It’s hard not to get excited upon learning expert strategy developer Firaxis Games has a new project in the works given their resume that includes the genre-dominating Civilization and X-COM series.
But when Midnight Suns was announced as Firaxis working its magic on a classic Marvel tale, hype understandably went through the roof.
Midnight Suns separates itself from that X-COM umbrella in intriguing ways. It is a card-based tactics game with an in-depth RPG system, extensive campaign and relationship manager with the likes of Marvel’s biggest superheroes.
On paper, it almost sounds too good to be true. And while some of the big-ticket items are stronger than others, Midnight Suns is an unexpected blast and late entry as one of the best games of 2022.
Graphics and Gameplay
One of the drawbacks Midnight Suns faces when it comes time to lure in players is the visuals. It’s not trying to do anything wild and doesn’t, with one major exception.
The game pours great, faithful attention to detail into something as simple as hero movements. Iron Man will use his thrusters to move. Captain Marvel will blast off in a blur. Spider-Man will swing. Similar thing for attacks. Iron Man uses his blasters. Spidey flings objects found in the levels at an enemy’s noggin. Magik opens portal.
All of these things in tandem create what might be the best digital representation of Marvel heroes in actual combat we’ve ever seen, especially when combined with the fitting hero-specific cards players can use.
But otherwise, the game looks fine. The game obviously didn’t want to use the likeness of big-screen counterparts for the heroes which is just fine, but that doesn’t change the fact everything looks so stiff. This is especially true with faces in cutscenes and conversations, which can ruin the moment. It’s especially bad at the home base, which looks different from battle scenes with what seems like lower textures and hair and facial hair one might find in a sports game.
The same applies to general exploration at the team’s base. Everything is fine, but the stiffness of the animations and details in the environment don’t feel very next-generation.
Where this presentation theme also breaks away from the mild is the voice acting. The lines are heartfelt, distinct and delivered well. The actors deserve major kudos, especially because at times they aren’t exactly dealing with the best material.
Luckily for Midnight Suns, the enjoyability and therefore success of a game like this is all based on its gameplay systems and rules overseeing them.
Players start a turn with a handful of cards and options available to them. Basic attacks build “heroism,” which let players use special moves from cards. They generally face two types of enemies, minions who have no health and elites that do, plus bosses. The general gameplay loop is charging up heroism by taking out minions before dealing with the bigger bads.
Some attacks have knockback and players can direct the direction of the knockback with the right stick in order to damage other enemies or use the environment. Skill cards also provide heroism, but support other heroes with blocking or damage boosts and healing, among others.
Besides the card-based loop, environmental attacks don’t need a card but use heroism and can score critical knockouts. Players also get one free move per turn. They can use it to reposition for attacks, knockbacks, etc. Also available is the ability to reroll a card in the hand for a random one.
Thanks to versatile cards tailor-made for specific heroes, some heroes have a ton of utility, such as Spider-Man’s ability to draw extra cards. Some have a risk-reward worth trying such as getting huge damage from Wolverine and Ghost Rider, but the former taunts opponents and makes them more dangerous and the latter can instead harm himself. Then there’s Magik, who through portal usage can send allies around the battle zone or even bunch up all the enemies for a big strike from a teammate.
Also different is the fact losing one hero in a battle isn’t the end of the whole mission, a downward spiral from which players can’t escape. Instead, players still get their typical three card usages per turn, so some crafty choices mean victory is still possible.
These battles are an absolute blast because they’re no-holds-barred fistfights. We can acknowledge the X-COM series remains king and a blast, but the fights in this game don’t feature any cover or chances to miss attacks. It’s heroes and villains just kicking the tar out of each and destroying their surroundings in the process until one side stops moving.
Even without the presence of cover and the percentage chances that an attack misses (only on very important one-hit KO abilities), battles still very much come down to positioning. Applying shields to teammates before attacks, taunting enemies to lure them into attacking someone else, setting up environmental hazards and thinking three steps ahead with knockbacks to line up massive attacks by other cards and heroes is a regular thing.
