One of my favorite things about watching superheroes duke it out is when someone gets smacked so hard they fly backwards and crash through solid walls, explode tanker trucks, or slam into their friends. It’s an awesome demonstration of just how strong these godlike characters are supposed to be, and it’s always a disappointment when a superhero game doesn’t quite capture that feeling. With Marvel’s Midnight Suns, however, Firaxis has built a deep and innovative turn-based tactical combat system around the joy of having Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Blade, and more knock enemies around like toys they’re trying to break – and that hasn’t gotten old in the roughly 75 hours of its surprisingly expansive RPG campaign. A lot of that time isn’t spent in battles, though, and while it’s certainly appealing to get up close and personal with this cast of more than a dozen popular and lesser-known Marvel heroes, it does tend to go a bit overboard with convincing Earth’s mightiest heroes to all be your BFFs.
The full-on supernatural theme of Midnight Suns immediately sets it apart from the Marvel games we’ve gotten in recent years. This story is very loosely based on the Marvel Comics series Midnight Sons, and centers on the corrupt witch Lilith returning from the dead to claim the Darkhold (the evil spell book featured in Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness) on behalf of an even more evil god. That apocalyptic mystical threat isn’t terribly novel in of itself, but the family relationships around it make it more interesting: Lilith is the mother of our character, a Commander Shepard-style blank slate known as The Hunter, and her sister is Caretaker, a powerful witch who serves as the Midnight Sun’s Professor X-like mentor. There’s a lot of history between them to delve into – literally, in that Lilith and Caretaker are hundreds of years old and date back to the Salem Witch Trials – and the story uses Lilith’s ability to twist the minds of heroes and villains alike to great effect in creating strife and division among our heroes. With such a long campaign – at least 60 hours, but I’m at more like 75 or 80 now – just about everybody in the cast gets some time to shine, from the world-famous Spider-Man to the more obscure magical heroes like the Runaways’ Nico Minaru and Colossus’ sister Illyana “Magik” Rasputin, who both take central roles in the fight against Lilith.
Right off the bat, Midnight Suns’ style of combat is radically and refreshingly different from Firaxis’ genre-defining XCOM games. For one thing, each member of your three-person team you take on a typical mission has their own customizable deck of eight cards representing everything from Spider-Man’s THWIP!!! web-stunning attack to Dr. Strange’s Winds of Watoomb tornado, forcing you to think on your feet in order to make the best possible use of the hand you’re dealt. As a big fan of card games like Slay the Spire and Monster Train (and recently Marvel Snap) I’m absolutely on board with this idea – the unpredictability of it keeps me from falling into the rut of repeating the same routine every battle once I find something effective. Having just a few cards in your hand isn’t as limiting as you might think, since you can discard and redraw any at least a few every turn to replace those that aren’t useful in your situation (and you can increase the number of redraws per turn with consumable items or card upgrades). It’s rare that I’ve found myself unable to act, and it’s not unusual that you’ll draw exactly the card you want.
Another excellent aspect of this system is that all your characters draw from the same pool of (usually) three “card plays” and one movement action per turn. That means that one person getting knocked out doesn’t instantly reduce your available actions by a third – you lose access to that hero’s cards, but those who are left standing can still use all of the turn’s allotted moves. So you’re at a disadvantage until you can revive them, but it’s not so great that you’re pulled into the downward spiral of failure that can happen in XCOM and other squad-based games – but it certainly doesn’t mean Midnight Suns is easy.
Superheroes don’t take cover in a fight and they don’t miss their shots, so instead of getting entrenched and using suppressive fire to win shootouts, these mostly small-scale missions are exciting slugfests where staying alive is all about quickly taking enemies out – or at least weakening them before they get to move. Directing their attacks away from your weakest hero with taunts and buffing your allies with armor and resistances is key to mitigating the damage, and a lot of the guesswork is taken out of it by icons above enemies’ heads indicating who they plan to attack on their turn.
The rhythm of combat involves picking off weak fodder enemies using basic attack and skill cards (those with the “quick” trait refund your card play if you knock out a target, extending your turn) to build up Heroism points, which can then be spent on powerful Heroic cards like a hail of missiles from Iron Man’s shoulders that damages every enemy on the screen or Wolverine’s armor-piercing claws, or satisfying environmental attacks like dropping a street lamp on a group of enemies or vaulting off a table to come crashing down on a target from above. It’s fantastic when it all comes together to let you clear out one of these close-quarters arena maps before the inevitable wave of enemy reinforcements charges in from off-screen to keep the action going.
