I can’t think of many PlayStation 2 games out there that command the same collector’s price tag that Rule of Rose does. This game is a monetary investment, even when compared to other rare horror-themed games like Kuon or Haunting Ground. Games sky rocket in price for many reasons, normally it’s from low print amounts vs a high demand, but in the case of Rule of Rose, there’s a whole lot more going on. This game has one of the most fascinating history lessons in games media attached to it. However, I’m not here to review the game, Rule of Rose is over a decade old, and plenty of other people have tackled the strengths and weaknesses of the game’s sluggish combat, weird story, and engrossing soundtrack. Rather, I want to talk about why this game is special and all of the red tape it had to go through to see a release outside of Japan.
Rule of Rose is the second, and last, game made by Punchline after a request from Sony. Keep in mind that development for this game probably started sometime in 2005 following the success that was Resident Evil 4 as well as the huge bump survival horror was seeing in general. Punchline decided to follow their own ideas though, and tried creating a much more grounded horror-adventure than a psychological nightmare or zombie-infested action game. That is to say, Rule of Rose doesn’t exactly get the adrenaline going like most horror classics.
A lot of it has to do with the gameplay, there’s not a lot of combat, and most of the time you’re walking from one clue to the next, and taking in the visuals around you. This is a late PS2 title, and the PlayStation 3 was only a few months away from release when Rule of Rose released in the US. Punchline put a whole lot of love into the game’s visuals though, and I feel confident in saying this is probably one of the best-looking PlayStation 2 games out there. Some of the character models could use a little work, but the background is where the real beauty lies. Every environment feels full, and you never see an empty skybox. Little details stick around from one chapter to the next, such as bloodstains left form a boss battle, or items that get destroyed or moved in cut scenes.
Speaking of the cut scenes, the pre-rendered ones are breathtaking in detail. I’d honestly say they rival something like Final Fantasy X in terms of quality. Punchline teamed up with a professional 3D animation studio to craft some of the most visually stunning things on the PS2. Lighting, composition, movement, all of it has a level of detail to it not seen in a game at the time. Dark backgrounds are dramatically lit by candle light while shadows on characters faces add to the dramatic tension of the scene. Scenes are motion-captured, so Rule of Rose dodges that weird uncanny valley problem a lot of 6th generation games have. A lot of love went into constructing all of the games aesthetics and themes, and it’s a shame that this is partly what led to the game receiving so much bad press when it came time to bring it overseas.
A little before E3 2006, Sony of America announced they would not be publishing Rule of Rose in the west. They cited the game having “erotic themes” between its cast of minors, and that not being something they’d want to publish. We really need to have a talk about “erotic,” because I don’t think the Sony rep that used this term fully understood what they were getting into, nor do I think they actually saw what Rule of Rose was like.
The reality of the situation is that a few girls in the game show romantic interest in another, but it’s not overplayed or taken to an extreme. It actually does work well in the story, since one of its bigger themes is trust and compassion between people. Erotic isn’t exactly the word I’d use to describe it, but the snowball was set into motion, and plenty of non-gaming related outlets started to cover it. This ignorance was then exacerbated through myriads of interviews and articles where people covering the game focused almost exclusively on this one part of a much larger whole.
Rule of Rose was banned in Australia and New Zealand after major news stations covered it and made up faux stories of the game’s content. It received similar coverage in Europe, with Italian news stations claiming there were scenes of underage girls being raped and killed if you failed. A few politicians in France actually tried to pull together a bill to ban the game and control graphic content in video games from the outrage.
The game received bad to lukewarm reception from critics when it finally released under ATLUS USA in September 2006. Rule of Rose eventually fell into obscurity, and I bet you’d have a hard time finding anyone that cares or remembers anything about it. I do think this is a game worth playing if you’re interested in odd passion projects. Rule of Rose pushed a lot of weird boundaries for its time; both in story and visual content. I’m not certain anyone ever tackled the concept of how cruel and unusual children can be to each other in a video game, but I feel that Rule of Rose was just a little bit shy of doing it well. The steep price tag for the game is definitely not worth it, so maybe you’d be better off just watching the game instead. In a different time this game could have been the first Deadly Premonition, a flawed game with a lot of heart and cult following.