Jala is hitting a kind of spiritual rock bottom after her latest breakup and is returning to her small hometown of Timber Hills to reset and recalibrate her goals. What awaits her at home is the fear of her parents’ disappointment and judgement at her lack of clear direction in life. Oh, and a string of ex-partners for whom not much happens in their tiny, intimate world outside of the whirlwind dramas of courtship. Jala’s sudden return instigates the scheming of her past lovers, all of whom are either competing to reignite the flame of their love that got away or settle the score of a broken heart.
What initially seems like an overdone rom-com premise for Thirsty Suitors is turned on its head and given heartfelt levity due to the zany art direction, inviting presentation and well-written cast. Upon the shoulders of the sincere yet cartoonish and diverse cultural caricatures that bring Timber Hills to life is a sharply illustrated world to grind upon with your reliable skateboard, while slinging verbal barbs in turn-based combat and participating in a multitude of quick-time events.
Developer Outerloop Games’ sophomore title is effortlessly approachable, with its high-contrast menus and loud, vibrant colours drawing the player’s attention to all the essentials needed to steer Jala about her home and town. It’s difficult to pin a traditional genre concept to Thirsty Suitors, with its elements drawn from turn-based role-playing games, modern point-and-click adventures, visual novels, and arcade sports a la Pro Skater. On the surface, there is so much happening, a festival of ideals all wrapped up in a joyously colourful package bursting with heart.
The wonderful art direction is my catnip
Thirsty Suitors never leaves the player lost, with glowing waypoints and plenty of hints to steer Jala on her anxious collision course with spurned family and partners. Jala’s Uncle Hinti also frequently pops up as a boxout to act as the tutorial for the game, announcing himself with a smooth “Hinti” whenever he has advice to telepathically communicate to Jala. While Thirsty Suitors does a terrific job of representing immigrant communities, it also makes every effort to welcome players of all sorts with its unassuming gameplay that never over-exerts itself on the player with dense systems and mechanics.
While the catchy visuals will land Thirsty Suitors on many radars, its masterful command of sincere and silly dialogue is what will keep players invested for its eight hours. There is no burdensome morality tracker involved in your dialogue choices, but rather the game responds to your choices by advising you if you have responded in a manner congruous with your ‘thirstsona,’ where you can define yourself as the heartbreaker, the star, or the bohemian. The game never attempts to define any of these approaches as good or bad; all is deemed fair in love, where hurt often follows. The dialogue options that appear outside of combat, but especially during fights against suitors, are often turbulent and skitter across the emotional spectrum in short bursts of delightfully voice-acted exchanges. While the gameplay ramifications of the thirstsonas are slim to the point of being irrelevant, the flavour that these amusing archetypes add blossoms when Jala’s barbed exchanges with other characters come around to result in growth and forgiveness.
Jala begins as a complicated and directionless millennial who would rather just skate her problems away if only the world would allow it. It is perhaps fitting then, that within Timber Hill’s pre-social media and smartphone 2000s setting, there is a throughline to that grungy little sports franchise we all adored – Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. To observe Jala in action as she skates about downtown and in other outdoor locations, you would be mistaken for thinking that Thirsty Suitors’ skating exploration looks the goods. Visually, it is as captivating as the rest of the game, with Jala effortlessly pulling off a wild new trick virtually every second – rails, street lamps, timber logs, fire hydrants, everything is set up grind and perform tricks upon. Alas, when Jala is skateboarding, there is a complete absence of any camera controls and the steering often feels unwieldy. The camera sticks behind Jala and moves in tandem with her, making exploration tedious, as the board often turns with unexpected momentum and spins the camera from wherever you may have been wishing to explore. There is no challenge, satisfaction, or meaningful rewards to tricks other than to add some visual flair as you skate to your objective. Being unable to get off your board in these sections means that navigating around tight areas can be overly floaty and lead to minor frustrations. While it offers visual spectacle in spades, I was honestly happier to spend as little time shredding as possible.
Permeating virtually every interaction in the game outside of dialogue and skating is a mixed bag of QTEs that will have you waggling sticks, mashing buttons, and timing inputs. Jala will whip out an elaborate QTE for all sorts of activities, from petting a dog, to washing her hands, cooking, and throwing complex skills at enemies. Particularly outside of combat, these QTEs tend to be a bit erratic, sometimes poorly timed, and have misleading sound queues that threw off my rhythm. Usually it was of no great consequence as the game seldom penalises the player, but at its most unwelcome the QTEs impede some of the game’s best dialogue. For instance, the dialogue that sandwiches your barbed QTE attacks during important fights is often when the characters fully embody the emotion of the writing at its absolute best. But first, you are mashing inputs in your controller, sometimes subjecting your peripheral to more chaos than is unfolding on screen.
The combat systems are lighter than they appear
Combat in Thirsty Suitors was an activity I tried to avoid entirely outside of the main story and side errands ran on behalf of your reconciled lovers. The big hassle is that there is little complexity or tactical dynamic on offer in the deeply truncated turn-based combat system. Fights boil down to going through a bunch of different emotionally-tinged taunts to find the odd one that triggers your enemy. Once they are vulnerable, an obvious offensive ability is highlighted as the most effective attack. Spam that and its corresponding timed inputs until the taunt wears off and it’s time to find the next effective taunt. Though there are buffs and debuffs present, they lend little impact to the proceedings. It is made somewhat more bearable during boss fights with the exes and other big bads, simply due to the hilarious writing that accompanies every combatant’s actions. It is a thing to behold, how the writing revels in playing up the absurdity unfolding on screen as the characters virtually breakdance aggressively at each other. I just wish the repeated animations could be sped up or that there was something more interesting on offer than the challenge of meeting a timed response. Beyond occasionally topping up health with a snack mid-fight, there is no meaningful character building with the experience gained from combat. If you level up, you pop a point into one of the three thirstsonas, assuming it will have some functional effect on future combat, only to find that it doesn’t.
The team at Outerloop Games exudes confidence and style with Thirsty Suitors, a delightfully approachable palate cleanser that anybody can enjoy in this year of incredible releases. With its heart on its sleeve, a charming cast, and constant nailing of intimacy and culture, Thirsty Suitors comfortably ollies its way into your heart and makes for one of the year’s best depictions of desire, culture, and vulnerability. Jala’s skateboarding odyssey of growth is worth beholding, even when the surrounding gameplay doesn’t quite meet the standard of its writing and visuals.
Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher
- Outerloop Games
- Annapurna Interactive
- PS5 / PS4 / Xbox Series X|S / Xbox One / Switch / PC
- November 3, 2023