I was a bit blindsided by the news that the team behind XCOM 2 was working on a Marvel tactics RPG with a card-based battle system. When I finally got my hands on Midnight Suns recently, I was even more surprised – by just how much of an RPG it really is. With a fully explorable quest hub, party member relationship side quests, and even a crafting system, this really is a first for Firaxis. At times it reminded me more of a BioWare game than anything they've made before. And who doesn't want to hang out with Spider-Man?
The set-up is a reimagining of an early 90s comic story arc – that's Midnight Sons, with an O. Though readers of the comics should rest assured this isn't exactly the same story by any means, mainly borrowing a few broad plot elements and cool little details. Hydra, everyone's favorite secret society of supervillain fascists, have resurrected the Demon Queen Lilith, who the devs describe as being on the same level as Thanos, power-wise. That's pretty bad. And to make matters worse, she has the ability to corrupt and dominate all kinds of heroes and villains. I faced off against Fallen Venom, and we also know demonic versions of Hulk and Scarlet Witch will be joining the forces of evil at some point.
There's no lack of firepower on our side either, though. The Midnight Suns – with a U this time, to be more inclusive – are made up of several former Avengers, including Tony Stark, Doctor Strange, and Spider-Man, alongside some less high profile allies like Magik, Blade, Ghost Rider, and Nico Minoru. There will be thirteen playable heroes at launch, one of which is yet to be revealed. But the most interesting of them all is your player avatar, a customizable new superhero known as The Hunter.
The Hunter is fully voiced, and you get to choose their gender and physical appearance. Lore-wise, they're a child of Lilith, making this story personal from the very outset. I was a little bit put off by how much backstory there was for The Hunter, who is hundreds of years old and has been out of commission for quite some time. It's harder to project yourself onto and roleplay as a character who supposedly remembers the time of the Salem Witch trials when you're not given much info to start with, and it made me wonder if having more of a blank slate protagonist might have gone over better. But unlocking new costume options and getting some control over how their power set develops was neat.
The Hunter's home and headquarters of the Midnight Suns is The Abbey, a fully explorable area featuring grand halls and extensive, forested grounds, more of which will unlock as the story progresses. You can collect crafting reagents, discover hidden challenge missions, and hunt down lore snippets as you explore it. But the real charm of this place is that you get to hang out with your super allies.
Watching movies with Nico, pumping iron with Captain Marvel, or trading quips with Tony Stark is really what makes Midnight Suns come alive. It masterfully captures the feel of those downtime pages in a Marvel comic on which the heroes are just chilling together, and while the tone of the dialogue sometimes clashes with the supernatural horror of the main plot – Firaxis described it as "Saturday morning cartoon"-inspired and it rarely strays outside the bounds of a PG rating – all the characters feel consistent and authentic.
The reward for spending time with the Suns isn't just strong voice acting, either. You can eventually level up your friendship with each hero, which unlocks new options for them in combat and eventually a snazzy, thematically-appropriate new costume. You won't be able to be best buds with everyone in a single playthrough, though. There isn't enough time, and some of them might just not like you. Magik, the person, wasn't a big fan of my insistence on the responsible use of magic, the dangerous force. So you'll need to be a bit picky about who's in your inner circle.
Once you head out to kick some supervillain posterior, you'll be introduced to the unique and deceptively deep card-based battle system. Every hero has a deck composed of four attack and four support cards, which can be collected, leveled up, and swapped out as you choose. You bring three heroes to each mission, and draw a number of cards from all of their decks each turn. You always have a set number of cards you can play, but this means you might draw all Iron Man cards on a given turn and thus give Tony the opportunity to gloat later that he did all the hard work.
Positioning is also important, but I found it kind of cumbersome to maneuver at first, and you only get one move per turn. Not one per hero. One per turn. The levels themselves are almost all flat arenas, which is probably the most disappointing part of Midnight Suns thus far. There are a lot of environmental elements scattered around, like heavy objects to throw and structures to vault off of. But after the five or six hours I played, the fact that every mission takes place in an open warehouse, on an open street, or in an open field started to get a little bit old.
Aside from that, the combat flows well and you can pull off some really cool combos. Every hero has a unique ability of some kind, like Captain Marvel's ability to "go binary" after playing three cards in succession, gaining a temporary boost to armor and damage. Minion enemies like random Hydra goons go down in one hit with any amount of damage, so chain attacks that hit more than one foe can really change the tide of battle quickly. Against big brutes and bosses, Blade's ability to inflict bleed is really useful. No matter what team I brought, the personality and fighting style of the characters really shined through and I enjoyed figuring out how they could set each other up for a perfect finisher.
While I definitely think there's room to make Midnight Suns' arenas more interesting, evoking the exciting and often unconventional places superheroes end up fighting, I was only really able to scratch the surface of this combat system in the time I spent with it. And there are plenty of other ways this tactical RPG makes me really excited, from the excellently-animated signature abilities to the chance to discover new and devastating synergies between them. The plot is rich and compelling without feeling convoluted, and it oozes comic book flavor, even when the script feels like it could stand to be a bit less kid-friendly to match its dark premise. And the chance to become best friends with some of my favorite Marvel heroes when Midnight Suns ships on October 7 might be the most enticing part of all.