Firaxis’ animators have done an excellent job of making these turn-based fights feel energetic. That so much of it is built around smacking enemies with extreme force works extremely well with high-powered heroes like Iron Man and Captain Marvel, and using Spider-Man’s webs to fling objects into bad guys’ faces from across the map is very on-brand. With all of that knockback in play positioning is extremely important – you have to think about how to approach a target and how to set up more damaging hits. On that note, I love how every hero has a distinctive flavor to the way they move and attack, whether it’s flying, levitating, teleporting, or swinging, and the powerful team-up attacks put on a good show as two heroes take turns beating the living hell out of a target. When you scale up to the over-the-top late-game abilities the animations are a whole lot of fun to watch, and it’s all set to a rousing Avengers-esque score.
Mixing heroes like Magik and Ghost Rider into your squad gives you the ability to open portals in the floor (into Limbo and/or Hell) and kick enemies into it for an instant knockout, which is one of the few major places in Midnight Suns where a roll of the dice determines if an attach is successful or not. Considering this requires you to spend a move and may not do any damage at all, it’s a gamble – but it can pay off big if you can remove a beefy enemy from the map in one move.
While the maps you do battle on are consistently small and flat with only a handful of objects on them for you to slam enemies with or into, there are a fair number of backdrops to keep visual diversity up and a good variety of objectives beyond simply defeating all the enemies. There are hazards that make you keep your squad moving to avoid danger zones, shield-bearing enemies that have to be broken through to reach a target, Hydra VIPs that must be captured, bombs that must be disabled, and so on. You can also keep things interesting on straightforward battles by opting into side objectives where you need to, for example, use a specific character to deal 250 damage within two turns. Between those factors and occasional boss encounters with Venom, Sabertooth, Crossbones, and more – each with their own unique mechanics – missions rarely felt like I was stuck in a loop.
Of course, Midnight Suns’ combat does have some annoying quirks to get used to: because positioning is so important it’s a bit frustrating that you can’t really control where your characters will land after an attack (though it does preview the location for you before you play a card), and because there’s no grid it can be a pain to find the exact right place to cast an area-of-effect attack to hit multiple targets or to get an environmental attack to line up just right. The main thing that still throws me off, though, is that it’s easy to accidentally move a character when you’re trying to make them shove an enemy, and once you do that you’ve burnt that shove move for this turn.
While I’ve come to love it, I admit that Midnight Suns’ battles did take a little while to grow on me. The opening hours are a lot to take in, and at the same time you’re trying to wrap your head around this dramatically different new combat system you’re barraged with what feels like way too many currencies for upgrades (each of the three card types has its own) and relationships and other stats to manage, and of course each character’s individual deck of cards – including Hunter’s, which are a mixture of light and dark cards that give you a good range of options for how you’d like them to play, focusing on support abilities that heal or grant armor or going all-in on damage dealing. I also made the mistake of taking on a lot of early side missions, which turns out to be unwise because a lot of things that haven’t been unlocked at that stage. For example, if you don’t unlock the ability to do extra damage by knocking an enemy into one of your own teammates you’re just making things harder than they need to be. When Venom randomly showed up in an already difficult situation (boss characters can drop into normal missions unexpectedly, similar to XCOM 2’s Chosen) it took me around two hours of stubbornly retrying it to figure out how to survive that mission.
But by the time I’d made my way through the first act of the surprisingly long story, things had really clicked into place, and I found myself greatly enjoying the challenge of maximizing the potential of the hands I’m dealt. Having a wider selection of cards to work with and the ability to upgrade and augment them with bonuses, like increasing their power when you spend a redraw on them or inflicting bleeding on a target, expanded my options significantly and made each character feel more tailored to my preferred style.
I did end up having to tone the difficulty down during that second act. I’d ambitiously cranked it up three levels as they’d unlocked based on my scores in some early missions, but when the generic Hydra soldiers were replaced by a bigger variety of tougher demonic enemies (such as the creepy guys who can clone themselves and others) I started hitting walls where my current understanding of how to optimize a deck just wasn’t up to the task. So I went back down to just one notch above the default for the rest of my run, and that put me in a good place – but I’m looking forward to a future playthrough (maybe when the planned DLC characters Deadpool, Storm, Venom, and Morbius arrive) where I can plan out my decks with a better understanding of how upgrades work and which cards I can sacrifice for extra resources to level up and enhance the ones I like.
Turning up the difficulty increases your rewards for beating missions quickly and without anyone getting knocked out, and it’s a really smart system. Doing well doesn’t make you much stronger (if you’re doing that well you don’t need a lot of help there anyway), it just makes you look cooler doing it by increasing the amount of Gloss currency you have to spend on unlocking new costumes and leisure wear for Hunter and the rest of the gang, among other things. With at least a few costume options for everyone, each with multiple color palettes, to earn it’s a good incentive to push yourself to improve on the battlefield.
