Wednesday 22 May 2024

The bridge at midnight trembles

When Midnight Suns first released I caught a little of the buzz around it - a turn-based Marvel game with deck building from the XCOM 2 people. Sounded my sort of thing, PC Gamer liked it, I stuck it on the Steam wish list and recently picked it up with all its DLC in a sale. The turn-based card combat is just what I was expecting, but I wasn't anticipating quite how much time I'd spend organising a cake for a surprise party and customising Doctor Strange's swimwear...

Not having read a detailed review I didn't know there's a lot of downtime between missions in Midnight Suns during which you can explore the background of your own character (The Hunter, introduced for this game), chat with the cast of Marvel heroes you can recruit and befriend, and explore the mysterious Abbey that forms your home base (with its own pool, hence the importance of swimwear options). This is done in a third person explore-and-chat-'em-up where you can also gather ingredients for crafting and find chests of (mostly cosmetic) loot, some behind puzzles. This worked well to mix things up; do a bit of research, unlock new abilities, use those abilities to build decks for your team, head out on a mission, biff evil-doers on the nose, back home for tea, biscuits and movie night (or book club, or other team-building exercises).

There's a large cast of heroes to recruit and befriend. I'm reasonably familiar with Marvel characters, partly from the comics (though I've fallen out of reading them for a while), partly the Cinematic Universe (a decent chunk of the Midnight Suns crew have their own film series), and partly other games (my main point of reference for less well known characters like Nico Minoru (excellent for strengthening special tiles in Marvel Puzzle Quest) and Magik (a staple for adding turn 7 to a Marvel Snap match)).  At first I wasn't quite sure about the game versions of the big names - obviously there've been any number of variations across different media with different writers, artists and performers but some stand out as iconic like Robert Downey Jr's Iron Man and Huge Action's Wolverine. The voice cast of Midnight Suns are all strong, though, so after getting used to them it didn't feel like a bunch of knock-offs. There's a good range of customisation, a variety of outfits for all the heroes and more in-depth options for The Hunter.

Things were progressing quite nicely as I learned the various systems, but then everything started to bog down somewhat. The game is centred around the magical and supernatural elements of Marvel - plenty of spells, demons, gods and such. For some reason that's never worked well for me; in Dragon Age or D&D, perfectly fine, but not so much with superheroes. It's ridiculous, I know; a radioactive spider bite resulting in superhuman powers? Sure! A flying suit of nigh-impervious armour with an improbable arsenal of weapons? Absolutely! A bloke doing magic in present day New York? Hmm, not sure about that... Technological superheroes might as well be the poster child for sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic, but for some reason I have double standards for how things are hand-waved away.

The supernatural aspects drive the whole plot along, a good old battle between good/light/order and evil/dark/chaos, unfortunately that never particularly grabbed me. The lead character of The Hunter is a fairly blank tablet allowing for some player agency, but lacking a strong identity; I never got terribly invested in their relationship with the game's antagonist.

Each of the characters who can accompany you on missions has a Friend-o-meter that can be increased by selecting conversation options they approve of, giving the right gifts, and taking part in suitable activities. It's not so different to something like Mass Effect, but with twelve of them in the base game plus four more from DLC that's a lot of present-based admin. If you reach Level 5 Friend-osity you unlock a new costume and power so I'd been trying to do that with everyone, but just ran out of steam towards the end. I'm not sure the Marvel IP does the game any favours here; delving deeply into the background of Captain America or Spider-man hardly breaks new ground, and the previously unknown Hunter becoming the Super Best Friend of the entire Marvel universe didn't ring terribly true.  

Without that investment in the story or characters everything ossified maybe halfway through my play-through, every day following an almost identical pattern of research, training, mission, chat; I had ability decks I was pretty happy with, sufficiently fabulous costumes, the between-mission segments were more of a chore than something to look forward to. It didn't help that the combat and non-combat aspects are so clearly delineated and feel rather disconnected. In hindsight it may have been the DLC that tipped things over the edge. I played through all of it as soon as it was available, and enjoyed those interconnected stories a bit more than the main plot. Without that diversion, and the additional admin that the extra characters brought, I don't think I would have been stuck in quite such a rut towards the end of the main story.

Thankfully even when the narrative aspects dragged, the actual missions kept interest up. The turn-based combat with decks of cards for powers works really well. PC Gamer have an interesting piece about the way the XCOM model wouldn't have worked for superheroes - they shouldn't need to take cover, shouldn't miss their attacks, and shouldn't have limited movement. The use of cards flips things from XCOM, where you have a consistent set of actions that may or may not succeed, to a random selection from a set of (mostly) guaranteed actions. Both approaches have their merits, I'd probably tend towards the latter - I prefer backgammon (roll two dice and decide how to move your pieces with the results) to Blood Bowl (decide to do something then roll a dice to see if it succeeds). Characters have interesting selections of powers with varying degrees of damage, tanking and support options, I enjoyed pretty much whatever combination I, or the game, selected. Positioning, environmental effects and knockback make for interesting puzzles in how to use your powers in the right order for maximum evil-biffing.

It's a pity the non-combat aspects of the game didn't really work for me; with a more interesting original (or at least different) IP it might've worked as a full RPG, or with that side of things stripped right back to focus on the tactical missions. Still, worth a look if it sounds like it might be your thing, especially with the deep discounts its been getting. Maybe don't worry about the DLC, though. Unless you really want to deliberate over Eddie Brock's swimming trunks.

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