Of all the things I imagined Firaxis doing, mostly involving getting on with XCOM 3, there was never a point where I considered them getting their hands on the Marvel license and making a turn-based tactics game involving the Midnight Suns, cards and attending a weekly book club meeting with Blade where you end up discussing a Kree book outlining their military doctrine. And yet here we are. Firaxis has taken their genius and attempted something interesting and a little weird, mixing a bunch of ideas into a chunky 40+ hour adventure. Like a long-running comic’s canon, Marvel’s Midnight Suns is…complicated.
The story focuses on one of the lesser know Marvel teams, The Midnight Suns, an ancient and long-running group that typically deals with the spookier and more magical elements of the Marvel universe and that has a lot of ties to the Spirits of Vengeance. Their line-up tends to include monsters and monster hunters. This incarnation features an eclectic mix of heroes; the half-vampire Blade brings his experience of dealing with things that go bump in the night; Nico, a powerful witch who wields the Staff of One, an awesome tool that lets her do insane things with the caveat that she can’t use a word more than once; Magik, the sister of Colossus and former Queen of Limbo; and Robbie Reyes, the current Ghost Rider. This misfit team of former Runaways, Vampires and flaming skull-heads is led by the Caretaker, a member of the Blood who is hundreds of years old. If you’re a little baffled by all this, that’s perfectly fine.
The events of the plot kick off with the mad Doctor Faustus resurrecting Lillith, The Mother of All Demons, in the hopes of using her to help HYDRA dominate the world, but her arrival actually acts as a trigger of a prophecy that will eventually result in the elder god Chthon returning. To thwart this prophecy the Midnight Suns resurrect Lillith’s child, known only as the Hunter, who defeated his or her mother hundreds of years ago, sacrificing their own life in the process. But to defeat the combined might of Lillith, HYDRA and a looming prophecy the Hunter will have to bring together not only the Midnight Suns, but also a sizable chunk of the Avengers.
Getting to play with a roster of Marvel heroes ranging from famous names that headline the MCU to far lesser-known niche characters must be a dream come true to any comic book fan, and yet with that, there has to be an intense feeling of pressure: these are established personalities and while you can make your own mark, there’s an innate need to keep them true to themselves. Firaxis opted for a style of dialogue that draws from the MCU’s love of near-constant quips across its 40+ runtime, most of which fail to connect. The rest of the dialogue goes heavy on trying to have these heroes support each other, bolstering each other’s mental health. It’s a good angle to take, but the writing can’t support the idea, leaving most conversations cringy and awkward.
- Available On: Playstation, Xbox, PC
- Reviewed On: PC
- Developed By: Firaxis
- Publisher: 2K Games
Introducing a brand new character into Marvel’s dense universe of established heroes is no easy feat, yet it’s a feat that Firaxis decided to attempt. Brought back from the dead to face down their mother, the Hunter is a blank slate onto which you can etch the most basic of personalities by choosing from a few dialogue choices and sending down either the Light or Dark path in a morality system so outdated it could have been taken from Fable. Although in Fable at least you got cool horns and stuff for sticking with one or the other.
A colossal amount of dialogue is spent on trying to make Hunter into a legendary ( they use that word a lot) hero that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Captain America, Iron Man and Blade. Almost every conversation involves these established characters gushing over how cool Hunter is, referring to him as the boss or stating how proud they are of him. It’s the classic case of being told how amazing someone is rather than being shown. Hunter doesn’t feel like the driving force of the plot, doesn’t act like much of a leader despite being referred to as just that and doesn’t stack up to the other heroes in terms of abilities. Some swords, a magic whip and a very vaguely defined set of generic abilities (like super-strength) don’t exactly put Hunter in anywhere near the same league as Captain Marvel, Ghost-Rider or Dr. Strange, and it never quite feels like to have a grizzled veteran like Wolverine declaring Hunter to be the truest of friends.
