I tend to land on the Martin Scorsese side of the superhero craze—“The problem is the amusement park films,” he said in 2019—and so I admittedly went into Marvel’s Midnight Suns feeling bratty. The tactical role-playing game, which was delayed twice before finally landing on its current December 2 release date, comes from adored XCOM creators Firaxis Games, but even that association of dignity didn’t feel like enough to dull what I saw as a too-squeaky superhero sheen. I was wrong, though.
To put it in amusement park terms: oh boy! This game is fun! You primarily control The Hunter, the child of sexy demon lady Lilith, back on the prowl after evil paramilitary group Hydra revived and unleashed her on New York City. In response, the Avengers and goth kid sorcery group, the Midnight Suns, have brought you back from your centuries-long rest to slay your overflowingly evil mother for the second time. You return to the Abbey, an old, magic mansion in Salem to train, burst through portals, and schmooze with your new superhero friends, who don’t completely know what to make of you yet.
The game is a bit of a stuffed spice rack, but the game’s turn-based combat is what convinced me to get invested. You can play both story-centered and unrelated optional missions and arrange your team against Hydra forces, or special enemies like the slavering, molten alien Venom. Each of your heroes has a couple of cards in their moveset that correspond to different attacks, like a whip that knocks villains to the ground or a forcible knock to the stomach, but a typical match requires more strategy than just selecting your most punishing card.
Cards either cost or supply you with “hero points,” which you can spend on flashy cutscene moves or use on environmental attacks, like jamming your fist into a flickering electrical box for an explosion. You have to use hero points thoughtfully in pursuit of your objective, which can be as general as defeating all enemies or specific as disarming a helicopter in three turns.
As you progress in the game and level up or edit your heroes’ movesets, fights become more complex, with armored enemies holding onto powerful cards until you knock them out, passive attacks you need to account for, and Venom chucking huge scraps of metal at all your good guys for some reason. The combat is nice to look at (though I otherwise found the game’s graphics unnervingly poreless), popping with box-office explosions and hungry fire, and completing a match successfully made me feel kind of smart and satisfied.
I spent most of my sixish hours of game time on fighting, but Midnight Suns has a lot more to offer. There’s a character creator, hero customization, and bedroom decor. There are mushrooms to forage, clubs to join, and gifts to collect and give. At one point, Tony Stark focused his weepy baby blues on me and asked for my help because, as the game pointed out, “the life of a superhero is complicated and sometimes they could use advice.”
I know that all these elements (and I haven’t even mentioned the skill upgrades, the tarot card collectibles, the cinnabar hell hound you pet to earn arcane knowledge, etc.) sound like clutter, but in my brief time with the game, I felt like they flowed together as natural, conceivable parts of daily life in the sprawling stone Abbey. You’ve been brought out of a 300-year-long coma, you travel through space-melting portals to fight soldiers alongside super people and super witches. So, sure, why shouldn’t a typical day involve cards with the vampire Blade and a “rare swimsuit” as a reward?
It’s a little stupid. It’s fun, but it’s still a Marvel game and a little stupid. The Hunter, who you can put in one of two body types but is referred to as “they” or “them,” starts the game wearing a Joan of Arc-ish armor set, but then you find out that their last diary entry was written in 1703. The game is meant to wander the “darker corners of the Marvel Universe,” its Steam description says, but that actually means uninspiring, PG-13 Marvel comedy (“Sacred or not, geometry be damned,” The Hunter says once as part of, I guess, an anti-math stand-up set) and opaque references to demonology that won’t spook you unless you aren’t actually old enough for those PG-13 jokes.
For me, someone who hasn’t engaged in Marvel comics or movies seriously since I myself required a parent’s permission, a lot of Midnight Suns’ dense lore sidestepped me. I knew who the main guys were, like Iron Man and Doctor Strange, but abstruse references to “Agatha” and “The Blood” meant nothing. I imagine Midnight Suns’ story will appeal to fans of Marvel’s lesser-known heroes, characters like the mutant Magik and flaming skull Ghost Rider, but though detailed dialogue options try to make their history accessible, I wasn’t biting.
That felt OK, because there’s so much else to play with. This game is summer at Coney Island, crowded, sometimes, with kitsch, but it turns out that I don’t mind the self-indulgence.