You hear something out of the ordinary from the hallway, or rather, you hear nothing – definitely not ordinary. Thank God you were in the kitchen when you didn’t hear it; with a blade fast at hand and a veritable lifetime of experience chopping vegetables, you head out into the mansion to see what’s making all that silence
These are the first few tentative steps into the beautiful nightmare that is Phantom Rose, a procedural turn-based adventure card game by developer makaroll. If my flawless riffle shuffle and love of Lisa: The Painful are any indication, there are two easy ways to win my heart: card games and complicated but rewarding status effect systems, both of which Phantom Rose provides in droves.
There’s much to be said about Phantom Rose, the art is beautiful with lashings of elegant gothic drab, the music is a simple loop that somehow never outstays its welcome, the gameplay is intuitive and engrossing, and I’ve lost dozens of hours of my life to this bottomless pit of fun and (at times) mild frustration. However, the final cupid’s arrow through my heart was the novel approach towards the standard card-game fare and the aforementioned fantastic status effect system.
At first glance, the gameplay seems deceptively simple. You begin with a deck of base cards, some base stats, and a cute dress. Easy enough, at least until you defeat your first enemy, then the horror begins to dawn. Cards in Phantom Rose are limited. “Well of course they are, it’s a card game!” I hear at least one of you cry, but au contraire mon ami, for you see, besides a handful of exceptions, you can use each card only once, ever, and the only way to obtain new cards is by copying them or defeating enemies.
This mechanic has been a bit of a point of contention among the fanbase, seeming to evoke a love-it-or-hate-it response from most. Surprisingly, I fall into the former camp. The restriction of your card-pool leads to a complex meta-play where you find yourself quick-calculating how many rooms there are left to the area, what types of enemies spawn here, what cards you’re going to need to conserve, and which ones you can afford to throw away before facing down this floor’s boss.
Choice. That’s the name of the game, and you find yourself drowning in it. You’re dealt 8 cards each turn (3 in play, 5 in hand) which you can swap out or redraw, for a price. Roses are the only currency in this gothic horrormance, of course, blood is an acceptably red substitute if necessary. You redraw cards with roses, you copy cards with roses, you burn cards for roses, you slay the beasts of the mansion for roses, you keep a nervous eye on your ever dwindling supply of roses.
Phantom Rose is a marathon, not a series of short sprints, and you need to plan ahead – very far ahead. Not every fight can be won, and if you’re not careful, you’ll find that out the hard way, again, and again, and again. Strategy is your friend and ally, luck a capricious ex that only texts you when they’re drunk, hope a man on life support in a hospital bed next to this metaphor.
And strategy is where we come to the fantastic status effect system. I can’t hope to cover all of the status effects and synergies, but they’re by far the most interesting aspect of the game. There’s cards that inflict bleeding, that increase your strength if you inflict bleeding, that inflict double damage if your enemy is bleeding, there’s fear, a status effect that inflicts damage each turn equal to the total duration of the buffs that you have active at the end of each turn, cards that grant barrier each turn or each time you’re attacked, and cards that add +1 to attack every turn that ends on an odd numbered duration for the status effect (a duration that goes up by 1 every time you’re attacked) to name a scant few.
Do you want to build a deck around Fear Attack, striking only once every few turns, otherwise dropping as many buff and buff refresh cards you can so the enemy takes more damage from your buff durations? Do you want to inflict bleed status five times in two turns, increasing your strength every time you do? Maybe you’d rather turtle and gain 5 barrier at the start of every fight, every time you’re attacked, every time your turn ends until you’re a veritable tank able to weather just about anything that can be thrown at you.
Most deck builds are viable (if sometimes difficult to solely focus on), and you’ll quickly find yourself falling into a groove of play that suits your personal style. Of course, this also seems deceptively simple until it sinks in that most enemies are geared around similar synergistic approaches that you need to learn to counter both through meticulous planning and panicked flying by the seat of your pants.
See, enemies don’t simply get cards, that would be too easy, they also frequently have enemy-specific permanent or semi-permanent buffs that range from inflicting bleed every time they damage you, to doubling attack power every turn they start below half health, to matching your attack and defense stats at the end of each turn, and these buffs can be devastating. If you want to succeed then you’ll need to know more than how to craft a powerful synergy, you’ll need to know how it can be countered, how to counter that counter, and how to counter every other synergy you’re going to come across.
Phantom Rose presents an all too rare experience, a game where status effects aren’t simply nice additions or game-breaking asides, but crucial mechanics that create a rich and varied meta-game, and if you’re anything like me, it’s one that’ll keep you engrossed for countless hours.
When I first started playing Phantom Rose, there was one word that came to mind at the end of every run: frustration. There were constant balance issues, junk cards, effects that were completely worthless, and enemies that would arbitrarily end runs if you weren’t perfectly prepared for them (and you won’t be). However, in the latest update, not only have all of these issues been fixed, but extra layers of complexity and challenge have been added that keep me coming back for more time and again.
No fight feels easy, everything takes planning and risk. You’ll find yourself lurching towards the camp with less than 15 health, wondering if you’ll survive the trek, you weigh the risk of trying to save a fellow maid from a powerful phantom against the reward of obtaining a potentially invaluable item, you wonder if you should spend your roses to redraw your cards to conserve what you’ll need for the boss or save them so you can duplicate some of your remaining cards for the final showdown, and it’s beautiful.
Add in some gothic horror overtones, beautiful art, some cute dresses, a stellar game loop, and shake thoroughly, because trust me, you’ll be shook.
If this sounds like your cup of tea, come and join the party. Don’t let the mixed user reviews deter you, if you’re still interested at this point you’ll likely fall into the love-it camp, and you’ll be in very good company.
Phantom Rose is currently available on Steam, you can follow the developer, makaroll, on Twitter, or find out more about the game on its website. Give it a try, have some fun, and may the cards be ever in your favour.
Mx. Medea is a writer, artist, and editor who spends most of their time drawing things with squares and buried under a small pile of endless paper copy. When not working they can be found playing everything from interesting indie fare to oldschool games. You can find them, their art, and their opinions @Mx_Medea on Twitter.