But the most telling issue is that you could strip Hunter out of the story and it wouldn’t affect anything. Any other Midnight Sun could have taken on the role and probably would have been more interesting, or the game could have focused on the team as a whole. In attempting to provide fans with a blank-slate onto which they could insert themselves into the world, Firaxis has just written a bland new hero with no defining features and a bad case of imposter syndrome. The only thing of note Hunter adds is the family dynamic, but even that fails to have any real impact.
Ultimately the biggest issue the game faces is how much of the vast script is spent saying almost nothing of interest. It’s impressive how much voice work and writing was put into the game, giving us hours and hours of dialogue for every hero so that you can go through multiple hangouts without ever running into repeats. It kind of reminds me of Hades in the sense that I was impressed with the sheer amount of content on offer. With so much spoken dialogue to go through, not all of it can be gold, and yet I was amazed at just how much of the conversations between characters feel like filler with no substance, no real character development and no direction. Perhaps it’s a side effect of wanting to have so many characters in the game and opportunities to hang out with them, but it makes building friendships feel hollow because it never feels like you’re truly connecting with them. Even the main story missions often suffer from this sense of spinning the wheels and never getting anywhere, except for moments where a plot point, emotion or character growth seems to occur in the blink of an eye.
But I do want to be clear: Midnight Suns does have a few cool moments and lines. It”s just that in a game with much dialogue and such a lengthy campaign those shining story beats get buried underneath a pretty mediocre comic book tale. There is a charm to it, mind you, a kind of goofy charisma that flows from all the quips and inspirational pats on the back, which I did enjoy. Not everyone will, though.
Given that Midnight Suns comes from Firaxis and is a turned-based strategy game it would be natural to assume that the combat would play out like XCOM but with Marvel characters instead of generic soldiers. But that wouldn’t work. Imagine Captain America whiffing a shield throw with a 95% chance of hitting? It wouldn’t feel right. So the first thing to know is that Midnight Suns ditches the random numbers of the XCOM games almost entirely – Attacks will always land, and the damage you’ll dish out is clearly displayed. The loss of randomness in the combat does mean there are no longer those crazy moments where a hail Mary shot works and saves the day, but it also means that you can plan out turns and know exactly what the outcome will be.
And that’s not to say randomness has been entirely stripped out of the gameplay. Every hero you take into a fight has their own deck of 8 cards that you can customise and upgrade and these get shuffled together and then dealt out to you. Each turn you have the opportunity to play three of these cards, spending them to launch attacks, buff your team and activate cool abilities. That might mean using Blade’s Make Them Bleed skill which draws cards and then applies the Bleed effect to his next two cards, or it could mean unleashing Nico’s awesome Witchfire that randomly targets an enemy, and if it KO’s them automatically chains to another random target.
Many of the cards you play will also bump up your Heroism points which in turn are spent to play the most powerful attacks and abilities, like Ghost Rider ploughing through everything in a straight line using his tricked-out Hellride car. Of course, you could potentially get stuck with cards that all require Heroism and no methods for getting it, which is why you can also redraw a set amount of cards per turn.
In their XCOM games, Firaxis put a lot of emphasis on movement, positioning your units behind cover while trying to give them the best angle to take a shot. Midnight Suns takes a very different approach because, by default, you only have one move per turn inside of the extremely small battlefields. Plus, can you imagine Spider-Man cowering behind a wall? The only other way you can move is by playing cards but the game automatically decides where it will put you. Normally that’s fine, but it can also lead to you accidentally getting caught up in explosions or inadvertently lining up your heroes, leaving them open to piercing attacks. It’s cumbersome and far from intuitive.
There’s a lot more to the combat outside of these core principles that elevate from good to great. For example, cards with the Quick keyword will refund you a card play if they are used to KO an enemy, making them perfect for taking out the most basic cannon fodder goons who go down in a single hit. Others have Knockback so you can potentially hurl an enemy into a void (like Ghostrider’s Portals to Hell) or just use it to position them better for a devastating AoE attack. Then there are moves like Spider-Man’s ability to chain together attacks but only if they KO each enemy, an excellent tool for taking down multiple foes that have already had their health reduced.
