Playing a turn-based strategy game developed by genre leader Firaxis, creator of the brilliant XCOM reboots, there were several things I did not expect to be doing. I did not foresee having to sort out the love life of macho vampiric superhero, Blade. I didn’t expect to be joining a book club with Captain Marvel (first read: Sun Tzu’s Art of War). At no point while the game was installing did I envisage going on a bird-watching trip with Doctor Strange.
Yet all these unlikely scenarios are very much a part of this latest Marvel video game spinoff, which takes as many of its design cues from the fantasy role-playing series Fire Emblem as it does from XCOM. Here, players take on the role of a new hero character, Hunter, a 300-year-old sorceress reanimated by a re-imagining of a character from the Ghost Rider comics, to battle an evil witch bent on galactic domination. That witch also happens to be Hunter’s mother – and she’s recruited a whole army of Hydra goons to help out.
Usefully, you’re accompanied by two superhero collectives: the Avengers and the titular Midnight Suns, a group of mystical magic-weavers that includes teen goth Nico Minoru from The Runaways and fiery stuntbike dudebro, Ghost Rider. Between missions you all hang out together in an abbey, surrounded by a country estate laden with caves, graveyards and standing stones.
As in XCOM, you fight a series of turn-based battles: three heroes, an array of Hydra soldiers and the odd supervillain face off in small arenas. And as in the recent mobile hit Marvel Snap, you attack with cards. At the start of each fight, players draw random attack and skill cards from their packs, three of which can be used per turn. You might choose to have Captain America pummel a Hydra sniper with his shield, or perhaps get Doctor Strange to vapourise a demon hound with the Bolt of Balthakk. You can also pull off environmental attacks, perhaps exploding a petrol drum to take out a few nearby thugs, or squishing them beneath a heavy crate handily suspended from the ceiling.
It’s the clever combination of attacks, bluffs and defensive moves that make each battle so compelling. Working out just how and when to use skill cards takes several fights, but when you get it right and the cards fall into place, the thrill of completely destroying a whole squad of soldiers by summoning a burning muscle car and then driving it over them is exquisite.
At the same time however, the introduction of collectible card-game dynamics will be wildly frustrating to veterans of XCOM, Advance Wars or the Total War series. The whole meta-game around building a deck and the randomness introduced by the card deal at the start of each turn may be anathema to players who want to win on their battlefield tactics alone. It’s harder to build slow-burning chess-like strategies when you’re not sure what moves you’ll have in three turns’ time.
Amid all this, you can also just hang out as Hunter, decorating her bedroom, exploring the estate and improving her relationships with the other characters. There’s a bar where they all congregate to read and chat, and you can join in the conversation. There’s even a superhero social media platform where the team pile into group threads and occasionally DM you about what’s going on. One minute you’re organising a surprise birthday party, the next you’ve joined a cabal of Midnight Suns pals who like to go out after dark and do rituals. These sections are weirdly off-putting at first, and the Gen Z banter and self-deprecating humour do start to grate. That’s until you realise that Firaxis is bringing some Fire Emblem/Persona energy into the fusty old turn-based strategy genre, and then you just go with it.
The abbey has many secrets to uncover, including a resident ghost and a lot of hidden crypts and altars, and it’s nice to vary the pace and structure so you’re not just endlessly battling on a turn-based game board. I liked the in-fighting and suspicion between the Suns and the Avengers, the former all based around magic, the latter around science. You can be an evil bastard to your teammates, which unlocks black magic powers, or you can be a saintly presence, helping you to unlock benevolent abilities.
It’s kind of brave of Firaxis not to just give us XCOM with an asset swap. Midnight Suns is its own thing, combining strategy and soap opera in a nod toward Japanese battle tactics games and the underlying frivolity of the Marvel universe. One thing Firaxis certainly hasn’t done is dumb down turn-based strategy for incoming comic book fans. This is a hugely challenging game, with dozens of hours of play and a narrative that wants to say interesting things about family, identity and sacrifice. Sometimes, it even manages it.
• Marvel’s Midnight Suns is out 2 December