It’s not just slugfests, either. Before long, objectives like bombs to disable, VIPs to protect and other goals to achieve within a battle pop up. And everything mentioned here keeps escalating well alongside the player’s power level and increasing skill in a way that feels super rewarding. The tutorial compared to even mid-game combat almost looks like a different game entirely, which is a great thing.
One blend of presentation and gameplay that won’t get a ton of attention but deserves a shout? The user interface (UI) is very helpful and fluid. Highlighting an enemy displays information and even which hero it’s targeting.
There are little cool design decisions too, like the awesome-looking tarot cards of each hero that players can collect.
When players aren’t in battle they’re either doing battle prep or taking time to explore the team’s base (The Abbey) and link up with teammates. The gameplay, zoomed back in a third-person perspective, is meant to enrich the RPG side of the experience, but falls into a forgettable column when strictly talking gameplay.
Where Midnight Suns truly shines the most is the moment-to-moment combat. It has immense depth and plenty of fun for new players that scales well with experience, which is by far the most important thing for a release like this to nail.
Story and More
The surprisingly long and in-depth RPG campaign Midnight Suns presents is the perfect match for the strong gameplay.
To keep it brief, Lilith (who happens to be mother to the player’s character) and the elder god Chthon are the big bads of this tale, which quickly pits some familiar and not-so-familiar faces in a massive struggle not unlike a Marvel Hollywood flick or Netflix original.
Those who wanted a more street-level Marvel narrative in the Spider-Man vein simply aren’t going to get it here. This one is heavily more on the mystical side of the scale in the Doctor Strange and Scarlet Witch range, loosely working with well-known comic material.
The setting dates back to the Salem Witch Trials hundreds of years ago and concerns characters from that era. Players themselves step into the role of the “Hunter,” a being resurrected by Doctor Strange to combat some of these evils.
As such, the game touts the player character as the first-ever customizable hero in the Marvel Universe. While perhaps technically true, the first-time customization suite isn’t exactly something video game players haven’t seen in the past, with limited hair, face and other options.
Similar story for the game giving the player dialogue options in certain conversations. Players can pick from three or four responses in a conversation but it tends to feel like they all route back to the same responses. Even if that’s the case, it’s nice to have a choice.
Still, conversations and actions play into a mortality system that has more tangible effects on the game than in most attempting similar things. Veer toward the light side and the Hunter’s deck will have more healing-based cards. Go the dark route and it’s more damaging-inflicting cards. It’s cool in real-time to see the deck changing in response to the choices and vice versa.
As a bonus, the game gets credit for coming up with a narrative reason for why these heroes who have already conquered Thanos and Thanos-level threats would look to him or her for guidance in this situation—the player’s character has overcome this threat in the past. They’re not buddies with the character, but they can respect the been here, done that before angle.
Avengers, X-Men, Runaways, they all show up here. Some beloved comic favorites who typically go underappreciated outside of comics—such as Illyana Rasputina, a.k.a. Magik—get a spotlight. Fan service and winks and nods litter the narrative, side quests, descriptions and dialogue throughout the game,
In a major testament to the game’s quality, none of these characters really feel like they’re trying to jump on the MCU train and mimic those. Well, except for Tony Stark, but Iron Man has been a slog in the comics realm for decades now and it’s hard to blame anyone for wanting to strive for the magic of Rober Downey Jr.’s performance.
In The Abbey, players can run off and explore, completing mild puzzles, finding collectibles and building relationships.
Of note is Captain Marvel’s C.E.N.T.R.A.L., which is effectively a way to use information found during the game to send heroes off on missions. Successful runs for those heroes means unlocking new moves and other benefits.
Otherwise, while the character interactions are worth a look, exploration of this decently-sized map is pretty mundane. Maybe it’s a necessary pace-breaker, but many players would probably rather be back in another awesome card-based battle.