Really, when you break it all down it’s less about fighting and more of an elaborate puzzle that just so happens to involve a lot of violence. Each turn is about carefully plotting out the best sequence of moves to make the most of your cards, to move you toward completing the objective and to keep the number of enemies from becoming too overwhelming. At the end of each turn, new reinforcements will run in and the enemies will take their actions, and while your heroes can’t die they can be knocked out, keeping them out of the fight until revived. While some objectives are as simple as beating up all the baddies, most of them involve things like defending an object, hacking terminals or something else, so you have to balance out doing that with keeping the trickle of goons in check. It’s an incredibly rewarding gameplay loop, and the feeling of satisfaction gained from executing a perfect turn where you play numerous cards and wipe out a whole arena of bad guys is astounding.
Firaxis has done a great job of translating superheroes into turn-based characters, something which isn’t easy because it goes against their dynamic nature. From Wolverine to Nico, each hero feels distinctive and Firaxis clearly spent a lot of time figuring out how to take their personalities and somehow transplant that into a series of cards. Captain Marvel excels at taunting enemies, Magik’s portals make her awesome at moving HYDRA chumps and demons around the battlefield and Doctor Strange is a good support choice. By swapping in and out cards you can customise the exact way they play and find fun synergies, but at their core, they always feel true to the source material. Well, as true as a deck of cards can be, anyway.
It wouldn’t be a game about comic characters smacking the crap out of goons without some supervillains. With the pantheon of Marvel villains to choose from I can only imagine how tempting it must be to cram as many as possible into the story, so I think Firaxis deserve credit for showing restraint. Just a few pop into the story to cause mayhem, acting as boss fights, and they can also appear randomly in general missions, turning a simple resource grab into a back-and-forth battle as you whittle their health bars down.
I really have to give special mention to the effort that has clearly gone into making the combat feel meaty, too. Every punch is delivered with a meaty thwack and strong animations, making every move feel impactful. It’s certainly a lot better than the ill-fated Marvel’s The Avengers from Crystal Dynamics.
I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid tying my mum’s sheets around my neck and pretending to be a superhero, I imagined myself fighting villains, performing amazing feats of power and saving the innocent. At no point did I imagine attending a book club hosted by Blade, Stargazing with Spider-Man and basically treating superheroing as a 9-5 job. And yet that’s weirdly what Midnight Suns becomes outside of its combat, trading in the spandex and cards for casual clothes and watching movies. Truthfully, probably only around 40% or 50% of your time is actually spent taking a trio of heroes out on missions. There’s a whole social sim layer where you hang out with the team and gift them presents in order to build up friendships. You can invite heroes to special havens around the map for a picnic or some mushroom gathering, join hangouts after missions like watching movies, meditating or reading by the fire, and you can even give them compliments. There’s a staggering amount of recorded dialogue to experience, the vast majority of which is fluffy nonsense, but there are some gems that let you delve into their personalities, learn their fears and doubts and hopes. Blade might be all cool on the surface, but underneath he’s harbouring a serious crush for Captain Marvel. Robbie might have a flaming demon residing in him, which he refers to as Sparky, but he also suffers from a lack of confidence. And Tony Stark? He’s not dealing too well with all this spooky shit.
On the one hand, the super-nerd in me is extremely impressed by this level of geeky, self-insert fan-fiction and the sheer wealth of dialogue Firaxis has forcibly stuffed into their game. Some part of me revelled in sharing a drink with Captain America, or joining Spidey and Ghost Rider for some mechanical tinkering or inviting Nico to a special spot I found on the Abbey grounds. It kind of reminds me of that moment in Avengers: Age of Ultron where, after a successful mission, the heroes gather around a table, swapping stories and seeing if anyone is worth enough to pick up Thor’s hammer. It’s fun to get a glimpse of these God-like (and sometimes, actual Gods) beings behind the scenes. Just like the rest of us they can be worried, need to vent or just want to chat about something little.
There are actual gameplay benefits that encourage you to spend time getting to know your heroic colleagues. Each of the five friendship levels for each character brings with it stats boosts and more powerful versions of their passive abilities, but far more important are the powerful combo cards you unlock as the overall team friendship goes up. These are the most powerful cards in the game, capable of dishing out huge damage to a single target.
