Between their colorful costumes and iconic powers, superheroes were made for video games. Although any developer can stick an Avenger in a standard action-adventure romp, Marvel’s Midnight Suns ($69.99) attempts something much more interesting by being a strategy game. Instead of making an XCOM retread, developer Firaxis asks you to master original and intriguing new tactics mechanics, plus socially bond heroes when they’re not in combat. The Marvel elements are a bit less consistent than the gameplay, but this Xbox Series S title is the one to buy if you’re looking for a more cerebral comic book game.
The first thing anyone will notice about Midnight Suns is that it’s Marvel’s Midnight Suns. As with 2022’s other surprise hit Marvel strategy game Marvel Snap, you don’t have to care about the comic book universe to appreciate this gameplay, but it will help. Midnight Suns earns points for approaching the Marvel universe from an interesting, occult perspective. Doctor StrangeDoctor Strange or WandaVision fans should feel right at home. However, everything feels a bit compromised by the need to reach mass audiences.
Midnight Suns sees the Avengers trying to save the world from Lilith, a demon queen who can corrupt other heroes and villains into serving her cause. The lengthy campaign takes you from New York City to hidden Hydra bases to a carnival in the desert. Traditional heroes, such as Captain America and Iron Man, team up with scarier vigilantes, such as Blade and Ghost Rider, to deal with this mystic threat. Despite sharing a common enemy, these two groups don’t get along too well. It’s like a bunch of jocks invaded a goth dorm.
That premise is much less rote than what you might expect, but Midnight Suns could’ve done more to develop its unique personality. Although there’s fun tension between the mainstream and underground heroes, it feels like Spider-Man and Wolverine’s inclusion only exists because they’re popular, not because this particular story demands them. At least you spend a lot of time talking to Agatha Harkness’ ghost in a haunted Salem forest. Still, developer Firaxis should either have leaned fully into the horror (Morbius DLC is on the way) or maybe just leveraged the “angsty cast living and learning together” structure for a more cohesive X-Men game.
Complicating everything is Hunter, a resurrected demon slayer who is not only Lilith’s rebellious child but the player’s own avatar. After being asleep for centuries, Hunter must learn about the modern world and its heroes while trying to prevent their doom. Unfortunately, Hunter is also a painfully boring protagonist compared to the rest of the cast. Worse, you must use Hunter during story missions, as opposed to picking who you want for generic missions. Hunter has the most diverse customization options, which helps. Not only can you vastly change Hunter’s move set, but the character’s appearance, too. Still, Hunter’s best moments are when the avatar serves as a blank cipher for the more compelling social interactions that I’ll detail later.
Midnight Suns’ presentation isn’t always fantastic, even on a next-gen console like the Xbox Series S. During actual battles, where the camera is zoomed out to show the whole battlefield, it looks fine. Characters are colorful and recognizable, with splashy attack animations. However, faces look pretty rough up close during the numerous cutscenes and dialogue exchanges, having neither the photorealism of Marvel’s Avengers nor the stylized comic aesthetic of Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3. There is a kind of shaggy charm, though, seeing a studio like Firaxis, which is mostly known for modest strategy games, try to pull off blockbuster set pieces. The game’s performance is pretty solid; aside from two crashes during many hours of playing, I didn’t experience major technical issues or lose any saves.
Just because the Hulk is in this game doesn’t mean that Firaxis dumbed down its acclaimed strategy gameplay for Midnight Suns. Instead, the developers came up with fascinating new systems that let players simultaneously feel like scrappy tactical geniuses and the world’s mightiest heroes. Midnight Suns’ combat sits somewhere between traditional XCOM gameplay and Mario + Rabbids‘ bouncy variety. You control a three-hero squad, and your available moves are determined by whatever cards you pull from your heroes’ deck. However, Midnight Suns doesn’t feel like a deckbuilding game. The cards force you to adapt, not rely on the same strategies every time.
