When a superhero gets hit so hard that they fly backward, crash through solid walls, explode tanker trucks, or hit their friends, it’s one of my favorite parts of watching them fight. It’s a great example of how powerful these god-like characters are supposed to be, and it’s always disappointing when a superhero game fails to capture that feeling. With Wonder’s 12 PM Suns, in any case, Firaxis has fabricated a profound and imaginative turn-based strategic battle framework around the delight of having Iron Man, Dr. Bizarre, Cutting edge, and more thump foes around like toys they’re attempting to break – and that hasn’t gone downhill in the about 75 hours of its shockingly sweeping RPG crusade. Although it is certainly appealing to get up close and personal with this cast of more than a dozen well-known and lesser-known Marvel heroes, it does tend to go a little too far in convincing Earth’s mightiest heroes to all be your BFFs. However, most of that time is not spent in battles.
Midnight Suns stands out from other Marvel games we’ve received in recent years due to its full-on supernatural theme. The corrupt witch Lilith returns from the dead to claim the Darkhold, the evil spell book featured in Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, on behalf of an even more evil god. This story is loosely based on the Marvel Comics series Midnight Sons. The family dynamics surrounding that apocalyptic mystical threat make it more interesting, even though the threat itself isn’t particularly novel: Our character’s mother is Lilith, and her sister is Caretaker, a powerful witch who acts as the Midnight Sun’s mentor and is a Commander Shepard-like blank slate. The story uses Lilith’s ability to sway the minds of heroes and villains alike to great effect in creating strife and division among our heroes. There is a lot of history between them, literally, as Lilith and Caretaker date back hundreds of years to the Salem Witch Trials. With a campaign that lasts so long (at least 60 hours, but I’m closer to 75 or 80 right now), nearly every member of the cast gets a chance to shine, from the world-famous Spider-Man to lesser-known magical heroes like Nico Minaru from Runaways and Illyana “Magik” Rasputin from Colossus, who both play important roles in the fight against Lilith.
Midnight Suns’ combat style immediately sets it apart from the genre-defining XCOM games from Firaxis, which are refreshingly different. For a certain something, every individual from the three-man group you take on a commonplace mission has their own adjustable deck of eight cards addressing everything from Bug Man’s THWIP!!!a web-stunning assault on Dr. Strange’s Winds of Watoomb tornado that forces you to think critically to make the most of the situation at hand. I’m all for this idea because I love card games like Slay the Spire, Monster Train, and most recently, Marvel Snap. The fact that it can’t be predicted keeps me from doing the same thing over and over again once I find something that works. You can discard and redraw any at least a few cards every turn to replace those that aren’t useful in your situation, so having only a few cards in your hand isn’t as restrictive as you might think. You can also increase the number of redraws per turn with consumable items or card upgrades. I have rarely been unable to act, and it is not unusual for you to draw the card you want.
This system’s ability to draw from a single pool of three “card plays” and one movement action per turn is another great feature. As a result, losing a hero does not immediately reduce your number of actions by a third; you lose access to that hero’s cards, but remaining players can still make use of all of their turn’s moves. As a result, you’ll be at a disadvantage until you can revive them, but it won’t be bad enough to cause you to fall into the same pitfall as other squad-based games like XCOM or Midnight Suns.
These mostly small-scale missions are exciting slugfests in which staying alive is all about quickly eliminating enemies or, at the very least, weakening them before they can move. Superheroes don’t take cover in a fight and don’t miss their shots. A lot of the guesswork is taken out of it by icons above enemies’ heads that indicate whom they plan to attack their turn. This allows you to direct their attacks away from your weakest hero and strengthen your allies with armor and resistance.
Basic attack and skill cards (those with the “quick” trait refund your card play if you knock out a target, extending your turn) are used to pick off weak fodder enemies to build up Heroism points, which can then be spent on powerful Heroic cards like a hail of missiles from Iron Man’s shoulders that damages every enemy on the screen or Wolverine’s armor-piercing claws, or satisfying environmental attacks like dropping a street lamp on a group of enemies or when everything comes together to let you clear one of these tight-knit arena maps before the inevitable wave of enemy reinforcements arrives off-screen to keep the action going, it’s fantastic.
The animators at Firaxis have done an excellent job of giving these turn-based battles a lively feel. Using Spider-Man’s webs to fling objects into the faces of bad guys from across the map is very on-brand, and the fact that so much of it is built around smacking enemies with a lot of force works very well with high-powered heroes like Iron Man and Captain Marvel. Positioning is extremely important when all of that knockback is in play; you need to consider how to approach a target and how to set up more damaging hits. Also, I love how each hero moves and attacks in a different way, whether it’s flying, levitating, teleporting, or swinging. The powerful team-up attacks are also great because two heroes take turns beating a target to death. The animations are a lot of fun to watch when you get to the over-the-top late-game abilities, and they are set to a rousing score that sounds like something from the Avengers.