Before you can pay Gloss to enable them, though, you have to find those cosmetic items, and most of them come from exploring the grounds around the Midnight Suns’ home base, a castle-like building known as the Abbey. I generally enjoyed the parallel story that unfolds here, wherein the ghost of Agatha Harkness sends you looking for clues to missing memories of Hunter and Lilith’s previous conflict, and retracing the events that lead to her own death. It’s certainly a major change of pace from battles, though that’s not always a good thing because it can feel like a big time-sink: there’s a lot of aimless wandering alone across the moderately sized, maze-like map, which is almost entirely devoid of NPCs of any kind, as you search for pieces of puzzles. During that time I encountered a few frustrating bugs where items weren’t interactable at first or a solution didn’t work until I tried it multiple times. Also, while there’s a set of four different powers you get here that aren’t available at all in combat, they aren’t used very creatively and mostly serve to unlock areas that’ve been gated off. It becomes very straightforward that you need to use the Open spell to open locked doors, the Purify spell to clear obstructions made of vines, and Reveal whenever you see the eye symbol.
The third major part of Midnight Suns is the aggressive befriending of everyone on the team, and it’s here that things can become a bit awkward. We do get to explore every hero’s backstory and what led them to join the Suns, along with interpersonal conflicts between the visiting Avengers and the resident magic users, and a lot of that is done well and brings depth to the characters. The writing is usually strong and often funny – Tony Stark and Dr. Strange have some of the best banter as they work to solve problems with their technological and magical approaches, Nico’s rebelliousness puts her constantly at odds with Caretaker, and Blade is dark and intense but also nursing a secret crush. There’s a lot to like about each of them, even the vacuous young Ghost Rider, Robbie Reyes, and the voice acting holds it all up fairly well. These iterations of known characters feel distinct; the only one I’d accuse of doing an impersonation of their Marvel Cinematic Universe counterpart is Tony Stark.
Having recently replayed the Mass Effect trilogy I couldn’t help but notice a fair amount of similarity to how you chat up your teammates and earn points for being a goodie-two-shoes or an abrasive jerk at every opportunity (or taking the more neutral option), with each character having their own preference for how they’d like you to act. Nico, for example, is generally fishing for a dark answer when she’s venting about Caretaker, while Steve Rogers is exactly what you’d expect. Like nearly everything else, that system feeds into combat by unlocking items that give Hunter passive bonuses, so there’s a good reason to be consistent with your choices even if you’re not into roleplaying.
As for Hunter, they aren’t a bad character, but they’re kind of set up for failure by being placed next to legendary comic book heroes like Iron Man, Captain America, and Spider-Man, among others that we already know and love – they never really stood a chance of being as memorable. My Hunter – a male who almost exclusively chooses the “light” dialogue options (my standard choice for a first playthrough of a game like this) – tends to alternate between a self-serious crusader against his mother’s evil and kind of a goofy dork who always wears sunglasses at night, and that was kind of endearing. I don’t expect a dramatic change in how events play out when I eventually revisit it with a different approach, though.
What made me cringe here and there, though, was the fact that so much of Midnight Suns is spent getting all of these heroes to really like Hunter. It takes on the tone of self-insertion fan fiction, where you write a story in which you get to meet all your favorite characters and they’re constantly telling you how cool you are and how much they love being friends with you. To be fair, we see a lot of this same relationship-building in other similar party-based RPGs of the BioWare style, but in this case the fact that our character is the only one who isn’t drawn from the existing Marvel Comics universe and largely already know each other gives it a bit of a different flavor when everyone is quickly fawning over you. Of course, there’s gameplay value in participating in all of the various book clubs and surprise parties and soaks in the Abbey’s grotto pool: leveling up friendships unlocks powerful passive abilities for each character when in combat and eventually unlocks their Midnight Suns costumes and most powerful card, so it’s worthwhile.
Speaking of payoffs, though, it’s odd that in a game where we spend so much time buttering up a group of mostly attractive people by showering them with compliments and thoughtful gifts suited to their interests, and unlocking their swimsuit options, all of these friendships are completely platonic. (I believe canonically makes our character the only person Tony Stark hasn’t tried to bang.) There are quite a few conversations, especially with Magik, where it seemed poised to take a romantic turn but nothing came of it, and that can be anticlimactic coming from games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and The Witcher. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Marvel vetoed the idea of romance options with its established characters, but as it is a more appropriate superhero name for Hunter might’ve been Captain Friendzone.