Boosting friendship levels with teammates can unlock combo abilities and other passive benefits, so it’s a thing players will want to pour time into even if it’s a so-so, potentially overdone part of the experience.
This relationship boosting can happen through the “Hang Out” feature, which is exactly what it sounds like. Players can kick it with a chosen teammate in a variety of activities. Some heroes like certain activities and dislike others, so it’s a guessing game. Same thing with giving heroes gifts.
Frankly, the best-friend-forever goal and activities to get there with each hero is a little overcooked. Like, it still tastes good, but less would’ve been even better. Chilling with Wolverine doing yoga or stargazing or whatever is a fun idea many comic readers wish they could do. But one can only sit around listening to melodrama so much, for so long.
It’s not that these characters aren’t comic-accurate, either. They are, in certain eras with certain writers. It’s that these activities are boring and they take up so much time. A completionist who wants to see everything will spend quite literally nearly half of the game’s run time sitting around listening to how Captain America just wishes he could be better friends with Blade. Yes, bird-watching with Wolverine and some cold brews sounds fun, but it doesn’t translate well—a motorcycle race with Wolvie and some brews at a bar? Yes, please.
It doesn’t help that the player’s character is a bit of a goofball, though. It feels like those sports games where players can create themselves and shatter the reality of a league while trying to become friends with everyone and looking incredibly out of place in cutscenes. Same vibe here, as the player’s character is the only new out-of-place thing in something as recognizable as the Marvel Universe. We see other things like this in Mass Effect but it doesn’t hit the same because those worlds and characters aren’t so established—it’s easier to fit in as an outsider. The game also clearly steered far, far away from going the Mass Effect route in actually being able to form an actual relationship despite some suggestive dialogue.
To this point, it’s almost understandable if the game grinds players down and they end up skipping some of the best-friend stuff. It’s a great idea with iffy execution, to the point Midnight Suns might be far better for some players if they eventually introduce an option to skip all of the relationship-building stuff.
Speaking of grinds, it’s worth pointing out that it’s hard to keep the in-game currency coffers high at all times. That is if players want to unlock a bunch of outfits and colors. Something as simple as taking an item off a wall costs in-game currency. For now, no major microtransaction red flags, at least.
Midnight Sons does offer plenty in the way of options. There are eight different difficulty options which is nice both for the options it gives players and the fact rewards vary based on the level. Accessibility toggles and tweakable keybindings highlight an overall robust package of options.
The fun thing about Midnight Sun’s viability as a speedrunning game with long-term legs isn’t just the entertainment value viewers will get by watching Marvel heroes. Far more important is the random element of each battle, as no two battles should really ever play out the same because of the RNG that comes with random cards.
Would-be runners are going to be able to brute-force many of the encounters by focusing on using some heroes to line up the enemies and one of the big-damage specials like Iron Man’s to knock out multiple foes at once. Otherwise, it’s going to come down to relying on big damage environmental attacks as much as possible.
Skipping side content and conversations and even cutscenes will come into play for any run.
Luckily for runners, early impressions make it feel like most of the Abbey stuff is outright skippable. Some of the bonuses will of course be nice, but it’s hard to imagine most being mandatory to top-timed runs.
Midnight Suns nails the gameplay experience, which is by far the most important thing about it.
The actual card-based battles are a little stunning in how fun they can be. It’s just different enough to feel like a unique experience players can’t get anywhere else and the difficulty scales well as a player improves.
Which is good, because the relationship management side of the game is going to end up really divisive. So too might some of the dialogue found throughout as well-trodden characters stretch like an Olympian to fit a 50-plus hour campaign that wants to fit those relationship systems.
Midnight Suns is a great example of a game that doesn’t need all of its parts to be amazing in order to succeed. The gameplay experience is that great, exceeding expectations, even, while the misfires won’t classify as such for everyone and are otherwise capable of being avoided or reduced.