Kind Of A Non-Event

HIGH Taking down the maximum number of enemies with card plays left.

LOW Redrawing an entire hand of unusable heroics… only to get new unusable heroics.

WTF Why are there so many kinds of currency you can’t buy?

At least once a year the “big two” comics publishers have an “event.” They’re all different, but also all the same — a startling new threat arises, or an old one reappears. Multiple superhero teams fight each other, or team up, or first one and then the other. A safe haven is breached or destroyed, and a major character dies (for now). Along the way, almost every ongoing book has its plotline disrupted for a tie-in issue. Marvel’s Midnight Suns aims to capture this feel, although it lacks the tight pacing of a six-issue summer special.

In this case the new threat is Lilith, the servant of a dark god that wishes to take over the universe (natch). Along with her demonic army (comprised mainly, it seems, of bad dogs) she joins forces with perennial Marvel villains like HYDRA, Sabretooth, and Venom in order to open a portal for her master.

Opposing her is her own semi-immortal child (player-designed) called only “the Hunter” because apparently nobody could be bothered to pick a gender-neutral name. They team up with Marvel heroes ranging from the globally popular (Spider-Man, Wolverine, the Avengers) to the obscure (Magik, Nico Minoru) and those in between – Blade gets his most prominent appearance since Wesley Snipes wore the fangs.

The confrontations play out as round-based strategic battles. Lilith’s fighters get one or two attacks apiece, but the heroes’ actions are based on a hand of cards. Each of these holds an attack or a support skill. Playing them generates a stock of “heroism” that can be spent to perform special abilities from “heroic” cards or the environment.

Movement for attacks is automatic and costs nothing, so with the exception of a few specific abilities, range is not a significant factor. However, the angle of attacks is frequently important, because it controls how enemies will react when a hit will knock them back and what trajectories can leverage the environment.

In most fights, a small number of weak enemies stream into the arena every turn, offering opportunities to build heroism in order to use more powerful abilities against heavies or supervillains. The preponderance of knockback skills means these mooks often end up being used as ammunition, hurled into larger enemies or flung into explosive hazards to damage their compatriots. In this sense the combat accurately replicates the ways superhero combat action is typically drawn on the page.

Unfortunately, the combat otherwise falls short. Having one side go and then the other makes the pace feel overly stately, if not glacial, and like all systems of this type, it leaves the player totally disengaged for half the action. The heavy reliance on angle and the limited ability to control hero position feels overly constraining, particularly early on. Also, since a single hand of cards controls the whole team of (typically three) heroes and only three cards can be played per turn by default, it’s depressingly common to have one or two heroes standing around doing nothing for multiple turns on end.

Worse, I found that the combat phases frequently led to situations where I had a hand full of heroic cards but no heroism to spend, and no attack cards to build it up. Typically only two cards can be redrawn in a turn, and some characters have heroic cards that stay in the hand when redrawn. It’s rare to be totally stuck for multiple turns, but most mission objectives and the game’s grading system reward constant offense. Having actions available to the player to build heroism during the defense phase would have addressed many of the combat’s deficiencies.

Between fights, the Hunter and company return to their home base, an Abbey, which frankly feels like it was borrowed from another game. Part of this is due to a change in perspective from an objective view to one that’s over the Hunter’s shoulder. The other is that it imposes a daily cycle (not unlike Stardew Valley or some other farming game) in that time is split up into “days” and every morning is taken up with performing chores.

Although these chores are technically optional, the player is clearly expected to explore the vast grounds of the Abbey and investigate numerous locations therein. The player’s daily chores involve converting battle loot into new or upgraded cards, designing decks, purchasing combat items, launching side missions, training and healing comrades, and gathering mushrooms to brew potions (no, seriously).

Downtime also affords an opportunity for bonding with teammates, which is an aspect that feels overplayed. Although the whole course of the story takes place in less than three months, the Hunter can easily become BFFs with everyone on the somewhat overstuffed roster. This feels like a bit too much, a bit too fast, especially since the Hunter has no built-in personality. This nigh-comical friendship system is accentuated by various “clubs” the Hunter can participate in, as if the Abbey is a high school where offering its heroes extracurricular activities.

The Abbey’s activities bring the player into contact with Midnight Suns’ dizzying array of currencies. There are three different kinds of “essence” that enable card upgrades or modifications. In addition to that there is “intel” that must be spent to send idle characters on side missions. “Credits” are required in order to expand facilities or participate in training battles. “Gloss” is needed in order to expand the cosmetic options for the Hunter and the heroes.

Incredibly, none of these currencies can be purchased in the online store. That exclusively sells a sixth kind of currency, “Eclipse Credits”, which are the sole means of obtaining certain additional skins. The absence of an obvious, venal profit motive is frankly somewhat refreshing, though it does suggest the terrifying possibility that somebody thinks this rainbow of currencies is good game design. Really, the absurd proliferation of resources to manage is of a piece with the imbalance of Midnight Suns as a whole.

The Abbey takes up far too much of the player’s time and imposes a brutally slow pace on play. The need to perform repetitive tasks in the Abbey slows down every day, and the need to gather resources and develop the home base nudges the player to put off story missions and instead spend time on low-calorie filler activities, particularly at the beginning and end of the arc.

Marvel’s Midnight Suns has many of the elements that would make it a great special event story – it carries off its pulpy narrative pretty well despite the bland protagonist, and the combat is a competent adaptation of superhero action into a strategy format. However, the slow pacing of the narrative and battles, not to mention the wrong-headed approach to the home base and team building make Midnight Suns feel disjointed and torpid. This is one special event that won’t become a collectible.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Firaxis and published by 2K Games. It is currently available on PC, PS4/5, Switch, and XBO/X/S. This copy of the game was obtained via retail purchase and reviewed on the PS5. Approximately 40 hours of play were devoted to single-player mode and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Language, Mild Blood, and Violence. Per the ESRB: This is an action/role-playing game in which players assume the role a supernatural hero working with Marvel universe characters to battle a powerful villain. As players progress through the storyline, they engage in turn-based battles against HYDRA soldiers, possessed mutants/heroes, and demonic figures/animals. Players move around battlefields and take turns performing attacks, sometimes with slow-motion effects. Characters use magic, firearms, and various melee weapons (e.g., swords, shields, whips) to attack enemies; combat is highlighted by cries of pain, explosions, gunfire, and screen-shaking effects. One cutscene depicts a mutant being slashed with a sword, leaving red slash marks that quickly heal. The word “sh*t” and “a*shole” appear in the dialogue.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available. Red-green coloring is sometimes used to distinguish between valid and invalid moves in combat; however, a message will usually pop up explaining why the move is invalid. Green highlights are sometimes used to designate cards that have been modified by other abilities. As such, colorblind players may be inconvenienced.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game offers subtitles. The subtitles cannot be altered or resized. Some lines of dialogue were not subtitled in battle although they are barks and contain no story information. No critical sound cues are present.

Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. In the Abbey standard third-person controls are used, with motion on left stick and camera on right. A face button (X on PS5) is used to control most interactions. Use of special abilities on Abbey grounds requires the player to hold a trigger and select the ability with a stick. Combat controls are shown in the diagram below.

Sparky Clarkson
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