PWhen setting up a turn-based strategy game developed by genre leader Firaxis, creator of the brilliant XCOM reboots, there were several things I didn’t expect. I didn’t foresee having to figure out the love life of the macho vampiric superhero Blade. I didn’t expect to join a book club with Captain Miracle (first read: Sun Tzu’s Art of War). At no point during the game installation did I have the idea of going bird watching with Doctor Strange.
Still, all of these unlikely scenarios are a big part of this latest Marvel video game spin-off, which borrows as many design cues from the fantasy role-playing series Fire Emblem as it does from XCOM. Here, players take on the role of a new hero character, Hunter, a 300-year-old sorceress reanimated by reimagining a character from the Ghost Rider comics, to battle an evil witch bent on galactic domination. That witch also happens to be Hunter’s mother – and she’s recruited an entire army of Hydra-goons to help.
Handily, you’re joined by two superhero collectives: the Avengers and the titular Midnight Suns, a band of mystical magic-weavers including teen goth Nico Minoru from The Runaways and fiery stunt bike dudebro, Ghost Rider. Between missions you all hang out together in an abbey, surrounded by an estate full of caves, cemeteries and menhirs.
Just like in XCOM, you fight a series of turn-based battles: three heroes, a series of Hydra soldiers and a single super-villain go head-to-head in small arenas. And as in the recent mobile hit Marvel Snap, you attack with cards. At the start of each battle, players draw random attack and ability cards from their packs, three of which can be used per turn. You could choose to have Captain America hit a Hydra sniper with his shield, or maybe have Doctor Strange vaporize a demon dog with the Bolt of Balthakk. You can also perform environmental attacks, such as detonating a petrol barrel to take out some nearby villains, or squashing them under a heavy box that conveniently hangs from the ceiling.
It’s the clever combination of attacking, bluffing and defensive moves that make every fight so captivating. Working out how and when to use skill cards takes several battles, but when you get it right and the cards fall into place, the thrill of completely destroying an entire group of soldiers by summoning a burning muscle car and then refined to drive over.
At the same time, the introduction of collectible card game dynamics will be immensely frustrating for veterans of XCOM, Advance Wars, or the Total War series. The whole meta game around building a deck and the randomness introduced by the card deal at the start of each turn can be anathema to players looking to win on their battlefield tactics alone. It’s harder to develop slow-burning chess-like strategies if you’re not sure what moves you’ll have in three turns.
In the midst of all this, you can also just hang out as Hunter, decorating her bedroom, exploring the estate, and improving her relationships with the other characters. There’s a bar where they all gather to read and chat, and you can join the conversation. There’s even a superhero social media platform where the team collects group threads and occasionally DMs you about what’s going on. One minute you’re hosting a surprise birthday party, the next you’ve joined a clique of Midnight Suns friends who like to go out after dark and do rituals. These sections are strangely off-putting at first, and the Gen Z banter and self-mockery start to grate. That is until you realize that Firaxis is bringing some Fire Emblem/Persona energy into the grimy old turn-based strategy genre, and then you just go with it.
The abbey has many secrets to uncover, including a resident ghost and plenty of hidden crypts and altars, and it’s fun to vary the pace and structure so you don’t end up battling endlessly on a turn-based game board. I loved the infighting and mistrust between the Suns and the Avengers, the former all based on magic, the latter on science. You can be an evil bastard to your teammates, unlocking black magic powers, or you can be a holy presence, helping you unlock benevolent abilities.
It’s pretty brave of Firaxis not to just give us XCOM with an asset swap. Midnight Suns is its own thing, combining strategy and soap opera in a nod to Japanese combat tactics and the underlying frivolity of the Marvel Universe. One thing Firaxis certainly hasn’t done is some stupid turn-based strategy for incoming comics fans. This is a hugely challenging game, with dozens of hours of fun and a story that wants to say interesting things about family, identity and sacrifice. Sometimes it even works.