Editor’s note: There are spoilers below.
Rule of Rose is a unique sort of survival-horror game. This genre has always been slow paced and has never focused on combat, but Rule of Rose takes this to an extreme. Enemy encounters are rare throughout the first half of the game, and while they do become more common during the second half, there are still long stretches of time in which you just wander the dilapidated environment with your dog, sniffing out potential gifts for the Aristocrat Club, which is the true source of horror in this game.
Rule of Rose mostly takes place in an old orphanage and a crumbling airship, and both places are ruled by a group of young girls that call themselves the Aristocrat Club. You play as Jennifer, a new arrival, and as a new arrival, you’re at the bottom of the social ladder. Whereas other horror games create their scares through disturbing imagery and scenes of violence, Rule of Rose derives it’s horror from scenes of intense bullying and mental, not physical, torture.
The Aristocrat Club demands one gift every month and failure to bring a proper gift results in a nasty punishment as well as social isolation. Jennifer is ostracized from the very beginning. During the long stretches of exploration, the environment is populated with several characters: girls from the club, boys that just want to fight with wooden swords, and a couple of uncaring adults. All of them are painfully indifferent to Jennifer’s existence, which actually adds to the sense of loneliness and isolation. Feeling loneliness when you’re amongst others is more devastating than if you were actually alone.
The music enhances this feeling. There are only a couple tracks of music in the whole game that are looped over and over again, so you’ll hear the same out of tune violin or piano no matter what you’re doing, exploring or fighting. It’s as if the game itself doesn’t care about you.
These elements compel you to look for the Aristocrat Club gifts, if only to put an end to the isolation, but it’s once you find your first gift that the real bullying begins. Another little girl, Amanda, convinces Jennifer to give her the first gift and takes credit for it, leaving Jennifer to be punished. Amanda is given a stick with a live rat tied to the end of it, and she uses it as a spear to attack Jennifer, shoving it into Jennifer’s face until she faints.
However, the next act of bullying is more disturbing since you actually succeed in getting the gift in time, putting Amanda at the bottom. This time Jennifer is given the same rat on a stick, but since a month has passed the rat has died, its body is infested with maggots. Urged on by the other giggling girls of the Aristocrat Club, Jennifer does what she’s told and shoves the dead animal in Amanda’s face, wiping it all over her skin until she passes out.
The acts of torture continue to escalate with each passing month. At one point, Jennifer is thrown into a large potato bag with a tube sticking out of it, so it can be tied and sealed but small objects can still be dropped inside. As she squirms in the bag, each member of the Aristocrat Club (and Amanda) take turns dropping in a bug or dirty animal, another rat, a spider, a beetle, etc, and then leave Jennifer screaming in the bag for an unknown amount of time. It all culminates in the Aristocrat Club kidnapping Brown, your dog and faithful partner throughout the game, and beating him to death while he’s tied up inside another potato bag.
The most frightening thing about these acts is that they aren’t meant to kill or seriously harm Jennifer. Her life is only ever in danger when supernatural forces appear to infest the environment, but these are actually the least scary parts of the game due to the slow, frustrating combat. In fact, the enemies don’t even look very scary, but then they’re not supposed to be scary; they’re not the central source of horror in Rule of Rose, the other children are.
The Aristocrat Club members prove their dominion over Jennifer by forcing her into submission, isolating her from their miniature society to the point that she’s so desperate for social interaction that she tortures others just as she’s been tortured in order to receive the Club members’ backhanded compliments and patronizing praise. The scariest thing in Rule of Rose isn’t the monsters, it’s her transformation into one.
In the end, she rebels against their system, but by then, the non-linear story has gotten so confusing that it’s no longer disturbing. For the first several hours however, Rule of Rose is a unique survival horror game that manages to be at its most disturbing when you’re in the least amount of danger.