of storybooks.
The looks of the game are excellent, and fit extremely well with the setting of 1930's Britain. It's encouraging to see a Japanese studio represent the setting so well, down to the slightest details, as it gets you further immersed into the strange going-ons. Even the voice work is done by native British actors, so the accents are authentic (though the acting, sparse as it is for some characters, could've used some polish.) The music is excellent, done with string instruments and piano, including a few vocal tracks, all in the style of the decade the game is set in.
Combat is usually standard in a typical survival horror. I mean, if there's nothing to fight the main character, where's the fear in death? Well, combat's in Rule of Rose is, in a word, clunky. Terribly so. I mentioned in my first paragraph that gameplay elements were skimped on, and this is exactly what I meant. Jennifer is a young woman who's never seen combat, so it's understandable that she wouldn't wield a blade with finesse. But fighting the creepy things that come at your from the shadows is just painful in this. Your attacks are slow and your reach is not too far, so the enemy is likely to move out of the way before your weapon gets to it, and even the collision detection tends to be off. Sometimes you'll swing through an enemy only to miss, other times they'll jump at you and hit even though it doesn't look like they've hit you at all. Add this to the slow pace of battle, and you'll see why most enemies are avoided.
At the very least, combat is rarely actually required in this game. Enemies spawn continuously all over the place, and leave nothing when killed, so unless you're locked in a room with some, you don't actually have to fight them. You can just slalom around their shrieking forms, which is easy considering how slow they are. Bosses need to be fought, unfortunately, and can be ridiculously tedious compared to the normal fodder you've just run through. Additionally, there is no variation to the enemies. You fight little pale, child-like imp creatures, and that's it. Oh, sometimes they're wearing a pig's head, or a bird's head, or a fish head, but you never fight anything else. So seeing the same small little buggers appear time after time can get pretty monotonous. Luckily, as I said, combat isn't too prevalent, the game lending itself more to the exploration of your locations.
Exploration is done slightly differently in this than other similar titles. Early on you'll get the assistance of a dog named Brown. Now, in most games with canine friends, they're for combat, or doing certain tasks at specific locations, things like that. In this, however, Brown is near-useless in combat (he barks at enemies), but he does something else: he finds things. If you give an item's scent to Brown, he'll hunt down another for you. Most items have at least a couple things that can be found by the mutt. For example, if you let him sniff a biscuit tin, if there are any biscuits in the area, he'll hunt them down and point them out to you (you can't see them otherwise). Using him is nearly essential to finding a good stock of restorative items and whatnot, as otherwise you're probably going to run out really quickly. This adds a lot of time to your playing, as you'll be following Brown around as he sniffs out a bunch of items for you. This can take some time, and can be a little tedious. Luckily, if you don't want him to do it, then don't do it. Just expect a little more challenge.
Aside from consumable items, if you give Brown a plot-specific item, he will find you the next place you need to go to in the plot. Give him a scale; he'll lead you to a fish head. Give him that, he'll lead you to a doll. Give him that, and...well, you get my drift. This is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you play these types of games. If you just want to go through the game and beat it, it's extremely helpful, as it will often lead you exactly where you want to go. On the other hand, this does turn the game into one where you're following a dog half the time, and can be a major turn-off if you want to explore and find all the nooks and crannies. And there are a lot of areas that you won't find yourself in if you're just following the dog.
As for the running around, it's not great. The camera isn't too bad, though. It either stays behind Jennifer (usually in hallways and long areas,) or it's in a fixed position. In both cases though, usually, you can switch the angle of the camera, with the press of a button, to one that's a little more convenient. This can mean either just flipping it to the other side of Jennifer, from back to front, or, in the case of fixed-cameras, just to another position in the same room. It may not be much, but it can help quite a bit when you're trying to figure out where the enemy is. Jennifer runs as slow as molasses, however, and I can't help but wish she'd just pick up a little speed. Considering how tired she always looks, you'd think she'd be running just a little faster. I'm no marathon-runner, but I'm fairly certain I could walk faster than she runs.
As it looks, Rule of Rose is your typical survival horror, with sub-par gameplay but excellent style. Underneath, you'll find a twisted story that takes some time to digest, one that doesn't necessarily have a happy ending (when you die, forget game over. You get "And they all lived happily ever after.") If you're one to value style at the expense of gameplay, then maybe this might be worth a shot. Otherwise, it's just a below-average creepy horror game.