I saw a little bit of Rule of Rose while I was at E3 this year. It looked pretty interesting. A survival horror game starring children, rather than adults. The developers have said in interviews that they wanted to show off the dark side of children, that kind of innocent (or not so innocent) cruelty that kids often display in their interactions with others. I'm sure that you've seen one group of kids completely ostracize another child and laugh about it. Things that are innocent to children can be horrifying to adults. Rule of Rose tries to hook into that feeling and give it a twist. Rule of Rose is one of the creepiest games I've played, but not in the sense of being scary. In truth, I didn't find Rule of Rose very scary at all. We'll get to that, though.
The basic plot is an interesting one. Jennifer is an orphan who ends up going against a group of children called the Aristocrat Club. The Aristocrat Club is full of jerks who are just that side of insane. She's joined by Brown, a poor, abused dog who is astonishingly good at finding items. The story is a twisted fairy tale at its heart. The on-screen captions and text tend to take the form of shaky, handwriting-esque script which is more than a little hard to read at times.
The game does a good job of delivering appropriate atmosphere. The orphanage is dark, dreary, and oppressive. The game feels almost claustrophobic a lot of the time. The graphics are pretty good for a PS2 title. The characters are nicely detailed and the environments are filled with little touches to enhance the creepy factor. There are the usual untouchable items, of course, and odd impediments to your travel, but these will be old hat to survival horror fans.
The first playable scene in the game features brief glimpses of children peeking from behind walls and doors, whispers, quiet laughs, and dark corners. It does a good job of conveying the sense that you are not alone, no matter how much you wish you were. Things are out there that wish you ill and there isn't too much you can do about it.
That is the problem. The controls, and to a larger extent, Jennifer, suck. You're given the usual third-person control scheme and the ability to switch the camera before or behind you in certain areas. The thing is, I found the controls very touchy. Trying to line up just right to do certain tasks was a chore. I'm not expecting pixel-perfect, snap-to-target action here, but a little more fine-tuning on the controls would've been a great help.
Something that is no help is that Jennifer is a bad fighter and an obnoxiously inept, mewling hero. From frame one of the game, she's huddled over, breathing hard, and apparently scared. When you hold the button to make her go into melee combat, well, she punches like a wimp. The Silent Hill games did a pretty good job of giving us inept protagonists, but not so inept as to be distracting. Jennifer fails at that. She is distracting and that kills the horror vibe.
So, if the controls and Jennifer kill the horror vibe, where does the creepy come from? It comes from the treatment of kids throughout the game. The children are wonderfully motion captured and move beautifully, so that isn't the problem. The problem is obvious from the demo CG when you turn on the game. There's a very palpable sexual subtext to the game. This may be a direct result of the developers wanting to compare and contrast how children view things as opposed to how adults view things, but the game gave me a pretty solid sense of "weird." I'm pretty far from a prude, but the underlying themes in the game's cinemas and imagery are definitely uncomfortable-making.
Rule of Rose isn't a complete failure of a title by any means. Despite the unabashed creep-out factor, there is an interesting story to be found. It's a fairy tale as scene through a looking glass mirror. My biggest gripe is that it just isn't very fun to play. It's a decidedly average game in a genre with two stand-out and hyper-popular series that it will inevitably be compared to. It's a decent ride if there's nothing else around, but that's about it.