A XCOM-like tactical RPG from from Firaxis? Based on an enormous roster of Marvel superheroes? That sounds like a 99% chance of success.
The mission of Marvel’s Midnight Suns is a noble one. A tactical RPG, from developer Firaxis, the game takes the set-up of numerous Marvel movies, wherein a bucketload of superheroes is tipped into battle with an evil of universe-trashing potency, and makes a few improvements. First, the chaos that customarily blazes across the screen is slowed to a manageable pace; Iron Man still palms off his laser pulses, Doctor Strange conjures his glowing-gold Hula Hoops, and Captain Marvel still wreathes herself in solar fire, but they all wait their damn turn. Plus, their actions are dictated by cards. What with the recent release of Marvel Snap, this is becoming a trend. I have to say, it suits them: their deeds have often felt played out, powered by paper-thin motive, and most of the Marvel stars feel merely like one of a deck, to be shuffled and dealt afresh.
The mission of the Midnight Suns themselves is another matter. Like the Avengers, they are a supergroup, culled partially from the A list and, more intriguingly, from the lower orders. Thus, we have Ghost Rider, otherwise known as Robbie Reyes, who dresses like a biker and combusts into a skull-faced spectre whenever the mood strikes. There is Magik, formerly of the X-Men, who sports a lemon-bright leotard and spirits her comrades though a mocha-brown vortex – like a slow-motion pour in a Nespresso advert – to wherever they need to be. My personal favourite is Blade, a human-vampire crossbreed (last embodied by Wesley Snipes, all those years ago) who wears blood-coloured shades and packs a brace of fully automatic pistols. Nico Minoru, meanwhile, is a sorceress who wields something called the Staff of One, and who used to belong to another group, the Runaways.
Indeed, there is an air of dejection to the team, many of its members seeming to have fled from other teams. What’s more, characters seem to drop in and out, suggesting more of a leaky alliance than a dedicated squad. At any rate, the reason for their mustering is Lilith, who, with her jutting cheekbones and billy-goat horns, resembles Angelina Jolie in Maleficent. Lilith steps from a Flubber-green vortex, near the start, flanked by a pair of demonic mutts, and Iron Man puts her arrival right where it belongs: “Gozer?” I laughed at that line, as much with relief as genuine amusement; there is a tacky texture to the events of Marvel’s Midnight Suns, and invoking Ghostbusters seemed like the right call.
The combat pits three Suns, at any one time, against the dull hordes of Hydra, an organisation bent on befouling the planet. And the flow of each fight depends on the cards in your hand, which are topped up every turn. You have attack cards, skill cards, and heroic cards; attacks deal damage and accrue heroism points, which are used to unleash uber-moves; skill cards offer tactical buffs, status effects, and healing. On top of all that, you have environmental factors – handy wedges of concrete to hurl, junction boxes and explosive barrels into which to knock your foes, and the like.
I have to confess, I didn’t see this basic premise hooking me in, but I should have known better; I was a helpless convert to Metal Gear Acid, whereas many fans felt burned and spurned by its central conceit. That game took the exploits of its protagonist, Solid Snake, and subjected them to the same process. It caught the bold gestures of a series and embossed them onto collectible cards, and something about the light order that they imposed on its fiction – at once rigid and bendy – appealed to me. Having worked on turn-based series such as Civilization and XCOM, in which the globe is pelted by extraterrestrial threat, Firaxis understands that there is pleasure in the planning of action amid a storm: in having time on your hands to ponder your next move, even as the world approaches the verge of cataclysm.
The Suns convene at the Abbey, a rustic redoubt in Massachusetts, of which Nico says, “For a Haunted Transian castle raised on the cursed grounds of Old Salem, it’s pretty cozy.” True enough, and I caught a definite hint of Hogwarts about the place, with its clubbable blend of dark wood, dormitories, libraries, and levitating candles. Between excursions, you are free to explore, to hang out with your fellow-freaks (which boosts your bond, and therefore your proficiency in battle), and also to check out the grounds. These harbour mysteries of their own, of which I will say little, but I thoroughly recommend the forge. Down there, you will find Tony Stark doing what he does best, locked away in a lab and tinkering with his Staff of One. He cooks up all manner of tech for you, boasts about his genius, and undermines the Hocus of the plot: “Isotope decay, magnetic fields, and gamma oscillation make a lot more sense to me than eye of newt, bat wings, and a sprinkle of sunshine.” He’s not wrong.
I cared little for the yarn of Marvel’s Midnight Suns, and the developers of Firaxis are canny enough to know that a story cannot withstand such a crowded roster. Instead, the joy of the game lies in the crowding. I relished the spectacle of Spider-Man (voiced, thank goodness, by Yuri Lowenthal), webbing up a distorted version of Venom, in the knowledge that the narrative would not come unstuck – that we would soon be off, and the next hero would be dropped into our pack. The award for best guest star goes to Wolverine, who is getting a game to himself – the full Insomniac treatment – before long. He shows up here, able to sniff his opponents’ fear on the air, and when he gets really pissed off his iconic cutlery bears a molten glow.
It’s a pity that the person whom we play as, the Hunter, is so forgettable. But then, how could they not be, given that it’s up to us to customise them? I furnished mine with a goatee and a Caesar crop, heightening the effect that Earth’s funkiest heroes were going to war alongside a rejected design for a Ken doll. He sheathes himself in black-and-white spandex and swings a couple of swords, and his destiny is inevitably bound up with Lilith – even if Doctor Strange can’t quite make it out. “My sense of the future has grown velutinous in nature,” he says, troubled by the apparent blockage of his clairvoyance. Needless to say, the future entails all manner of bad news. Human sacrifice. Dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria. But Firaxis offers us far more intriguing reasons to play this surprising and compulsive game. In the midst of the mayhem, it gives us pause to consider what we prize about these heroes, and what we don’t mind discarding. The end of the world can wait.
Game: Marvel’s Midnight Suns
Platform: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch, PC
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: December 2, 2022