In Thirsty Suitors, protagonist Jala finally returns home to her small town of Timber Hills — only to be confronted by six of her exes, against whom she must do battle. This plot may sound suspiciously similar to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World on its surface. But Thirsty Suitors swaps out the story of a self-centered band guy for a tale about a queer South Asian woman reckoning with intergenerational trauma and family expectations.
“Thirsty Suitors is an action-adventure RPG about immigrant culture, resolving relationships, family pressure, and expressing yourself,” said creative director Chandana Ekanayake, co-founder of developer Outerloop Games, in a recent preview of the game. “She returns to her hometown of Timber Hills after a bad breakup and goes on a reconciliation tour, to right her wrongs and to learn something about herself.”
Our look at Thirsty Suitors began with Jala grinding rails on her skateboard through a surreal dreamscape. It mixes a bright, pop-art feel with forward-moving platforming a la Sayonara Wild Hearts. The infectious music, composed by Ramsey Kharroubi (Boyfriend Dungeon) syncs with Jala’s movements. As she skates from element to element, a narrator weighs in — an internal dialogue in the form of her chiding sister. Jala’s anxiety is palpable. She completes a series of tricks before being interrupted by the towering figures of her parents, both larger-than-life in Jala’s mental landscape. She isn’t ready to come home.
Her fears are entirely relatable. There’s nothing like being a first-generation immigrant kid, knocking on your parents’ door, and knowing you’ll have to navigate generational and cultural differences. In Thirsty Suitors Jala splits her time between exploring her hometown, cooking with her parents, skating, and of course, battling these six exes. The goal is for her to repair old friendships before her sister’s wedding — all while gearing up for a visit from Paati, the family matriarch.
The story is linear at first but eventually opens up, allowing Jala to explore more flexibly. As Jala makes narrative choices, she will accrue points toward building a character class, called her “Thirstsona,” which has three categories: Heartbreaker, Star, or Bohemian. (The preview didn’t delve into how the classes affect gameplay.) Players will get the chance to invest in whatever activities they enjoy most, Ekanayake said. There’s more chances to skate, from shredding daydream landscapes to cutting up actual in-game world locations. Players can also invest more in cooking, a part of the game that was personal to the developers. The game was developed by a team of 15, spread across four continents, and “the culture of characters, places, and food are all inspired by the team’s own immigrant experiences and backgrounds.”
“It’s been therapeutic to explore this, because I’ve been cooking with my mom and learning recipes,” Ekanayake said. “Just talking to her about why we moved here and how they had to restart their lives.”
Jala’s fights against her exes are done through charming, over-the-top, turn-based dance battles. These fights look cheeky and full of personality. Players choose between taunts, attacks, skills, and items when facing their opponents — and each of these ties back to the game’s story. You can flirt with your opponent to weaken them, or you can enrage them. Rhythm elements are laced throughout, as the player needs to hit the a button with the right timing to deliver the next move. Dialogue throughout the fight gives more backstory to Jala’s run-ins with her exes, and some of the choices result in making Jala more Heartbreaker, Star, or Bohemian.
The preview gave Polygon a sneak peek into one of these early battles: In a diner, Jala runs into Sergio, a man she has known since they were in third grade together. She weakens him with a “Thirst Taunt” — a flirty attack that has Jala striking a cute a pose and batting her lashes — and attacks with a “Jalu Jab.” After dealing enough damage the fight changes locations to Sergio’s “Inner World,” a surreal, somewhat Psychonauts 2-style projection of his mind, where Jala must fight against Sergio’s perception of himself. Each enemy has one of these in the final stage of their fight, and Jala must find a way through.
The narrator, in-game, offers Jala advice on how to win the battle: “If you want to get anywhere you have to shatter that invulnerability by summoning a terrifying psychological specter,” she says. “Like most South Asian men, all it takes to destroy Sergio’s ego is a single word from his mom.” Since Jala can’t bring his mom in, she summons the next best person — her own. This proves to be just the trick. Jala’s mom appears, looming over the pair, and Sergio crumbles. Luckily the fight actually ends in reconciliation, and Jala starts to move on.
Details like these give the game tons of warmth and personality. I look forward to seeing how the rest of the narrative shapes up, especially given the personal nature of the storytelling in Thirsty Suitors, and the sense of humor and style evident in just 30 minutes.
Thirsty Suitors doesn’t yet have a release date, but you can wishlist the game on Steam.