Marvel’s Midnight Suns is a very pleasant game, in many of the same ways that Marvel movies and TV shows are pleasant. It is a game of bantering and bickering coworkers, attractive people hanging in a cool and cozy clubhuouse, emotional bonding, and engaging but slightly unsuspenseful action. Which is to say, it is also annoying and forgettable in the way that a lot of MCU products end up being. However, Midnight Suns is more meandering and garrulous than almost anything the MCU has put out, making it more like one of those giant phonebook-sized omnibus edition comics that collect every last tie-in issue to a major comics event, so you can see every single character in the entire comics universe have a reaction to the main plotline and maybe get a chance to team up and trade quips with people they rarely cross paths with. Is it good? Well, does that sound good to you?
What Midnight Suns is not is a superhero-themed successor to XCOM, which is what you might have expected as it arrives from XCOM developer Firaxis and designer Jake Solomon. Its emphasis is entirely on characters and narrative. The easiest way to measure this is just in how the game encourages you to devote your time within it: in two hours of playing Midnight Suns, you will maybe fight two battles but you will probably see a cutscene, wander around your HQ eavesdropping on other superheroes, perform a bunch of upgrade and crafting task, go through a lengthy conversation tree with the likes of Blade or Captain Marvel, and then have a special social interaction with another superhero that will boost your relationship. This is what Midnight Suns is about, the tactics game aspect of it is mostly there to resolve action sequences that a comic book story necessarily involves.
The reason the game can spend this time on relationships is because its conceit is that multiple groups of Marvel superheroes are being awkwardly thrown together to form a fresh team to battle a new threat. As the game opens, the Avengers and especially Doctor Strange are overwhelmed by Hydra agents in the service of a recently resurrected witch named Lilith. To fight her, they team up with a group called the Midnight Suns, who have a lot of magical know-how but more importantly have Hunter, your player-character who is an even-more recently resurrected child of Lilith’s who was trained from childhood to fight their evil mom. None of these heroes really know each other (or know the X-Men when they start showing up) and more importantly they do not really like or trust each other and so Midnight Suns’ gameplay is built around a story of different people getting to know each other and striking unlikely friendships.
As Hunter you wake up each day in the gorgeous magical abbey where they and their mentors Caretaker and Agatha Harkness raised them and which now hosts both the Midnight Suns and the other characters that come to join the war effort against Lilith. The other heroes are always there hanging out and waiting for you to come around for a chat and while I am not going to say the writing and performances are revelatory, they’re effective and likable enough that I ended up enjoying the fact that Midnight Suns is mostly a game about superhero downtime.
Crucially, it also has more time to spend on conflict in a way that most MCU stories don’t. The tension between the Midnight Suns and the Avengers, for instance, is not something that is built across a scene and resolved with a fight and a reconciliatory conversation. It moves in fits and starts, at times thawing to become a chilly friendship and at times hardening back into acrimony and genuine anger. The Avengers view themselves as the professionals, and can’t help but condescend to the younger Midnight Suns, who see the Avengers as indifferent and self-absorbed. Raising the emotional stakes is the fact that Lilith has the ability to take over people’s minds, meaning that members of both superhero groups end up fighting on her side.
Those fights are handled via card-driven battles. For each mission you select three heroes, each of whom has a set of cards they bring into the battle that will be shuffled into your play deck. Basic attacks or utility actions will often build a resourceresources called Heroism, which is a prerequisite to play the most powerful cards in your deck, especially the devastating tag-team attacks you get access to if your superheroes have sufficiently bonded. But just as you are building and spending resources, you are also juggling enemy attacks because while your superheroes aren’t going to die if they get shot buy a Hydra goon, they stand a good chance of being knocked-out if they get shot by the half-dozen of them that are likely to be shooting each turn unless you cull their numbers.
Managing all this incoming damage is what the tactics side of Midnight Suns revolves around. Most enemies you fight will die from a single hit, but quite a few will have enough hit points to absorb a couple blows, and then enemy superheroes can absorb tons of damage before they fall. In the meantime, you only have three card plays per turn and can see exactly what every enemy will do and who they will attack on their turn. So a lot of times you are trying to figure out how you can take out the most enemies with the fewest actions possible, and leave things in a place where the incoming damage will be so spread across your team that nobody is in real danger.
To help you with that, the maps are full of environmental hazards that you can use to good effect. Attacks with knockback are perfect for throwing one Hydra soldier into a red barrel whose radius will catch another enemy… but maybe before you do that you could use another knockback attack to move even more bad guys into that blast zone. You can also, if you have some Heroism, use a move action to whip something like a huge crate across the floor and knock enemies over like bowling pins, but how you’ll want to make sure you positioned your heroes in such a way that they direction of these attacks will send objects and enemies flying in the right direction. In a game without cover, it is the directional quality of knockbacks and environmental weapons that gives maneuver and positioning meaning.
It can get pretty hairy during battles as the numbers of enemies you face are overwhelming, especially if you are trying to complete other objectives like preventing a Hydra agent’s escape or to recover magical artifacts to use back at base. However, I would not say it ever feels as satisfying or as tense as XCOM. The task of keeping all your heroes on their feet and dealing with constant enemy reinforcements can be demanding and absorbing, but I never quite felt that engaged by my hero abilities themselves. So many cards just feel like a slightly different flavor of a few basic actions, tweaked to be more thematically appropriate for the different superheroes. That’s less true of their higher-level abilities, as you might expect, and there’s probably only so many ways you can make basic taunt, heal, or stun actions feel special, but I can’t help but feel a lot of the cards feel a bit generic, which can make the action feel generic as well.
Still, the action is demanding and absorbing enough to keep the battles interesting, especially as more advanced abilities come into play and you encounter more dangerous types of enemies. More importantly, the battles nicely break-up and give some additional payoffs to all the quality time you’re going to spend with your growing team of heroes, but never take the emphasis off the fact that Midnight Suns is primarily a story about relationships.
Frankly, I didn’t much like the balance Midnight Suns strikes at first. I wanted “Marvel XCOM” and could not help but be disappointed in how emphatically Midnight Suns is not that. Over the holiday weekend, however, I really came around to what Firaxis hashave done here. It’s a much more relaxing and less demanding game than XCOM. It’s not easy, to be clear: it does not fall into the Fire Emblem: Three Houses trap of making combat so trivial that it mostly interrupts the socializing you’re there to do. But it is forgiving. If you win a battle, even if you win it in an ugly and inefficient fashion, everyone will be okay and the game will go on. Everyone will get back to the Abbey and, once they’re there, they’ll go right back to their friendly and not-so-friendly bickering at the end of the world.