In an era of samey mainstream games, Marvel’s Midnight Suns sticks out like a Spider-Man cosplay in a white collar working place. While this heroic effort from iconic XCOM developer Firaxis pulls liberally from a spectrum of different sources – the likes of Slay the Spire, Metal Gear Acid, and even Fire Emblem: Three Houses all immediately swallow-dive to mind – this is a truly unorthodox adventure that’s unlike any superhero title you’re likely to have played. And while the strategy title doesn’t always stick the landing, it deserves your attention all the same.
Of course, you may be forgiven for thinking this is just the aforementioned XCOM with a Stan Lee skin, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, this is a deck-builder, with each Marvel icon allotted a custom roster of cards. You’ll play these cards in combat to attack your antagonists and buff your teammates, building Heroism which allows you to use the environment to your advantage and play even stronger hands. Each squad member has a unique gameplay style: Iron Man is all about building up to devastating projectiles, while the likes of Blade leans into draining health with his vampiric abilities.
At the heart of it all is The Hunter, a vanilla newcomer who’s resurrected to help vanquish an ancient threat named Lilith. While the character creator doesn’t afford you an enormous amount of freedom, you will have the scope to dictate the kind of protagonist you want to be. A morality system determines the kind of special abilities you’ll unlock throughout the campaign, while you’ll be free to build relationships with the Avengers as you please. Strengthening bonds through social events will lead to new cards being added to your collection, introducing exciting new opportunities on the battlefield.
This means that you’ll spend roughly half of your adventure interacting with your accomplices in a social hub known as the Abbey, which doubles as a small sandbox that’s stacked with secrets. Before and after each battle, you’ll be given the opportunity to speak with your fellow superheroes, tending to their whims or simply blowing off steam. It’s truly an unusual experience: you’ll see stars like Tony Stark and Peter Parker at their most candid here, watching old movies or even chilling in the backyard swimming pool. Attending a traditional book club with Blade is a truly WTF moment.
But while we appreciate the attempt, Firaxis’ writers can’t realise the ambition. There’s a lot of dialogue here – over 65,000 lines, allegedly – and the bulk of it isn’t very good. Undeniably influenced by the uber-popular Marvel Cinematic Universe, the game is stuffed with snarky one-liners, which don’t take long to grate. Many of the conversations drag to a dismal degree, to the point where you’ll glaze over and forget what many of the characters are even supposed to be telling you, and a lot of the plot falls flat as a result. It doesn’t help that the cutscene direction is stuck in 2006.
It means that one of the core pillars of the game, while admittedly compelling conceptually, falls flat. You’ll find yourself itching to get back out on the battlefield while you cycle through reams of dialogue with the perpetually miserable Magick et al, and that’s not to speak of the uninspired adventure aspects. While the developer admits that exploring the Abbey is optional, it pays to interact with it because it all ties back into the collectible card part. Unfortunately, a lot of this amounts to little more than wandering around the gloomy grounds, finding collectibles, gathering crafting resources, and solving simple puzzles.
None of it is aggressively bad, and you will have moments when you feel engaged with the arcs of the characters and actively want to build relationships, but for the most part it underwhelms. One social element we do like is the sense of overall progression; stronger bonds lead to more productive output in combat, while even decoratively you’ll slowly begin to flesh out your hub of operations, adding new furniture, training utilities, and even technology. You really do feel like you’re a part of the Avengers, building up a base of operations against an unprecedented threat.
And of course it all comes back to the battlefield, which is where the release really shines. Environments can feel small and claustrophobic overall, but it creates for some fun dynamics where you’re swatting enemies into each other and positioning yourself in such a way that you’re able to unleash maximum damage with as few moves as possible. Building complementary decks is entertaining, and because each character can only equip eight cards, it never gets obscenely overwhelming like in other collectible card games, such as Pokémon et al. There’s also a visceral feel to the combat; you may merely be playing cards, but you’ll feel every attack – owing to great sound design and strong use of the DualSense’s haptic feedback.
There’s real variety to the mechanics, too. While a number of the missions will task you with simply swatting aside any resistance, boss fights tend to introduce unique rules and conditions, which will force you to think on your feet. Similarly, there are other tasks with sub-criteria you’ll need to fulfil, such as rescuing innocent bystanders or even totalling vehicles before an antagonist can escape. You’ll be rated at the end of each objective based on your performance, and will earn in-game currency, which can then be invested into the aforementioned objectives.
The loop of combat, conversation, and exploration is moreish, and while there will be many moments where you’ll find yourself side-eyeing another unnecessarily long piece of exposition, the thrill of the combat will pull you through. With each mission completed, you’ll unlock Gamma Coils which function like a non-paid gacha mechanic, allowing you to discover cards which can be added to your deck, powered up, and more. You can even send team members out on unmanned missions, adding to the overall power fantasy of leading the Avengers.
Marvel’s Midnight Suns is a hero on the battlefield, where its card-based combat is a hit. The release’s more adventurous social aspects are conceptually interesting, allowing you to candidly interact with a spectrum of personalities, but the writing and cutscene direction simply isn’t up to scratch. It means that you’ll spend long stretches of gameplay itching to get back to the action, but the lure of the tactical battles with pull you through. It’s an unusual, unfocused title at times, but one with character and ambition that’s easy to appreciate.