Why are creepy kids so disturbing? From The Omen to The Exorcist, the perverted innocent trope has always been a controversial one, and Punchline's 2006 survival horror, Rule of Rose, is no different. Like The Exorcist before it, this twisted tale of juvenile depravity was banned in the UK.
The reason for it being denied a release here was due to some scenes that suggested an inappropriate relationship with a minor. Other countries also took issue with the game, but I have to mention France in particular who banned it for child torture, which doesn't actually happen. If anything the children are the torturers. Punchline refused to remove a particularly leery scene (one that was important to the overall plot) and so, my Amazon pre-order could not be fulfilled. The controversy was even an excuse for Sony, who published it in Japan, to wash their hands of the international release with Atlus handling the US and 505 Game Street, a budget publisher, handling the European countries that allowed it. The result is that this has become the Holy Grail of PlayStation 2 library and therefore the most expensive. It can currently go for upwards of £300 for the EU and US versions.
The game tells a rather disturbing, yet oddly beautiful tale of adolescence and female identity. The non-linear way it's told and the penchant for metaphor over direct storytelling can make it a bit impenetrable for some, but it ultimately demands contemplation and discussion.
Set in an orphanage located in the English countryside during the 1930s, the game begins with our adult protagonist, Jennifer, stepping off a bus in the middle of nowhere. A mysterious child approached her and, in the first of many nods to Alice in Wonderland, she follows him into a place where nothing is what it seems. Soon enough, she comes across an old building that is the orphanage. Through the gates, a couple of children hidden behind paper-bag masks use bats to beat on a potato sack presumably filled with something living.
If that's not creepy enough, the inside of the building is even worse. Child-like laughter echoes through the halls and any room you're not allowed to enter will get slammed shut by the giggling girl from the other side. The atmosphere is palpable and coupled with the controversy makes the game a chilling experience.
It is some time after this dream-like opening that any semblance of a plot is introduced. A group of girls have formed a gang called the Aristocrats of the Red Crayon. It has a hierarchy in which the lowliest is subjected to all kinds of humiliating torture. The bottom rung is now you. Quite why a woman in her twenties takes this so seriously is up for speculation (you have to read into the game for any theory which I won't spoil just yet).
The game plays a lot like Resident Evil, though I found this game to be far more structured around puzzle solving and esoteric ambience. Most of the game takes place on a luxurious Zeppelin and not the orphanage itself so any exploration done in the opening section isn't particularly helpful. At some point, you'll be introduced to a canine companion named Brown that serves as your only ally throughout the game. You are able to save him from a particularly unnerving situation a couple of hour in the game and from then on he'll be a great help. He'll sniff out important items, hold off enemies and even help with attacking. His animations and actions are well observed which help to make this lovable mutt more than just a game mechanic. He is your safety blanket for the horrors yet to come.
If there is one mechanic that's underbaked it's in the combat. The fact that the first enemy doesn't appear until roughly an hour in tells you everything about the game's priorities but they are frequent enough to sully the whole experience quite a bit. Or at least for the more casual of players. The standard enemies are imp-like creatures that are the same height as an eight-year-old. Their frightening, distorted faces are sometimes covered by masks that represent something going on within the current chapter. For example, one chapter depicts a terrible event with a rat tied to a stick. Now these imps have rat masks and carry knives. Another chapter sees a pet bird escape its cage and the creatures dorn tall hats and start to peck in your direction.
Different masks indicate different abilities and attack patterns each enemy has, but the best course of action is to simply scurry past them. Not only will they continually re-spawn to the point of being overwhelming, your attack abilities are nothing short of pathetic. Put it this way, when your very first weapon in the game is a fork, you fighting an uphill battle. Even when you get something more appropriate like a knife or bat, combat is incredibly tedious. The attack animations are painstakingly slow, which leaves you open for attack and when you are taken down, it takes an age to get back up.
This is particularly frustrating in the bosses, most notably the first. A gimped-up headmaster who was previously introduced as a lecherous paedophile will follow you around a small area and attack whenever he's near. He's quite slow so you can out-run him, but his attack animation is quicker than yours. Not only that but by the time you've recovered from your first hit, his second attack is already in motion and has become unblockable. It takes three hit before your meter drains and you die, and a lifetime to take him down. You see, at this point, any weapon that's strong enough to do him great damage is so slow that it's pointless. The way I beat him was to fork him in the back for half an hour. At least Mr Hoffman's metaphorical representation as a sexual predator is an apt one.
So, if the combat is an absolute joke, why is this game so sought after? The answer is in the story, the atmosphere and the dark themes rarely represented in interactive media. Jennifer is dealing with the trauma of past events that took place in the orphanage, including abuse of a sexual, physical and psychological nature. Not all of which came from the adults. Her past is coming back to her in a non-linear and fantastical fashion - the events that take place in the confines of the Zeppelin actually happened to a young Jennifer in the orphanage. The reason for the zeppelin is revealed later on in the game but this theory also explains why she acts like a child in an adults body.
When we're first introduced to each orphaned child, regard of club affiliation, we're given a text to describe them. For example, Olivia is given the title of the 'tearful Princess' while Jennifer herself is referred to as the 'unlucky girl'. In fact, every child is given the title of Prince or Princess except Jennifer so that begs the question: is she really an Orphan? This is just one of the many questions that arise, and speculating about each and every one of them that arise in the deep and complex narrative ultimately elevates it to a masterpiece.
Here's a brief conjecture: it is inferred that there is also a child killer nearby and that both Jennifer and Wendy of the the Red Crayon Aristocracy may have been subjected to his cruelty. It's not mentioned outright but there are many clues within the child drawings, storybooks and Jennifers fantastical interpretations of the events. And that's just the tip of the iceberg! You can read about all of the plot intricacies and theories here, but I highly recommend you play the game to completion first. Coming up with your own conclusions is half the fun and what ultimately elevates the game to excellence.
I've been reading a lot of talk recently about the ill-conceived gender-swapped movie adaptation of The Lord of the Flies, which does share some common themes with Rule of Rose. While I have a lot of issues with that idea as an adaptaion, Rule of Rose is proof that feminine barbarity in young girls can be an interesting and potent one. There was a reason why The Lord of the Flies was written with boys in mind, and why Rule of Rose primarily features girls. Yet both feature youths turned savage in the absence of societal rules (the faculty were obviously neglectful at best).
This survival horror is a game like no other. It is heavily flawed in the combat but it is strangely inconsequential to the overall experience. It is a master-class of interactive narrative that broaches heady subjects and plays with an established formula in a thought-provoking way.
To download the game, follow the link below. This custom installer exclusive to The Collection Chamber uses PCSX2 to emulate the game on PCs. XBox 360 controllers supported. Manual included. Tested on Windows 10.
File Size: 1.73 Gb. Install Size: 1.78 Gb. Need help? Consult the Collection Chamber FAQ
Rule of Rose is © Sony Computer Entertainment Inc
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me