Review – Phantom Rose 2: Sapphire
The word sequel is such a mixed bag when it comes to understanding cohesion and plot. If you come from the school of Final Fantasy, you know that there’s almost never a connection with a couple of rare exceptions. Five Nights at Freddy’s keeps scrapping and reinventing the story every so often, so it’s pointless to keep up. Thankfully, the number of games that require you to have vested knowledge in the lore are few and far between, and Phantom Rose 2: Sapphire does an excellent job of bringing in newcomers with zero background of the series.
The second game in a deckbuilding, roguelike adventure, this time around players are dropped into the shoes of Aria, who is a mild amnesiac who seems to only remember certain things. She knows she’s at a school for magic, and that it’s bad everything is dark and scary. A talking cat confirms that things are, indeed, bad, and then it’s off to the races. For the most part, that’s all that needs to be said about the story: there’s a very intricate and surprising tale that unfolds through multiple playthroughs, but we’ll get to that in a second. Just know that you’re more in the Children of the Red King territory than Harry Potter and you’ll be good to go.
Phantom Rose 2: Sapphire plays out in a very specific fashion. You have a map that may or may not have multiple choices for which room to approach next. Depending on your choice, you’ll either engage in battle, find treasure, rest, shop, or have a special event. A majority of the special events are locked behind clearing different levels of the story, so don’t be discouraged if you can’t experience them the first time around. Most of the time you’ll be doing battle, whether it’s with random minions, saving fellow students from high-leveled phantoms, accidentally starting combat because you screwed up a treasure hunt or simply clearing a floor to get to the next level. Once you’re in a fight, that’s where the game takes off with its approach.
Players are only allowed to play two cards per turn in Phantom Rose 2: Sapphire, and the two cards are mandatory. You have cards that deal damage, some that heal, some that add a barrier affect and some that do random other things. Status ailments can affect both you and/or the opponent, and the order of card resolution is shuffled unless another card or item changes this. Cards have no casting cost, but they all have cooldown timers, which forces players to not rely strictly on two card combinations. Win and you get some Sapphires and/or Soul Roses as well as a card or two. Lose and this run is over, but you’ll retain some experience and knowledge from your failed attempts.
There are a multitude of ways to approach your deckbuilding, as cards will come from shops and combat, but it ultimately boils down to either approaching as an offensive or defensive player. In spite of the variety of cards, you have to take a chance and build in one specific direction to maximize efficiency, particularly when you get past the Silver Adventure and move into Gold or even Diamond. There is a massive variety of cards, so being able to zero in on a singular build or synergy takes patience, luck and sometimes an abhorrent number of sapphires to get the right alignment.
Deck limits are also strictly enforced, so meandering, massive card libraries never become a real possibility. The pathways are carefully crafted so you must stop at a camp at least once a floor, and you cannot decamp until you filter down your deck to the appropriate amount. This draconian approach was a massive relief to me: being forced to parse the deck to a smaller size meant strategizing on the fly and needing to commit to a pathway as soon as possible. Plus, it gave me more opportunities to try out a card and then not be penalized for needing to get rid of it. Looking at you, Slay the Spire and wasting my life trying to unload the starter attacks and defense cards.
For newcomers, such as myself, the regular “Blade” mode of Phantom Rose 2: Sapphire is an excellent setup and engagement for how to play and how to really explore the mechanics of the series. Balancing cooldown with attacks and defense is a fairly standard affair, but it’s executed well in terms of card randomization and enemy interaction. I appreciate that monsters are often pulling from attacks that, while not completely the same, are similar and thus allow the player to strategize well. Even the most serious boss battles rarely take longer than eight phases, which means the game is also streamlined for action and activity. A start to finish run can be in as little as twenty minutes if you’re lucky and hit all the posts on Silver, but you’re generally looking at about 45 minutes.
