Shine On You Crazy Gem Pile
It’s not reasonable to compare a real finished product to one you imagined in your head. Even in the case of a direct sequel to a game you’ve played hundreds of times. Hell, especially in that case. It’s easy to imagine how you think such a thing would work, to make predictions, to have hopes and wishes for the finished product. It’s useless to do so, of course, but it’s an easy trap to fall into. So I’m going to evaluate the game in front of me for what it is, as it is, without crosschecking it with my made up version.
With all that said, did this game really need to include a Disney Stick? It’s really good I just – argh. I’m sorry. Let me start over.
Puzzle Strike 2 is the newest release from Sirlin Games. I’ve played all of Sirlin’s released work and not a single entry in his ludography is weak, not even Chess 2: The Sequel, and no you did not misread that title. PS2 does not break this pattern. In fact it represents Sirlin at his most unhinged yet, giving players every tool to break the game wide open then challenging them to do so. Playing it is a feast for the part of your brain that releases dopamine when you pull off combos, slaking that thirst like little else can. Forget comparing it to most physical deckbuilders (your Dominions, Ascensions, Clanks, Star Realms, etc.), this game’s execution competes directly with the mechanism’s most powerful digital cousins. If you thought calculating lethal in Slay the Spire was satisfying, wait until you engineer a 15 step combo that sends three times a lethal dose of gems to your opponent in this. It goes well beyond gratuitous and fully into the realm of the absurd. Glorious.
How does it work? Surprisingly simply. For the unfamiliar, this is a card game based on competitive puzzle games like Puzzle Fighter (or to a lesser extent Puyo Puyo, but this is very much a PF homage). You essentially have the traditional action-buy-cleanup turns of any deckbuilder with some bookends. Every turn starts with an ante of gems tumbling onto your “screen”. Then all bets are off as you spend action points to manipulate your ever-growing gem pile, mitigate incoming gems sent by your opponents before they hit you, and crash clusters of matching colors to attack your opponent. From there you buy a card, not with money but with blood, choosing to either hurt your future self to leverage first-pick of cards that just flipped or playing it safe and taking freebies that have been sitting on the day-old shop slot.
After you’ve tidied up and drawn your next hand the second non-traditional bookend appears: the command decision. See, PS2 is as much a head to head battle as it is a game of king of the hill. On other players’ turns the holder of The Scepter of Power ™ has a choice to make: yield it to the player who just finished their turn, or keep it and fill all of their super meters by 1/4. Given that these meters are very powerful and normally only filled by crashing gems, this is a tremendous amount of value gained by seemingly doing nothing. But much like this game’s currency-free shop nothing comes without cost; the scepter holder is attacked by all other players at any player count, they’re rendered incapable of blocking, and they’re forced to deal with all the garbage sent their way the moment their turn starts without any real chance for reprisal. Massive risk for massive reward but always chosen by the player beforehand, like a tennis match played with a live grenade.
This design tenet of embracing risk reveals itself as the game’s core conceit throughout. Character cards that incentivize it are numerous, rewarding players for floating a potentially lethal gem pile, letting cards of a single color accumulate in the shop (meaning dropped gems will mostly already match), or burning through players’ decks in the hopes that a reshuffle will fix what ails them. The clearest and strongest example is the Height Bonus, a rule that allows players to hit harder and draw more cards the higher their gem pile is. There were benefits to living on the edge in the original game but PS2 takes it to a whole new level. These tradeoffs and risks are always calculated but never have 100% predictable outcomes, and are therefore always exciting, as they should be.
But this game comes with provisos, both for the design and the actual physical object. The former is a single note: this game is far and away at its best with two players. Much like the original Puzzle Strike, Puzzle Fighter before it, and pretty much all of Sirlin’s prior games, it is incredibly well suited for head-to-head play. To the game’s credit it does eschew the first game’s player elimination in favor of a sudden death round once a player finally busts, but this tends to reward whoever happened to draw into an especially strong offensive hand rather than anything planned. As turns are lengthy with no inter-player interruptions, plays that would normally keep you on the edge of your seat in 2p can often seem disconnected from anything you’re doing in multiplayer. They’re not, not really anyway, but they feel that way and the significantly longer play duration doesn’t help. It isn’t that the game is outright bad in multiplayer, it’s that it’s so much better at 2p. Puzzle Fighter was a 1v1 arcade cabinet after all.
Then there’s the matter of the production itself. I want to make my criticism precise so I’ll start with praise – I adore this game’s presentation. The switch from the first game’s cardboard chips to standard cards has allowed for tons of fantastic colorful art, its bright bombardment simultaneously looking great on the table while also aiding legibility. (Editor’s note: I originally drafted a Lisa Frank comparison here but was informed by the art school alumni I married that I was VERY WRONG, so I have omitted it. Just thought you should know.) The plastic gems in particular are a wonderful touch, much easier to grab and manipulate than they would be if they were small cubes or tokens. What I don’t care for is the sheer size of the whole affair – larger than a Ticket to Ride box, for reference – for what is literally a card game. Approximately a third of the air in this box is dedicated to keeping the doofy plastic scepter safely cradled in the insert. It’s wild, and for some I imagine this will be a positive, but I can tell you that folks I’ve shown the battery operated seizure machine to haven’t been especially receptive.
The thing is, none of this should matter if PS2 is good, and it is. Extremely so. One of the best games I’ve played all year, even, and possibly longer if we’re just talking about deckbuilders. It’s bombastic, it’s flashy, it practically fights any attempt at taking it seriously with its aesthetic, and yet there’s a tremendous amount of substance to be found inside for competitively minded players as well as slap happy combo addicts. We haven’t even touched the expansion’s shop decks yet, not when every character change already demands an entirely different approach. It’s a wonderful game that’s stayed within arms’ reach on our shelf since the day it arrived, beating out newer arrivals for attention again and again, and that’s held true in a year with some extremely strong two player competition.
In my head there exists an idealized, personalized Puzzle Strike 2 for me in particular. One with a box half the size and no scepter, replacing it with a pawn or something. Possibly even omitting components for more than two players in order to reduce it to its most potent and powerful state. If that existed it would get my highest possible recommendation for any deckbuilding or dueling aficionados. But that edition does not exist and it would be unfair of me to pretend it does, so I’m done hemming and hawing. Sure the production is ludicrous, but I can’t deny the game’s airtight design and consistent thrills. It’s an ostentatious aberration without a doubt but it’s also without equal in its niche. That has made it more than worth it for us, even if it means we have to play around the big pink elephant in the room.
A copy of this game was independently purchased for review.