One of the few major locations in Midnight Suns where a dice roll determines whether an attack is successful is the floor, where you can open portals into Limbo and/or Hell and kick enemies into it for an instant knockout by combining heroes like Magik and Ghost Rider. This is a risk because it requires you to spend a move and may not cause any damage. However, if you can remove a large enemy from the map in one move, it could be very beneficial.
Even though the maps you fight on are usually small and flat, there aren’t many things on them to slam enemies into or hit them with. However, there are a lot of backgrounds to keep things interesting and a lot of goals beyond just getting rid of all the enemies. Some dangers require your team to move quickly to avoid danger zones, shield-wielding enemies that must be broken through to reach a target, Hydra VIPs that must be captured, bombs that must be disabled, and so on. Side objectives that require you to use a specific character to deal 250 damage in two turns, for example, can also keep things interesting in straightforward battles. I rarely felt like I was stuck in a rut during missions due to those factors and the occasional boss encounters with characters like Venom, Sabertooth, Crossbones, and others, all of which have their distinct mechanics.
Naturally, there are some annoying quirks to get used to in the combat of Midnight Suns: Even though you can see where your characters will land before you play a card, you can’t control where they will land after an attack because positioning is so important. Also, there is no grid, so it can be hard to figure out where to cast an area-of-effect attack to hit multiple targets or where to line up an environmental attack. However, the main thing that still puzzles me is that if you move a character by accident while trying to make them shove an enemy, you lose the shove move for this turn.
Even though I now adore it, it took me some time to get used to the battles in Midnight Suns. Each character has a deck of cards, including Hunter’s, which are a mix of light and dark cards that give you a good range of options for how you want them to play, focusing on support abilities that heal or grant armor or going all-in on damage dealing. The opening hours are a lot to take in, and at the same time that you’re trying to wrap your head around this dramatically different new combat system, you’re bombarded with what feels like way too many currencies for upgrades (each ofI also made the mistake of completing a lot of the early side missions, which turned out to be a bad idea because they required me to unlock a lot of things at that point. For instance, you’re just making things harder than they need to be if you don’t unlock the ability to deal more damage by knocking an enemy into one of your teammates. It took me about two hours of persistently retrying to figure out how to survive that mission when Venom showed up randomly in an already difficult situation (like in XCOM 2’s Chosen, boss characters can drop into normal missions unexpectedly).
But by the time I got through the first act of the surprisingly long story, everything had come together, and I found that I enjoyed the challenge of making the most of the opportunities presented to me. My options were significantly expanded and each character felt more tailored to my preferred style thanks to the ability to upgrade and augment cards with bonuses, such as increasing their power when you spend a redraw on them or inflicting bleeding on a target.
During that second act, I did have to reduce the difficulty. When the generic Hydra soldiers were replaced by a larger variety of tougher demonic enemies (such as the creepy guys who can clone themselves and others), I started hitting walls where my current understanding of how to optimize a deck just wasn’t up to the task. I had ambitiously cranked it up three levels as they had unlocked based on my scores in some of the early missions. So I returned down to only one step over the default until the end of my run, and that put me in a decent spot – yet I’m anticipating a future playthrough (perhaps when the arranged DLC characters Deadpool, Tempest, Toxin, and Morbius show up) where I can design out my decks with a superior comprehension of how redesigns work and which cards I can forfeit for additional assets to step up and upgrade the ones I like.
It’s a well-thought-out system that raises the rewards you receive for completing missions quickly and without being defeated. Doing well doesn’t make you stronger—if you’re doing well, you probably don’t need much help there anyway—it just makes you look cooler by increasing the amount of Gloss currency you need to spend, among other things, on getting Hunter and the rest of the gang new costumes and leisure wear. It’s a good incentive to push yourself to get better on the battlefield because there are at least a few costume options for everyone, each with multiple color palettes.