But on the other hand, there’s just so freaking much of it all. A lot of time is spent on this element of the game and it can begin to feel more like a high-school social sim than a superhero adventure about punching HYDRA goons and saving the world from supernatural evil.
Aside from trying to be everyone’s friend, there’s quite a bit of general admin to be found in the Abbey that feels closer to the traditional XCOM base building. Tony Stark and Doctor Strange will engage in research projects to unlock new items or upgrades from the Abbey, heroes can be dispatched on missions and you can choose who to spar with daily. Most importantly, Stark will also open up Coils you earn during every mission which are how you get new cards for your team, although you can also craft them using a later upgrade. Duplicate cards can then be combined to form new, upgraded versions of themselves and can even start to develop random bonus effects.
Make no mistake, though, this is not as unforgiving a game as XCOM. While you certainly should be keeping on top of research, upgrades and everything else, you won’t get a dozen hours into the game only to suddenly find yourself being dominated because you didn’t research one specific thing. XCOM can be punishing, but that tone wouldn’t fit into a game about superheroes saving the day.
There’s also a third layer to the game, albeit one you don’t have to invest any time into because it doesn’t affect the other systems. The Abbey grounds are an expansive place and you’re free to explore them at will, gradually unlocking new Words of Powers that in turn let you access more of the surrounding area. Throughout this, you can find various diary pages and unlock more story details about Wanda, Agatha Harkness and more, fleshing out the world. And there are also dozens of chests that reward you with new colour palettes, items for your room in the abbey and so on. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of the Krypt from the most recent Mortal Kombat
This layer is the one that feels the most disconnected from everything else. Chilling out with the Avengers, doing research, upgrading cards and petting Charlie the dog all have direct effects on the combat by buffing your stats, opening up new attacks and so on. But venturing into the Abbey’s grounds doesn’t offer any gameplay effects outside of new colour swaps for your heroes.
I played Midnight Suns on PC primarily where my ageing hardware coped fairly well with the action, However, I did end up using a handy tip I found on the Internet to permanently disable the separate XXX launcher that fires up whenever you launch the game on Steam. Aside from just generally being a pain in the arse (why would I want another launcher when I hit play?) it also seemed to be having negative effects on game performance and people found that disabling improved their framerates considerably. I found this to be completely true, but your experience may vary.
To wrap up this review, I want to say that regardless of the game’s quality I appreciate the Hell out of Firaxis taking the Marvel license and doing something different with it. They took their experience of crafting excellent turn-based strategy and completely reworked it, combining elements of deck-building, social sim and exploration into a package that may not always fit together neatly but that is certainly fascinating to pick apart. I spent nearly 60 hours with the game and was wholly absorbed in its crazy world of punching, gathering potion ingredients and kicking back with Magik.
But let’s get back to the game itself. The story is a passable tale of McGuffins, iffy writing and even iffier pacing, and the time you spend hanging out with heroes is either going to feel like a chore or fan-pleasing depending on your level of geekery. I certainly think the balance isn’t right, pushing you to spend a lot of time performing trivial tasks rather than really playing the game. And yet, it does have a certain rough charm, a level of appeal that comes from gradually building up friendship levels, even while the game is a little too structured in how you go about it, i.e: sort out research and sparring in the morning, go on a mission, return home, do hangouts. It’s like having a rota for friendships: you can have one hour with one friend per day, nothing more and nothing less.
I don’t think everyone is going to like Midnight Suns. Many folks will likely find the dialogue to be too cheesy or the focus on building friendships too humdrum or some of the busywork too dull. And some might just get frustrated that the excellent combat system isn’t actually what you spend the most time engaging with. Valid criticisms, all of them. That doesn’t stop this from being one of the most interesting games of 2022, though, and one of my favourites. The cringy dialogue became weirdly endearing, I began to look forward to hanging out with the gang and the combat never failed to leave a smile on my face. I wasn’t going to play Midnight Suns until a friend of mine persuaded me to give it a go, and I’m extremely glad I did.
Categories: Reviews, Videogame Reviews
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