What do Nico Minoru, Robbie Reyes, Ilyana Rasputin and Blade have in common? If you guessed a pronounced overbite, you’d be wrong. But they do all have starring roles in Firaxis’ recent strategy game, Marvel’s Midnight Suns.
The narrative, as one might expect, is fairly derivative and involves various Marvel baddies in service to Hydra resurrecting the “Mother of Demons,” Lilith. Lilith’s goal is to revive Chthon, a large tentacled destructive elder god who wants to destroy the world. Enter the Avengers and the Midnight Suns. But they have a secret weapon in the enshrined de-coffinated sleeping body of the Hunter, offspring of Lilith. Revived at the outset, the Hunter makes it their mission to ally with the Avengers and the Midnight Suns in stopping their demonic parental unit and ultimately saving the world.
If the overarching narrative is unoriginal and lacking in panache, the characterization more than makes up for it. Here, the writers do a fantastic job of capturing the style and tone of each character. Nico Minoru (of Marvel’s Runaways fame) is rebellious and responds well to darker aligned characters, while characters like Peter Parker and Stephen Strange are appropriately self-doubting and reflective. Tony Stark, naturally is well…Tony. Interacting with these characters is one of the best parts of the game, and in order to raise your friendship levels with each character as well as your overall team friendship levels, there will be a lot of team building going on.
Inviting your teammates to hang out, giving them gifts, daily sparring activities and combat missions all boost your friendship with teammates, which can have various benefits from increasing their latent combat abilities (like Wolverine’s self healing or Magik’s portal abilities, for example). Countering this relatively involved relationship system is the disappointing fact that a romance option with one or more of your favorite heroes is strictly out of the question.
Fancy a little romp in the graveyard with the Daywalker? Out of the question. Fancy a ride on Ghost Rider’s piston powered hot rod? Nope. Want to see if that really is America’s ass? Not going to happen. The real antagonist of the game may be neither Lilith or Chthon, but Marvel’s family friendly policy that keeps relationships in the game strictly friend-zone only.
This is a shame, because there are a lot of characters to befriend and increase your friendship with. Your friendship levels also directly affect your teammates’ performance in combat encounters. Character progression is interesting and occurs on several different levels. You’ll level up in the traditional sense, increasing hp and offense directly by a numerical amount. At the end of each combat mission, you’ll also receive a gamma coil, which when analyzed back at your base, will let you select new cards for your heroes to use in combat.
Those abilities come in the common, rare, epic, legendary variety. Also, for every two cards you acquire with the same ability, you can fuse them together for a more powerful version of that ability. Only the heroes you recently used in combat are eligible for new cards, so building up optimal combat ready decks for each hero will take awhile.
Combat itself is a deceptively simple appearing affair but features complex layers of depth residing just beneath the surface. You start with a hand of six cards, out of three eight card editable decks for the three heroes you take into the encounter with you. These decks consist of attacks, skills and heroics, in four delicious flavors, from common to legendary. Sadly, you can’t just stack all your decks with the best stuff, since there are hard limits on how many of each ability you can throw in there, such as one legendary per deck for instance.
Cards themselves are generally basic, but the situations that you find yourself thrown into within the various combat missions can often be anything but. Most combat missions have special objectives that must be met to complete the mission, outside of eliminating various enemies. Figuring out how to use your limited card plays and environmental attacks per turn is often the key to success.
On each turn, you get three card plays, two redraws, and one move. You can increase these numbers with various card or passive abilities but these are the general starting values. Each attack or skill card features a plus one or plus two bonus and playing a card raises your heroic meter in the bottom right of the screen. The basic flow of combat involves playing various attacks and skills, raising your heroic meter and using this meter to pull off heroic abilities and environmental attacks.
Combat itself is a fluid dance of visual eye candy. The abilities of various heroes serve as complimentary, more often than not. For example, Wolverine’s Berserk ability lets him draw three additional cards, specific to his deck, and most of his attacks involve quick swipes or chaining several strikes in rapid succession, so you’ll often see him controlling the battlefield as he leaps from foe to foe, his claws slicing through them like paper, volt blue flashes of light filling the screen. His rarer abilities in combat deal with activating his self healing ability, a useful skill for someone who can effectively taunt multiple enemies at once.
The Hunter, your create-a-protagonist of the game is an interesting character in combat as well. Calling to mind memories of various BioWare games, they have a light and dark meter that constantly rises and falls based on various interactions with other characters. It can be annoying to manage at times, however, when you’re trying to push one side or the other to the limit and certain characters respond negatively to your responses, causing you to lose friendship points. There’s a neutral option in most conversations but those don’t allow you to raise the meter at all.
And you’ll want to get your inner dark side or light side on, as the higher your meter goes in either direction, the more combat bonuses you’ll unlock, from earning free light or dark based card plays up to passive abilities in combat and even rare outfits and abilities. For their part, the Hunter can be tailored to a more tanky role in combat, a heavy damage dealer, or in a more supportive capacity. Can’t decide? Why not be all three! They have the cards to support it. One of the Hunter’s best abilities, Fortify, builds up their block gauge and also gives them the counter ability. This essentially turns them into a very effective tank.
Add in a few healing abilities and they become a force to be reckoned with. The abilities that are aligned with the Hunter’s darker side tend to deal with manipulating or controlling enemies as well as dishing out lots of damage, at a cost, such as giving you a status effect or discarding a random card from your hand. Interestingly, shifting your alignment to the extreme in either direction doesn’t lock you out of playing cards of the opposite alignment, you just won’t get the combat bonuses associated with it.
Your base of operations, shared with both The Avengers and the Midnight Suns is known as The Abbey. It’s a large chapel-laden building with a huge forested external area that offers a variety of secret collectibles and hidden paths. Safe from the prying eyes of enemies, The Abbey resides on its own separate plane of reality and embarking on combat missions involves traversing portals to various destinations.
The Abbey also houses a forge for crafting and analyzing found artifacts, an area for sending heroes on secret ops missions using found intel, an outside area where you can level up your teammates skills through daily sparring and a war room where you can embark on story and optional combat missions. Logan describes The Abbey as, “this place puts Xavier’s pad to shame.”
It will take awhile to complete the main story, acquire the best cards, solve all the mysteries surrounding The Abbey, hunt down all the collectibles, unlock all the outfits, and increase your friendship with all the various heroes. You may well find yourself burning the midnight oil or watching the daylight slowly disappear as you hunt down the minions of Chthon. Like a flickering candle, Marvel’s Midnight Suns is a bright spot among strategy games, yet it is also a slow burn that will melt the hours away.