Play enough games, and you start to develop an eye for the ones that are going to ask a lot of your time and focus. Within minutes, I knew Firaxis’ comic book-powered adventure with the Marvel superheroes would be one of those games, filled as it is with numerous currencies, cosmetics, and gameplay systems. Midnight Suns is a strategy/RPG of tremendous depth, character development in both storytelling and upgrades, and many dozens of hours of gameplay to uncover. While the repetitive nature of the storytelling structure is sometimes a chore, the combat is top-notch. It injects the slow-paced XCOM tactical experience Firaxis is known for with a gamma-powered boost, leading to rewarding battles that stay fresh even after you’ve sunk countless hours into the experience.

An ancient evil has awoken, threatening to plunge the world into the darkness of an Elder God’s malice. Familiar heroes like Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Ghost Rider, and Captain Marvel have no choice but to resurrect the long-dead Hunter who once defeated the threat hundreds of years earlier. You control this revived hero as they lead Earth’s mightiest against danger.

Combat follows the turn-based tactical loop of Firaxis’ XCOM games but abandons giant battlefields and cover points for tighter arenas and a card-based action selection inspired by deck-building gameplay. Each character has an array of card attacks, skills, and heroic abilities that leverage their unique talents, and it’s tremendously fun to stack each character deck to greater heights of dominance.

While there’s plenty of time to consider each move carefully, the action feels more bombastic and faster moving than most tactical games. Every card has a unique animation accentuating the character’s uniqueness, and the battles look beautiful as they play out. Wolverine surges back from a KO with renewed power. Magik’s portals send enemies hurtling across the field. Captain America flings his shield to bounce between hapless Hydra forces, taunting them to take him on. And everyone leaps over barriers, hurling boulders and blasting explosive barrels to add to the chaos – just like any good cinematic superhero fight.

The complexity of this system grows over time, gradually layering in objectives you might need to confront, or unique enemy mechanics you must overcome. You might be asked to damage a helicopter before it takes off, or confront a demon who summons forth obelisks every turn that must be smashed if you don’t want to be overwhelmed. Get deep enough into the game, and you even start to see some fascinating puzzle challenges crop up, where you must complete a particular task using only certain cards or other constraints. Firaxis built a robust and exciting combat engine and leveraged many ways to keep it engaging and new.

In between battles, you return to the Abbey, a sprawling social and exploration space. Here, you can upgrade and train your heroes, build new combat items, and unlock an impressive array of cosmetic tweaks for characters and home décor. The grounds of the Abbey also house a mystically infused adventure game of secret clues, arcane treasure chests, and story snippets about the past; it leads to some intriguing discoveries but can sometimes distract from the flow of the main story.

The Abbey also acts as a giant friendship simulation, where you gradually play out interpersonal dramas with the likes of Spider-Man and Blade. The dialogue selections (and the option to choose light or dark conversation responses) is most reminiscent of BioWare games like Dragon Age or Knights of the Old Republic, and can sometimes come across as overly simplistic. A metric ton of these interactions unfold over the course of the game; each builds your status with these individuals, which in turn reflects in their abilities during combat. I mostly enjoyed the focus on character development. But with a game this big, I eventually tired of the rote loop of conversations after every mission, some of which devolve into dull dialogue exchanges that would be more at home in a reality TV show than a superhero adventure.

For all its focus on supernatural magic and demonic threats, Midnight Suns is a fun-loving and thrilling ride. XCOM strategy fans won’t be disappointed; the format changes still result in a gratifying combat flow. But this is a more approachable and story-driven experience than Firaxis has previously attempted, filled with some of the most recognizable pop culture heroes of the moment. It’s big, boisterous, and a little bit silly at times, but just like the best of Marvel’s output in recent years, it’s also a rousing good time.

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