During each turn, you can play up to three cards. That may not sound like a lot, but there are many variables to consider if you want to maximize the effectiveness of your turn. In that way, Midnight Suns also reminds me of Into the Breach. Quick attacks don’t count as a turn if they take out an enemy in one hit. Bigger enemies have health bars, but minion enemies always go down in one hit. A basic attack also builds your heroism meter, which you spend to play more powerful cards or perform environmental attacks. If you don’t like your hand at all, you can even draw new cards.
Here’s an example of how everything can synergize during a fight: I used Hunter’s whip to knock one minion enemy into another, knocking out both characters. This gave me enough heroism to use Captain Marvel’s Photon Ray, but she wasn’t in the right spot to unleash the attack. You see, the characters don’t move on a grid, but certain attacks change their position on the battlefield. Once per turn, you can also manually move one character to avoid an explosion or, in my case, line Captain Marvel up so her laser cuts through multiple enemies at once and activates her powered-up Binary form. Finally, I played a card that greatly raises Captain America’s defense, and taunts enemies to attack him instead of his weaker teammates.
The tight arenas keep everything well-paced even as missions become more complicated with extra objectives or boss enemies requiring special techniques. I got caught in Venom’s symbiote web more than enough for one lifetime. There are only about a dozen playable characters, but they all have extremely different play styles that only grow more distinct as you unlock more cards from random drops. Illyana “Magik” Rasputina cuts open a portal to zip around the level, while Ghost Rider burns open a portal to kick enemies into Hell. Missions typically require you to bring one specific hero and choose another, so you become familiar with everyone and no one becomes severely under-leveled.
Midnight Suns also wants you to spend substantial time with its various social and progression systems outside of battle. At first, I found this all a bit tedious, a distraction from the battles I desperately wanted to return to. Eventually, you fall into a satisfying life-sim rhythm, not unlike Fire Emblem: Three Houses or Persona 5.
Marvel heroes aren’t just punching machines; they are beloved characters with strong personalities. Whether it’s in person or over your superhero social network, as Hunter you chat with heroes and bond with them. It’s a slower burn approach to characterization than, say, the constant chatter in Guardians of the Galaxy, but that feels appropriate for this genre. I never expected to get roped into joining Blade’s book club so he could impress Captain Marvel. I’m just glad he liked the armor I bought him, as I walked around in my extremely regular jeans.
Beyond personal satisfaction, your interactions also have real gameplay impact. Different dialogue options push Hunter towards the light or darkness, along with the sides’ respective ability perks. Sparring with a hero means Hunter receives a bonus the next time you bring that character along for a mission. Your connections never grow into anything romantic, but maxing out your friendship level unlocks powerful combo attacks. You can send reserve heroes out on daily missions to level up and bring back new cards. Exploring your home base, the Abbey, and its vast surrounding wilderness unlocks resources for upgrading your facilities and researching new equipment.
There are so many different systems that it borders on overwhelming. As with Gotham Knights, I started tuning out all the little pop-ups and notifications about artifacts to uncover and DMs to read. Until engaging with one of those systems becomes vital for story reasons, you can pretty much pick and choose what to prioritize and what to ignore (at least on easier difficulties). For example, I mostly focused on combining duplicate cards into more powerful versions of themselves. And even if you aren’t interested in hearing Magik’s backstory, or you decide to blow off Nico Minoru’s emo party and go to sleep, just knowing that you can pursue those threads adds to the intimate worldbuilding that’s Midnight Suns’ greatest narrative strength.
Midnight Suns doesn’t fully explore its dark Marvel blockbuster potential, but it’s hard to care when it delivers such bold and brilliant strategy potential. Creating rich connections with characters outside of battle motivates would-be tacticians to try their hardest during combat. Like a birthday party-turned-seance to summon the soul of the Scarlet Witch, Midnight Suns is a strange yet potent concoction.
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Marvel's Midnight Suns (for Xbox Series S) – Review 2022 – PCMag UK