In Marvel’s Midnight Suns (opens in new tab), you are a half demonic monster slayer who has woken up after three centuries to find your demonic mother sowing chaos and hydra all pumped full of gamma juice. The fate of the world is at stake and a group of superheroes are looking for you to save the day, so what do you do? Go on dates. Lounge around the pool. Organize surprise parties. What else?
When Firaxis brought XCOM back in 2012 and reinvigorated the turn-based tactics genre on PC, it wasn’t where I expected to go: fireside reading with Blade, the fearsome vampire hunter, to increase our friendship rank. At the end of what was admittedly a lovely evening, I unlocked a couple Rarely Swimming trunks for the brooding hero. I’m still not convinced this isn’t a fever dream.
There’s a clever turn-based tactics game here (which you can read more about in our previous hands-on game, Midnight Suns (opens in new tab)) where you command your squad of heroes by dumping cards from their unique decks, but so far I’ve spent a lot more time hanging out with my new friends than fighting super villains, demons, and fascists. Midnight Suns is obsessed with the social life of superheroes, and by emphasizing friendship and camaraderie it ends up feeling a lot more like Fire Emblem – particularly the excellent Three Houses – rather than XCOM.
In my first real mission, my team was saved from Venom, looking a little more demonic than usual, by Spider-Man, who led the monster on a merry chase across New York. I thought we’d team up with him right away, but no, instead I went back to the Abbey – think Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, but creepier – for some time off. I joined a club, explored the grounds, picked flowers, and asked Blade to help me hang balloons for Magik’s birthday party. By the time I was ready to help Spider-Man, he’d been dragging Venom around New York for days.
I can’t stress enough how much I love this, even if it makes me an awful superhero. While most heroes would have returned to Spider-Man’s side a bit quicker, it feels faithful to the comics in every other respect. For every crisis of fate there is a multitude of moments in which the heroes work out their differences, flirt or get completely drunk. Sometimes they go on beach vacations (usually spoiled by a water monster). Unlike the stoic members of XCOM, superheroes know how to live a little.
These are established characters with big egos and a way of drawing the drama towards them. Tony Stark just refuses to stop cracking jokes and I think that could destroy the team. Assuming his roommate, the prickly Doctor Strange, doesn’t kill him first. Spider-Man quickly gives in to peer pressure and wants to please everyone. And Magik is just mean. They’re all just very insecure, so it’s pretty much high school again – full of rivalries and cliques, popular kids and outcasts. Except some of them are middle-aged men.
I’m already more invested in them – even the ones I don’t really like – than I could be with an interchangeable squad of soldiers. Even XCOM’s highly customizable ones. And that affects the decisions I make about who I take into battle. When Robbie Reyes – a younger, less confident incarnation of Ghost Rider – asked to join the next mission because he felt left out, I made sure he got on the list, not because he was important, but because I did it. I don’t want my buddy to feel bad. We’ve previously had heart-to-hearts about him feeling like a ghost ignored by powerhouses like Iron Man and Captain Marvel, so that request felt less random, which leaned more towards giving him a solid one make.
This favor worked well, with Ghost Rider firing on all cylinders for being so happy to be part of it. It’s one of several ways relationships, like Fire Emblem’s support system, play a role on the battlefield. You can also see a core of this in the XCOM 2 expansion War of the Chosen and its Soldier Bonds, where soldiers can become very bonded to a colleague and receive a range of perks while fighting with them. In Midnight Suns, however, the concept has expanded significantly, with various short- and long-term relationship goals. There are also plenty of rewards ranging from cosmetics to more practical things like stat buffs. You will also unlock combo cards that allow heroes to team up against an enemy and unleash a powerful attack. Relationships are not just a complementary feature, they are the umbrella under which many other systems sit.
With fewer characters than Fire Emblem, Midnight Suns is able to take its friendship simulation even further, making each social encounter unique. One of the most common ways friendships blossom is through personal post-mission hangouts. There is a list of activities that you can share with all heroes, but everyone has their own preferences. They’ll learn what they enjoy doing over time, but the activity isn’t the only contributor to your budding friendship. When I went to see a movie with Magik, she wasn’t a fan, but the accompanying conversation brought us closer. These are all short vignettes, but they always offer you a new insight into your future BFFs.
In addition to hangouts, you can compliment your friends after they complete missions, spar with them, take them to unique locations in the abbey for meaningful conversation, reply to DMs, and get involved in scripted drama or activities. like the surprise party mentioned above. My social life is really out of control right now compared to what it is outside of the game. I’m hardly out the door when I get texts from Spider-Man asking me to get resources for the shop course (where all the geeks make cool gizmos that are presented as handy new cards) or asking Nico whether I want to come along to Emo Kids Club that night (where we use magic to mend broken memories) or Blade asking me if I want to do yoga. How did I become so popular?
So yeah, it can be a lot to take in at first. In your first 10 hours, you won’t go through a day without discovering new systems. Alongside all the social activities, there are crafting, research, solo Hero Ops, collectibles, and secrets scattered around the Abbey grounds, all vying for your attention. And don’t forget that this is (occasionally) a card game, so you’ll have to level up cards, unlock new ones, and keep tweaking each hero’s deck. It nags you for those first few hours, pointing you at all the things you can do, and pretty quickly you’ll be desperate for an opportunity to settle down. Thankfully it wears off, and after trying to take it all in, you’re told that you can now just wander the Abbey and mess with the systems as you see fit.
The abbey, I should add, is absolutely huge – much larger than Three Houses’ Garreg Mach monastery. The building itself is fairly compact, but then you have the sprawling grounds that just seem to go on and on. And further. They’re also labyrinthine, so expect to get lost, even with the help of the map. Walls and broken bridges will block your path at first – a welcome limitation that makes exploring the terrain a less arduous prospect – but I still found myself stumbling around for bloody eternities for mushrooms, chests, mystical objects, and special locations was looking for some heart. to heart.
XCOM HQ is all about function, apart from the snippets of dialogue you get from the section heads. But the Abbey is a home and a sanctuary – a place to clear your head after you’ve just spent the afternoon choking on Venom Goo. At Garreg Mach Monastery, students sing in choir or eat together to unwind, but the abbey’s heroes prefer video games, sunbathing, and sodas in their bar. Either way, it’s a respite from conflict, as XCOM HQ does with it his Geoscape that keeps telling you that time is running out and everyone will die could never be.
There’s still plenty of references to XCOM everywhere, with many of the Priory’s facilities being essentially analog. Management of scarce resources has also been taken over, allowing you to prioritize which heroes to develop and which new technologies (or magical MacGuffin) deserve to be explored. But it’s still hard to imagine any other approach to turn-based tactics. After XCOM: Chimera Squad’s custom characters, I figured there would be a bit of development there, but Midnight Suns goes so far beyond the buddy cop spin-off that it doesn’t even feel like a prototype of a prototype.
Firaxis has taken Midnight Suns in an undoubtedly unusual direction – one that won’t stop spitting out weird surprises – but so far I’m loving the ride. I still have a lot of friends to make though, and I guess at some point I should think about saving the world? I need to check my social calendar first.
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