As the popular saying goes, less is more. It’s a mantra that’s at the heart of a lot of great games, as they tell stories through actions rather than words, vaguely guiding you along a story equal parts heart-wrenching and heart-warming. Stark, simple visuals with limited color palettes can make them pop even more. It’s easy to describe games like Journey or Inside in such terms, but it’s rare that I feel able to do so for games by Japanese developers. With A Rose in the Twilight, director Masayuki Furuya brings us one of the greatest examples of this style of design that I’ve seen come from Japan.
If you’re a fan of niche Japanese Vita games and thought that A Rose in the Twilight looked a little familiar, you’ve got a good eye. A Rose in the Twilight comes from the same director and team at Nippon Ichi that put out htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary, a bizarrely named 2D puzzle platformer that shares a lot of DNA with A Rose in the Twilight.
Much like Firefly Diary, A Rose in the Twilight tells a dark and mysterious story with little dialogue. You control a girl who wakes up in a decrepit castle with a white rose on her back and the ability to repeatedly die and be reanimated from nearby crystallized flowers. After discovering the ability to absorb blood into the rose from all manner of objects, as well as a mysterious giant golem who seeks to help you navigate the castle, you go forward to try and uncover the events that led her to be this way..
The washed out, anime visuals of the game contrast sharply with the gruesome events that unfold on-screen. You see the protagonist Rose break her neck, be killed by a guillotine, fall to her death, and more. You’ll also absorb bloodstains of the deceased that show you silent, storybook style cutscenes hinting at the events surrounding not only what happened to Rose, but the castle as well. It’s a bleak and mysterious world, perfectly realized by its unique visuals. While the game also boasts haunting, environmental music, the tracks are often short loops that initially immersed me in the world, but soon enough ended up lulling me to sleep.
Whereas Firefly Diary focused on twitch reactions and trial and error gameplay, A Rose in the Twilight employs slower yet still challenging puzzles that match up with the dark, dreary setting. Rose can absorb blood from one object and transfer it to another. An object drained of blood is suspended in time, so a monster will be frozen, a pressure plate door will stays open if you step on it then absorb, and boxes or planks stay floating in mid-air. Rose is small and frail, though. She can’t walk through thorns, she can’t survive long falls, or survive running into a monster. The silent giant that accompanies you can do all of this, as well as pick up, carry, and throw a myriad of objects in the game, including Rose herself.
These are the basic mechanics that form the backbone of A Rose in the Twilight’s puzzle design, but beyond a few initial tutorial-esque puzzle rooms, the challenges you face throughout the game mix things up almost constantly, or at lest elevate them even further in a way that really makes you flex your thinking. Some puzzle rooms needed your two characters glued to each other almost constantly, while others split them up in unique ways. One puzzle room was the standard fare of freezing objects midair and activating doors, until suddenly a horde of monsters appeared at the end of the hallway Rose was standing in, and I had to rush to get the giant across to her and hide her from the monsters.
The puzzles in the game maintain a decent amount of difficulty, making you explore your options without any hints. With frequent checkpoints, the trial-and-error involved in discovering your solutions is hardly an annoyance, especially with almost instant load times. There were a handful of times when puzzles left me absolutely stumped, though, and in the end it was always because I had either came into the room with blood I didn’t need or without blood from the previous room that I needed. With the way rooms and checkpoints are structured in the game, it’s hard to tell when a puzzle expects you to start fresh with no blood, or walk back a few feet into the previous room to grab blood and then proceed, and encounters like these always put a hard stop on my progress, and my enjoyment.
The game also tends to be pretty loose with the way objects and characters interact with each other. There were a few instances where I overcame a certain obstacle or maneuvered past a certain enemy in a way that I later realized might not have been the intended method, such as when I had my giant stand directly in front of an enemy to trap it in a corner while Rose just barely slipped under it to reach a ladder, rather than throwing a barrel at the enemy to kill it. Little hiccups in the animations or interactivity like this did lead to some nice open-endedness on how you can approach the encounters in the game, but that same open nature led me to overthink some scenarios, or follow the wrong train of thought toward a solution.
Much like the puzzles you’ll spend around 10 hours toiling through, the story of A Rose in the Twilight, while initially cryptic and mysterious, leads to some satisfying revelations. Imagine The Last Guardian, but as a sidescroller, and with a lot of blood. The bond that develops between Rose and her giant is wonderful, and I ended up being so attached to this unlikely pair of protagonists without any dialogue ever being exchanged. The bleak events of the game and the constant death our protagonist faces is padded out by beautiful moments of bonding between her and the giant, and it helps balance the narrative with a portion of hopeful optimism.
As a spiritual successor to Firefly Diary, A Rose in the Twilight excels in nearly every way. The simple art style of the game makes the gruesome events of the game even more striking, and you feel for this mysterious, troubled girl and her equally mysterious golem companion, as they traverse death traps and monster mazes in search of answers. It’s a carefully constructed narrative that never once feels hindered or neutered by the lack of direct dialogue. Despite a few encounters that were too vague for my tastes, the puzzles and challenges you face in the game are satisfying and difficult in just the right way. It all comes together in a wonderful package with a few stray flaws, but they hardly end up detracting from an otherwise beautiful experience.
Version tested: PS Vita