However, to pay Gloss to enable them, you must first locate those cosmetic items, the majority of which can be found by exploring the grounds surrounding the Abbey, the Midnight Suns’ home base. The parallel story that takes place here, in which Agatha Harkness’s ghost sends you on a search for missing memories of Hunter and Lilith’s conflict and retraces the events that led to her death, was generally enjoyable to me. Although it is unquestionably a significant change of pace from battles, it can also feel like a significant waste of time: there’s a ton of careless meandering alone across the decently estimated, labyrinth-like guide, which is primarily without NPCs of any sort, as you look for bits of riddles. I ran into a few frustrating bugs during that time, such as items that were initially uninteractive or solutions that didn’t work until I tried them multiple times. Also, you get a set of four powers that you can’t use in combat, but most of them are used to open up locked areas. The fact that you need to use the Open spell to open locked doors, the Purify spell to clear vine-based obstacles, and the Reveal spell whenever you see the eye symbol becomes very clear.
The aggressive befriending of everyone on the team is the third major aspect of Midnight Suns, and this is where things can get a little awkward. We do get to learn about each hero’s backstory and the reasons they joined the Suns, as well as the interpersonal conflicts that arise between the resident magic users and the visiting Avengers. A lot of this is done well and gives the characters more depth. The writing is usually strong and often funny. Tony Stark and Dr. Strange have some of the best banter as they work to solve problems using technology and magic, Nico’s rebelliousness constantly puts her at odds with Caretaker, and Blade is dark, intense, and has a secret crush. Even Robbie Reyes, the vacuous young Ghost Rider, has a lot to like about him, and the voice acting holds it all up pretty well. Characters in these different iterations feel distinct; Tony Stark is the only person I would accuse of impersonating their Marvel Cinematic Universe counterpart.
I couldn’t help but notice a lot of similarities between how you talk to your teammates and earn points for being a goodie-two-shoes or an abrasive jerk at every opportunity (or choosing the more neutral option), with each character having their preference for how you should act. I recently rewatched the Mass Effect trilogy. When Nico, for instance, rants about Caretaker, she typically seeks a dark response, whereas Steve Rogers is exactly what you would expect. Even if you don’t like roleplaying, that system, like nearly everything else, feeds into combat by unlocking items that give Hunter passive bonuses. As a result, you should be consistent with your choices.
Although Hunter isn’t a bad character, their position next to well-known comic book legends like Iron Man, Captain America, and Spider-Man, among others, that we already know and love, almost guarantees that they won’t be as memorable. My Hunter, a man who almost always selects the “light” dialogue options (my usual choice for the first playthrough of a game like this), alternates between being a self-assured fighter against his mother’s evil and a silly dork who always wears sunglasses at night, which was kind of cute. However, when I eventually return to it using a different approach, I don’t anticipate a significant shift in how the events play out.
What compelled me to wince to a great extent, however, was the way that such a great deal of 12 PM Suns is spent getting these legends to like Tracker. It has the feel of self-insertion fan fiction, in which you write a story about meeting all your favorite characters and having them constantly tell you how cool you are and how much they love being friends with you. To be fair, we see a lot of this kind of relationship-building in other party-based BioWare RPGs, but in this case, the fact that our character is the only one not from the Marvel Comics universe and that most of them already know each other gives it a different flavor when everyone is quickly wooing you. Participating in the various book clubs, surprise parties, and soakings in Abbey’s grotto pool, of course, adds gameplay value: It is worthwhile to level up friendships because doing so grants each character powerful passive combat abilities, as well as their Midnight Suns costumes and most powerful card.
Having said that, it’s odd that all of these friendships are completely platonic in a game where we spend so much time wooing a group of mostly attractive people by giving them thoughtful gifts that fit their interests and unlocking their swimsuit options. The only person Tony Stark hasn’t tried to bang is, in my opinion, our character, according to canon.)In games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and The Witcher, there are a lot of conversations, especially with Magik, that could have turned romantic, but nothing happens. This can be disappointing. Although Captain Friendzone would have been a more fitting superhero name for Hunter, I wouldn’t be surprised if Marvel rejected the idea of romance options with its established characters.
Firaxis has joined the ranks of RPG developers like BioWare, Obsidian, Bethesda, and Larian with Marvel’s Midnight Suns. It takes some time to get going with its innovative turn-based hero combat system, but once it does, it makes good use of card game mechanics to keep battles fresh, changing, and unpredictable over an epic campaign. Blasting enemies into things for more damage is endlessly entertaining. The familial bond between the hero and villain at the heart of the supernatural apocalypse tale gives it emotional weight. Building extraordinary fellowships with popular Wonder superheroes we’ve found in comics, motion pictures, and games for quite a long time will in general feel constrained and strange, yet realizing all their origin stories and clashes with colleagues can be captivating, and the way that almost all that you do beyond battle makes you all the more impressive in the following battle implies everything will in general merit doing.