I usually play just a few contemporary ‘zeitgeist-y’ AAA games a year - when in the weeds with indies, art games, and retro titles, it’s a bit easy to turn one’s back on the chorus of what actually funds the spotlight budget on the medium. As much as, for me, the beating heart of games is the romantic concert of those projects which question the context of interaction within defined systems interrogating thematic concern towards the ideas of choice, ill-portented rationality, gasping deprivation, and other hard to mention excitations of the spirit that can be considered less dangerously in the antiseptic environment of digital reproduction than the cruel world of necessary application, the reality of the games industry is that the actual viscous muscle which pushes through veins ichor are the massive, corrupt, lowest common denominator infatuated blockbuster title games. We can say in all seriousness that the games which matter most are the heartfelt, earnest, no ulterior motive itch.io micro-games about things like desperate backroom abortions, archival practices in the Middle East, or the history of an individual family’s cooking, but the titles which are the most congregated matter/makeup are the games about shooting, looting, and rooting for the US government. I say this with no happiness about the fact, but it is a fact - Nintendo or Bioware may not be the ones who push many, or any, envelopes these days, but they codify where the postage can be sent.
All that said, and that’s usually about the word count that can be dedicated in good faith to thematic discussions of any AAA game’s themes, Firaxis’ Midnight Suns brings enough polish, spectacle, and distillation to ideas that have percolated in the indie scene since their last major release. Slay the Spire, Into the Breach, and, I’ll say it, Ladykiller in a Bind, combine with an egregious amount of bloat (which is nonetheless compelling for longer than it has any right to be) to make one of the more exciting and accessible tactics games that has come out in the past few years. While it doesn’t have the depth of any of its influences, and certainly nowhere near the strategic complexity of previous Firaxis games, it does have some truly delightful pageantry that sets it uniquely, expensively, apart from the games it cribs.
Midnight Suns’ truest success comes in a small mechanical dictionary that appends itself to so many of the systems interlocking and rewarding overlapping play; if Into the Breach is the better three member team strategy game, Midnight Suns at least is the more verbose one. The many status effects and terms of ability may seem on their face like a minor part of strategic play, and indeed in other games with statuses like bleed, vulnerable, or frenzied do tend to backseat those effects to turn order and damage numbers. I think that, however, these small appended terms come into the major arm of MS’s strategic play precisely because of their second layer order of application to the major elements of both the base play and the mission play. The ‘set-up’ portion of the game, the interactions between heroes and exploration jaunts throughout the abbey grounds, reward with new collections of potions and item recipes that largely enforce a system interplay between the terms of application that the enemy hordes and your own heroes are tackling each other with. You are assembling your arsenal, as well as building relationships (in an albeit facile and kind of insultingly childlike way), throughout all the downtime periods of a play session, and with the ability to quickly launch a mission and complete it in 5-15 minutes, immediately reaping and bearing witness to the benefits of exploration and narrative play. It’s an integration of non-exclusively mechanical systems with the hard numbers play that Firaxis didn’t really engage with in any of the XCOM games, with an exception to the Chosen DLC for 2 that began a ramp up into what they do here in Midnight Suns.
Of course, the play with the heroes is the draw that makes the above order of mechanics work, and on that front, Firaxis still has excellent heads on their hydra. The different uses and mixes of their roster, including both in how it is made spectacle and how it works on the spreadsheet of the backend, really does nothing short of amaze when considered beside the simple and pandering superhero action of the last two decades that must have been heavy on the designer’s minds. What could have been a pathetic MCU smashup of variously strong people having minorly different HP and damage numbers is instead a varied and widely developed cast that all mix and match with enormous spread and possibility. Nico, Wolverine, Magik, Hulk; all play with each other and on their own in ways that offer totally different tactical assumptions and varying feelings of accomplishment when tackling goals. Say you are on a defeat all enemies mission - a real basic ‘knock-out’ order (whose idea was KOs anyways? as if being shattered into dust after flying through limbo only rendered one unconscious): maybe you take Captain America, Hunter, and Ghost Rider, leaving the battlefield strewn with enemies absolutely beaten to a pulp with massive damage crumblers after turtling up and prepping for turn one; maybe you take Doctor Strange, Scarlet Witch, and Magik, gathering all the enemies together with little moving plinks only to take them down with a flood of AoE spells that have been buffed with free play cards and heroic multipliers. Both of these squads ultimately end up doing pretty similar things - dealing damage and buffing - but the progression from deployment to departure by way of the different strengths and weaknesses of team composition legitimately do transcend the vague progression of number climbing that can plague turn-based team tactics.
Of course, as has been said elsewhere, the tactics are the highlight in a lowlight totalised experience. While there is more to agree with in this sentiment than not, and I say this as someone who’s primary access to art remains through novels, poetry, and theatre, I don’t think that the writing which is so criminally derided is pablum. There is definitely far too much of it, and the conversations don’t flow with the tone of the work as it reaches its third act; I wouldn’t say the self-consciousness of the heroes is asinine but it is childish when compared to the confidence that is displayed in the tactics portion of the game. Nevertheless, when considering the source, the dialogue is a worthwhile representative of the source the characters come from. I think so much of what people expect from superheroes is from the poisoned well of cinematic universe storytelling, but Midnight Suns clearly draws far more from the comics, for better or worse, than the movies, if it draws anything from the movies at all. The little hangouts are so Chris Claremont it hurts, and you just know that the plotting is more Walter Simonson or Kurt Busiek than Russo brothers - and over this is a sheen of Bendis that even the Ultimate universe didn’t shine with. Maybe people forgot that superhero stories are soap operas with tights and tanks, but Midnight Suns sure remembers.
The real problem with the game is that which I started with: it's a AAA whale game. There is too much here: between foraging, combat puzzles, making friends, deploying on side missions, researching, crafting, decorating, and petting cats and dogs, the game just has too many tasks over too long a campaign to both remain consistently engaging or competitively challenging. I played on Heroic 2, which I think is basically a very hard or hard mode - it’s 2 degrees above normal difficulty, and I was mowing through every encounter after maxing out the friendships of my heroes, collecting all the mushrooms, and opening all the money/gloss boxes around the grounds. In a less bloated game that had half the runtime, I would have bumped up the difficulty to engage more aggressively with the tactics, but after 40 hours of the same enemies and the same Hydra bombs, the tactics being harder would just be tedious and not engaging. If I’d been barely scraping by on 15 hours, the game could conceivably be called a masterpiece of economy and tension, but like Tony Stark, at the end of the game, the player has accumulated all the capital a small country of super people can generate, capital which can only be used to manipulate hot aliens and vampires into punching their problems away instead of thinking their way through them.
Reviewed on Jan 24, 2023