Once you get yourself situated, trying the “Mage” mode is a clever twist on penalties and strategy. The Arcane energy bar means attack cards deplete (sometimes more the further in the phase they are) and Magic cards replenish what needs to be used from phase to phase. Use up all your Arcane and you’ve got no choice but to go on the defensive (or sometimes the very creative offensive). I actually preferred the Mage mode because it required a bit more consideration and, frankly, I felt like I got better and cooler cards from the draw pool in comparison to the blade.
As much as I enjoy the mechanics of Phantom Rose 2: Sapphire, some things felt redundant, vestigial or even just frustrating. Take, for example, the Magic cards that both Blade and Mage start off with. They’re so incredibly vanilla and boring that you’ll look to burn them at the first available campsite. Heal four life, gain four barrier…there’s just no pizazz there. I realize they’re the starting cards, but when the attacks are “Deal six damage unless the opponent might attack then deal ten damage” or “Attack and the next card now magically becomes a copy of this card,” it’s so much more exciting, and it causes the average user to lean into the offensive gameplay because it’s objectively more exciting.
In that same vein, the Luck stat, which affects seemingly everything in the game, holds too much importance given how random it can be. When Luck affects the outcome of some of the non-combat events, like picking the right doll or finding a treasure, that’s perfectly acceptable. But when a higher luck stat means a three barrier card becomes an eight barrier card more often, or a lower luck stat means a certain boss is nearly impossible to hit after activating a status buff, it’s ridiculous. I shouldn’t have to hit my head against the keyboard for a fifteen minute fight because RNG is feeling spiteful.
Having said that, I really enjoyed the atmosphere and story blossoming forth from Phantom Rose 2: Sapphire. Aria is a darling of a protagonist, and she is beset from all sides by support characters who are mysterious, adorable, ditzy, curious, and deeply, frighteningly disturbed. The world may be a well trodden ground of a magic school with a dark history and some kind of malevolent force exercising forbidden power, but that doesn’t make it any less fun. I wish there had been some voice work to carry along the characters, because the soundtrack does a wonderful job of crafting a soundscape of mystical, gothic intrigue.
One thing that’s really turned me off from recent roguelite deckbuilders are the constant attempts to emulate Slay the Spire. Though the game is truly excellent and addicting, it makes no sense to consistently attempt to ape the style, flare or setup for how the game should be played. I sincerely appreciate that Phantom Rose 2 makes no attempts to be anything other than itself. There are an innumerable number of ways to earn in game currency to improve your run and improve the overall game, and, because this is the gaming world now, a bunch of costumes for Aria that take a laughable number of Diamonds (run clear currency) to obtain.
Yet the price of admission for Phantom Rose 2: Sapphire is merely the initial price tag and your time. Players will have a blast with this fully formed deckbuilder, both in terms of replay and strategy, not to mention incredible load times. Here’s to hoping that makaroll adds some Steam overlay and achievements in the future, because it’s too grand a game not to flex when you truly get into the haunting and compelling storyline. Good luck, players.
Heavily stylized character design evokes the appropriate sense of raw, mystical mystery combined with some playful and silly elements. Card designs tend to run together due to size, but relics and monsters stand out significantly. Never a visually boring experience.
The Mage class does change up how one should approach the game, but there’s nothing here that completely reinvents the wheel of deckbuilding. Once you understand a couple of the basics for useable items and cooldown, you can play comfortably for hours at a time.
A stellar arrangement of synthetic piano, strings and synthesized foreboding, the music helps to craft a world in which you aren’t merely slapping down cards, but genuinely fighting for your life in a world gone dark and wild.
To be honest, I wish I had a Steam Deck so I could play this more. Tons to unlock, lots of great character designs and some compelling story elements means players can dive back in again and again to find something new or unlock yet another element of style.
Final Verdict: 8.0
Phantom Rose 2: Sapphire, is available now on Steam.
Reviewed on PC.
A copy of Phantom Rose 2: Sapphire was provided by the publisher.