I finished Rule of Rose last night, and I have some very mixed reactions. (One plot spoiler to follow)
First off, despite what the various ads and previews would have you believe, RoR is not nearly as controversial as it sounds. Yes, it involves a society of young girls (the Aristocrat Club) and their mis-treatment of the main character Jennifer. There is no sexual content however, and the other torments she suffers would barely register on a Silent Hill or Resident Evil scale. A dead rat is about as gruesome as anything every gets.
The story itself is very cryptic and ultimately remains that way to the end. There are very few characters, all of whom remain drastically under-developed throughout the story. The girls remain two-dimensional: the brainy one, the fat one, the pretty one, the quiet one, the sick one, etc. The other two or three grown-ups are hardly worth mentioning, aside from the fact that they are the main bad guys.
Ultimately, RoR is a story about a girl and her faithful dog Brown. Jennifer loses her family and is sent to a school/orphanage. All alone, she first finds a friend in Wendy. Not long after, Jennifer finds Brown and they too become fast friends. Wendy does not take this well.
As for the gameplay, it's really nothing new to the survival horror genre. Jennifer is clumsy and hard to control, running in a wide circle whenever she simply needs to about-face. The camera is fixed but you are able to swing it around behind you most of the time. The map provided is almost useless as it has no labeling of rooms in any way. Jennifer is a horrible fighter, and this isn't helped by the awful combat system. It's as basic as you can get. All you can do is swing you weapon and hope you connect. Even if you manage to hit the model of the bad guy, you might still miss. Apparently you have to hit a single pixel embedded in the center of the enemy. Simply hitting its arm, leg or head will not do. This very often puts Jennifer in harm's way, as the enemies don't have to play by the same rules and can often slam Jennifer to the ground simply by walking past her. This leads to some of the worst boss battles I've ever played, the first boss in particular. You have a weak weapon and very few health items at the time. He only has to hit you three times to finish you off, but you have to hit him about 20 or 30. His reach is also twice that of Jennifer's, so you have to run right up to him, swing once, hope you hit him (about a 20/80 chance for and against) then turn (in a wide circle) and run (slowly) away before he can swing or lunge in return. It's some of the worst combat and the most one sided battle I've ever experienced. I only beat him because I managed to catch him in a corner behind Brown.
The main focus of the game is to find various objects that the Aristocrat Club is looking for. All of these end up being animals. Again, don't be fooled, this is a game about a girl and a dog. This isn't some twisted journey into a Lord of the Flies-esque fight for survival. It's a series of fetch quests, literally. Brown's main function is to sniff an item and then fetch something else that smells like it. Sometimes it's just another of the same item, sometimes it's something else. This then leads to the search for the next item and so on. It also leads to some funny shots of some very large objects suddenly appearing under Brown's nose. There are no puzzles to solve, to riddles to answer and for the most part, no battles to fight. When the baddies start to shamble around, it's often easier to simply run past them. Fighting gains you nothing, no items or greater heath or skills. There are a few smaller fights that you must undertake, but these are much simpler than the aforementioned boss battles.
The music throughout the game is excellent. It's all performed by a small string section and ranges in mood from light and almost happy to frantic and disjointed. In general it provides a calm and slightly fussy atmosphere very well suited for the subject matter of children who think that have superior standing and who are trying to be sophisticated, when really they are just a bunch of brats going through the motions.
Possibly the best features of the game are the menu and story-book designs. They all feature shaky, child-like hand-drawn lines that end up being much more wicked and spooky than most of the highly polished CG sequences. That is also a rather apt description of the entire game. At its core, RoR is a wicked children's fable brought to a clumsy, aimless sort of life. That, in turn, is an apt description of the main plot. The children have a broken understanding of the grown-up world, and when they try to mimic it, they are doomed to failure.
Despite all of the negativity above, I enjoyed RoR very much. Then again, I always like games that break away from the traditional definition of what a video game "should" be. RoR, much like Siren or Kuon, is more about the small world it creates than trying to be the biggest and flashiest new thing. It's a clunky independent movie compared to something like a Resident Evil blockbuster (I'm talking about the games, not the actual movies...) They have their flaws, but games like RoR always manage to find a much deeper and far less simple path to follow.
The main question Rule of Rose seems to ask is, what does it mean to protect someone? To have total control over them? To want to keep them for yourself? To own them? You won't find the answers in the splash of zombie brains or a blast of machine-gun fire. You'll find them at the end of a leash.