Marvel's Midnight Suns Review
An unusual, but enjoyable, combination
Even while playing the game, I couldn't shake how odd the partnership behind Marvel's Midnight Suns is. Firaxis Games' layered strategy games and Marvel's action-packed heroics don't seem like a logical combination. Throw in the fact that the title would be utilizing a deck-building system, and you have a case for this being the oddest partnership in recent memory. However, if you consider Marvel's shaky history with gaming, then throwing in with an established studio such as Firaxis makes some sense. The studio has an excellent track record, and their streak of success continues, for the most part, with this comic book-based effort.
Finding out that Midnight Suns would utilize a card-based battle system both intrigued and scared me. I have enjoyed deck builders in the past such as Slay the Spire but weaving it into a more action focused game was new to me. Plus, I love the XCOM series, so I would have been totally cool with Firaxis just reusing that system but substituting soldiers for super heroes. However, the system works well, and doesn't limit you as much as you may expect it to.
For each mission, you are given a party of three members to bring into battle. Hunter, who serves as the player character, is frequently required, but there are missions where you can choose from any three heroes. Each hero has their own deck of cards, and you can edit these decks with cards acquired by completing missions with them. Once on the battlefield, you'll notice that you are allowed to play three cards in a given turn. Your hand is made-up of cards randomly drawn from the decks of each hero. Certain cards also require Heroism points to play, which is something you gain from playing cards. You'll typically have enough points at a start of a turn to play basic cards but building up the meter lets you play more powerful Heroic cards. Your turn will end once you either run out of cards to play, or if you run out of Heroism.
What takes some time getting used to is the fact that you don't really have free reign to move around. You can move one character a turn, but otherwise movement is handled by where your hero will move upon playing a card. You'll see where the character moves to prior to playing a card, so there's a level of strategy to getting to a specific spot on the map. This could be used to avoid out-of-turn enemy attacks such as timed explosives, or it could be used to get to an object you can use. Heroes can pick up debris or trigger explosives without needing to play a card, but they do cost Heroism to use. These are ways to further eliminate HYDRA forces outside of the traditional attacks from your deck.
The battle engine is surprisingly elastic, and it's only as enjoyable as you make it. Later game elements such as team-up attacks and powered-up basic skills offer up plenty of creative ways to clear out a map. Using Ghost Rider to open a pit to hell, and then throwing an enemy into said pit with Hunter never gets old. The opening hours of the campaign can be a bit tedious to run through, if only because the cards you have on hand are pretty basic. But by the time you start getting new party members such as Captain America, you should have a solid arsenal of skills and attacks. The card system could made for a frustrating experience, but Firaxis has done an excellent job of letting you tweak your decks for any challenge you come across.
When outside of battle, there's still plenty to do in Midnight Suns. During downtime, you'll get the opportunity to hang out with the heroes at you base of operations, the Abbey. Hunter is looking to make some friends, and the likes of Tony Stark, Nico Minoru and Carol Danvers are well worth saddling up with. You might not be able to woo them like in Fire Emblem, but you can still forge strong bonds. Doing so will boost their experience and unlock perks that can be used in battle. You only get a limited amount of hangout time in a day, so choices need to be made as to who you will watch a movie or get a drink with.
How you feel about the social aspects of the game will depend on how you feel about the stylings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The dialogue and interactions owe a lot to the jokey and snappy nature of those films, and I know that can be grating for some. As a fan of the films, but not necessarily a hardcore one, I didn't really mind. Some of the conversations can drag, and the jokes can feel ill-timed, but for the most part I found these moments engaging. I really appreciated the fact that the main roster of the title is also not entirely comprised of big names. Yes, Iron Man and Spider-Man are classics, but getting to hang out with Ghost Rider, Magik and Blade is cool to see as well.
If you aren't down with the cast of the characters, you may not get fully invested in the story of Midnight Suns. Borrowing the name from the Marvel team Midnight Sons, the plot deals with the more supernatural aspects of the universe. Ancient demon Lilith has been awoken by the nefarious HYDRA to aid in their quest to take-over the world. To deal with the Mother of Demons, the Midnight Suns are called to action by the Caretaker, who happens to be Lilith's sister. However, even the combined might of the Suns and the Avengers will not be enough to save the day, and soon the legendary Hunter is resurrected to assist in battle. Hunter was laid to rest after defeating Lilith previously, and there's no one better for dealing with the returning threat. Oh, and it should probably be stated that Lilith is the mother of Hunter as well.
It's the characters that make for an entertaining story, as the end of days plot set-up is nothing new. The clashing personalities and struggles each member of the Midnight Suns faces as the war wages on are engaging. If the plot is let down by anything, it's the fact that Lilith and Hunter both pale in comparison to the other, more familiar faces. The various other villains that show up are more entertaining than Lilith, and Hunter comes across as a self-insert character at times. They are bland in comparison to their allies. Still, the relationships that evolve and thrive over the campaign make it worth sticking with.
Other than hanging with their super powered pals, Hunter can also roam the grounds of the Abbey in search of secrets. There are common items, such as Gloss, which serves as in-game currency for purchasing new articles of clothing and furniture, and Essence, which is used in the crafting of new items. There are also uncommon items such as paintings that can be hung up, tarot cards depicting different Marvel characters and journal entries for both Hunter and Scarlet Witch. In order to delve deeper into the secrets of the abbey, you'll need to find items for the ghost of Agatha Harkness.
This is a cool idea in theory, but in practice it's just kind of boring. There's not much for you to do besides collect various items, and it really seems like this just serves as a way to waste time in-between going out to battle. As you work with Agatha, you'll unlock new spells, but this feels like a missed opportunity. All you do with them is just unlock new areas to collect the same items you were collecting before. It would have been cool if these spells could have been rolled into battling instead of their limited use outside of battle.
I'm torn on the visuals of Midnight Suns. The effects of the heroes' attacks look fantastic at times, and I think the character designs are mostly good. There are costume options that stay true to traditional looks, but also unlockable ones that call upon classic comics. However, I don't love the environments of the game, both the abbey and other locales, and the animations aren't great. Character models can look awkward when talking, with their facial animations being a glaring problem. They have the look of characters from The Sims in their worst moments. At least the fantastic voice acting can help take your mind off the stunted animations. The cast does a great job of infusing their characters with depth, and in the case of MCU regulars, differentiate themselves from their cinematic counterparts. Special praise is deserved for Michael Jai White (Blade), Giancarlo Sabogal (Robbie Reyes) and Laura Bailey (Magik) for their excellent performances.
There's a lot going on in Marvel's Midnight Suns, and it's mostly able to make all of its various components work together. Firaxis has crafted an excellent card-based battle system that provides a stiff challenge, but also gives you plenty of options for creativity. It's a total change of pace from their usual style, but they handle it spectacularly. The title also delivers on the story front, particularly when it comes to the fantastic characterization of the titular team. I enjoyed getting to build my relationships and looked forward to spending more time with them as the story progressed. If there's a weak link in the package, it's the out of battle exploration segments. There's plenty to find but doing so is kind of a bore. Midnight Suns is a jumble of many different things, but it all ends up as a surprisingly complete finished product.