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The playable cast of Marvel’s Midnight Suns, lined up and staring at the camera, with The Hunter protagonist at the exact center Image: Firaxis Games/2K

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Marvel’s Midnight Suns isn’t just XCOM with superheroes (and that’s a great thing)

Sophisticated card combat, chill social elements, and pop culture icons

Marvel’s Midnight Suns is built on a hell of a promise. Take the studio that rebooted XCOM to stunning results, merge it with a card-battle system inspired by titles such as Slay the Spire and Inscryption, then add in the Marvel superheroes that have defined the last 15 years of pop culture. And while these pillars each stand well enough on their own, Firaxis Games uses them to support a title that is wholly unique, full of personality, and steeped in clever systems.

The first thing to clear up is that this turn-based strategy game is not, in fact, XCOM. You don’t micromanage positioning, you don’t face constant roster turnover, and you don’t hold your breath riding the thin line of shooting percentages. Overwatch isn’t a thing and sound tactical maneuvering doesn’t exist. Instead, all of the trade-offs, tension, and gnashing of teeth are framed around a hand of cards.

Within this system, there’s a duality between tight restriction and wild creative independence. You’re limited to three characters every battle, chosen from a roster that begins somewhat small but blossoms over the course of the 60-hour campaign. Icons such as Captain Marvel, Iron Man, Wolverine, and many more are fully controllable. Each hero brings a deck of eight cards that represent their various, sometimes iconic abilities. In each round of battle, your hand is randomly drawn from this combined pool of 24 character cards, providing a sense of uncertainty about the turn-to-turn combat options at your disposal.

The Hunter, the protagonist of Marvel’s Midnight Suns, slashes at an enemy with her half whip, half sword, sending him flying on a city rooftop Image: Firaxis Games/2K

The individual character decks are the lifeblood of Midnight Suns. They’re how you interface with the battlefield, yes, but also how you exert creative agency over the tactical experience. New cards are continually earned, and the constant drip of new abilities proves to be a firm motivator for embracing deck-building. By constructing each deck throughout the course of your campaign, you can re-create the Big Personalities of the Marvel universe: Spider Man constricts foes with his bind attacks while Blade inflicts large amounts of bleed damage, to name a couple. But you’re also given enough leeway in your builds to fill out certain niches in your three-person squads. As I delved deeper into the deck-building, natural pairs or groupings of heroes emerged, and I began to lean on them: Captain America can tank hits in binary form while Ghost Rider inflicts massive amounts of damage.

Early in the game, everything feels mundane and small. You play three cards every turn, kill a few grunts, and maybe take out a bigger foe with some extended effort. In fact, I was somewhat unimpressed with the early hours of Midnight Suns. The card system felt competent yet measured. It performed smoothly, but the limitations of entirely flat environments with only minor emphasis on positioning left me wanting more. I was skeptical that a card battle framework could combine with Firaxis turn-based battlefields. My opinion drastically changed as the card pool grew and I was able to string together six- and seven-card plays in a single turn. The first time I dealt several hundred damage from a single attack was exhilarating. That turn when I was on death’s door but was able to turn it around by triggering life-steal and tossing out several huge combo attacks to fully heal — that was intoxicating.

The villain demon Lillith emerges from a fiery green realm, flanked by hounds with glowing green eyes, in Marvel’s Midnight Suns Image: Firaxis Games/2K

While the exhilaration of the card system is regularly reinforced, this contrasts with the dull overarching narrative. The pitch: A demon named Lilith teams up with the perennial evil organization Hydra to threaten the world. On the opposing side, the Midnight Suns are a group of young misfits led by a veteran hero simply named Caretaker. The story has obvious parallels to Professor Xavier and the X-Men, and this undercuts the novelty it sometimes earns elsewhere. But while the plot itself may be slipshod, the focus on the personal stories of the heroes holed up in the abbey, the game’s hub, creates a spark and propels things forward.

At the outset, you create an original character named The Hunter, a lukewarm avatar for dialogue choices and behavioral decisions throughout Midnight Suns’ run time. Ultimately, The Hunter’s backstory and plot arc are mere distractions (it’s difficult to craft an evocative hero through simple cutscenes, and Firaxis falls short in this regard) but the character plays an important part in the charming social interactions that unfold in the Midnight Suns’ headquarters.

The player talks to Dr. Strange during a lull at the abbey, Marvel’s Midnight Suns’ hub world, between turn-based missions Image: Firaxis Games/2K

This free-form Persona 5-esque relationship-building brings The Hunter to life. You can participate in Blade’s book club, work on Ghost Rider’s hellride in a shop group, or even play video games with various allies. Relationships are graded with a friendship rating, and engaging in these activities will earn experience and unlock new benefits. It’s impossible to dedicate time to all of the abbey-goers, so it becomes a tough decision regarding who to cozy up and trade war stories with. Fostering strong relationships with characters is highly incentivized, as it’s a source of unlocking new passive abilities as well as cards. After spending many hours discussing books, fishing, and strolling the grounds with Blade, I built a ridiculous deck synergizing bleed and healing with a large area of effect. These advancements incentivize character development and exploration, fueling interactions at the abbey.

Marvel’s Midnight Suns is a game full of rich texture. The voice acting is superb and the abbey’s relationship-building is the perfect chill interlude to the tactically sophisticated card play. The two formats are beautifully intertwined through the accrual of additional cards and abilities, and there’s a genuine sense of satisfaction in deepening both battlefield prowess and social role-playing connections. Midnight Suns is not XCOM — but that’s ultimately its greatest strength. It’s something completely distinct and entirely exceptional.

Marvel’s Midnight Suns will be released on Dec. 2 on PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by 2K. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.