Marvel’s Midnight Suns is one of the biggest surprises of the year. Not because it’s Marvel’s XCOM – it isn’t that. Instead, it’s because it’s Marvel crossed with Fire Emblem and despite some uneven parts, it mostly manages to pull that off, dropping the player in as an original character, before tossing you into a tale that’s part world-saving adventure, part soap opera, and part young adult novel.
It starts strong. Within a few minutes, Iron Man is punting a sofa across the room at Hydra goons in the Sanctum Sanctorum. Within a few minutes, it’s clear that the core tenets of the turn-based strategy game – cover, action points, percentage-based chances to hit – don’t apply here. Midnight Suns offers a very different type of fantasy: Captain Marvel won’t miss her attacks here, but the use of a card drawing system ensures you never quite know what you’re going to get. It also generates real moments of tension: one turn you might cut Wolverine loose to savage an entire team, while another turn might involve you playing defensive with Captain America.
Play three cards – with a few exceptions – and you’re done for the turn, but you can get creative by using the environment to attack enemies, or even using your heroes to push enemies around. The mix of cards in your hand will vary as they’re tied to specific heroes, and each of these characters adheres to an archetype but are otherwise good at different things, making each mission feel distinct because of who you bring along.
Positioning is key: later on you can earn extra cards and do extra damage to enemies by pushing them into heroes, and many of the best cards offer a knockback ability that can let you knock out several opponents at once, pinballing villains around the place with the gusto of, well, superheroes in a comic book throwdown.
As you move through the game, you earn new abilities or upgrade your cards. There’s a level-up system, but despite every level-up causing your hero to raise an arm in cheer, it’s just a case of numbers rising with no mechanical difference. Sure, Wolverine might be even better at what he does, but when it’s just some damage numbers hidden on a page somewhere, it doesn’t feel exciting in the same way that a level-up in XCOM 2 or even XCOM: Chimera Squad did.
The only other irritant is the arenas you’ll fight in. Regularly you’ll do a big storyline battle in a cool location and then visit it again moments later on a general mission, robbing it of a lot of impact. It’s cool to fight a battle in Limbo, but weird when you end up there again moments later to hack some Hydra computers.
Many of Midnight Suns’ best features build on ideas floated by Firaxis in XCOM 2 expansion War of the Chosen. Enemy supervillains can occasionally appear on the scene in place of regular enemy reinforcements just like the Chosen, and there’s something terrifying about Crossbones, Venom or even Sabertooth showing up just to ruin your day as you’re tackling an easy mission for resources. Elsewhere, easy villains will fall to a single hit like The Lost, but later on certain demons will swarm you, refunding card plays and giving you free cards for giving them a superheroic shoeing.
Still, while the combat shines, my biggest issue was the overworld layer, taking place in The Abbey. Here you’ll wander around a slightly too big building as you walk between the various things to do – send heroes on solo missions, upgrade your abilities or perform research. All standard strategy game shenanigans, but wrapped up in a large physical location rather than a one-screen base to manage.
The Abbey also has a huge metagame where you have to find objects to progress in sub stories. This plays out a lot like the Mortal Kombat minigame The Krypt, where you walk around the place and collect components. It’s dire, and it’s only the rest of the game’s charm that stops this from being a fairly agonising component. Some players might enjoy trying to solve these mysteries, but I found it an irritating distraction from going into battles or trying to level up my friendships with the different characters in the game.
One of the reasons to persevere with the Abbey is the game’s stellar writing. The posts on the in-game social network for superheroes (yup) where the heroes come together to dissect the stories events are all witty and fun, and there’s a real sense of character. Tony Stark (Iron Man) is arrogant, Peter Parker (Spider-Man) is wide-eyed, and the
Midnight Suns isn’t scared to chuck in fan-favourite characters and you’ll get to grips with Captain America, Captain Marvel and even Spider-Man over the course of the game. However, you’ll also get to play with some of the lesser-known characters too: the Robbie Reyes Ghost Rider is a particular treat, but getting to play with Blade, Magik and even Nico Minoru is a delight. It makes the universe feel a little wider than the MCU, and you’ll definitely encounter a new favourite character.
Everyone will have their favourites. Mine is Magik, the Russian-born X-Men alumni that can open portals to the hell dimension known as Limbo. Rasputina is fantastic, a reluctant hero with an acerbic wit and a blunt ability to state what everyone is thinking.
As the player’s character and Marvel newcomer The Hunter, you’ll slowly win these characters over, but for me no one’s friendship meant as much to me as Magik’s, which was hard fought and involved slowly getting past her defences. At first she merely admits she doesn’t hate you as much as the others, but slowly comes to admit that you are a friend she enjoys spending time with.
But I found the real reason I liked her is because she became an invaluable tool in the game’s combat. Every hero is different, but Magik’s skillset feels totally unique. Her cards and abilities centre on repositioning enemies using portals, letting her fling enemies into one another or lining them up for ridiculous combos with the other heroes.
While I found myself flitting between heroes regularly, Magik ended up as a mainstay in my team. I’m genuinely excited to see if an expansion pack or DLC adds a few more heroes to the mix though, because I’d leave to see how some of my favourite comic book heroes are translated to Midnight Suns.
Sadly, as The Hunter you are the least interesting character in a room filled with giants. Part of this is that he has to do the lion’s share of the exposition while also sounding super stuffy on account of being someone that died around the time of the Salem Witch Trials, but partially it’s because while Marvel’s own characters have a rich and storied history that Firaxis elegantly reference and pull from, The Hunter feels like a blank slate. This is great for introducing characters to a world, but I wish I wasn’t playing as a sentient bowl of porridge with healing powers and a shiny sub collar.
The game does some clever narrative tricks. While you wander around the Abbey you’re constantly given the choice to commit to a choice or say “give me a moment”. When a situation occurs that sees Tony Stark being, well, a bit of a knob and stepping on everyone’s toes as he thinks he knows best, he pops up during one of those dialogues, feeds you the same lines, and when I selected “I need a minute,” he shrugged and said that he knew best anyway and the game advanced away. It’s very Iron Man, but also is a really cool way to use the game’s mechanics to do something cool with the narrative, pulling the superhero-themed rug out from under your feet.
Tony Stark, by the way, is an asshole. Which is okay, because if every hero in Marvel’s Midnight Suns was perfect, you wouldn’t get to see them come good at the end of their arc. As Marvel’s story moves into its final stages, there’s well-handled narrative arcs popping off all over. It’s satisfying to play, which makes it just about worth persevering through the Abbey stuff, while the meat of the actual combat delivers “real” Firaxis thrills too, and by the end of it I was completely won over.
Marvel’s Midnight Suns is another essential Firaxis title, this time blended with superheroes. Smart use of the Marvel license and some bold choices mean this is essential for turn-based tactics fans, even if the young adult Abbey nonsense might not work for everyone.
- Great use of the Marvel license
- Card-based battles feel unique and interesting
- Excellent character work and storyline
- Truly innovative spin on the turn-based tactics genre
- I do not want to take Iron Man on a friendship date
- Repetitive combat arenas
- Not much enemy variety