What is it? An RPG/skate sim/cooking game/audiovisual treat
Release date November 2, 2023
Expect to pay $30/£25
Developer Outerloop Games
Publisher Annapurna Interactive
Reviewed on Asus ROG Ally
Steam Deck TBA
Link Official site
I'm having a long overdue conversation with my ex. He deserved a more honest breakup than I was capable of at the time and so now we're finally creating a dialogue and working through it maturely. Saying that, I am also slam dunking a basketball into his face. Oh, and I'm using my thirst taunt to make him lust after me, making him more vulnerable to my attacks. Am I the asshole?
This is a typical scene in Thirsty Suitors, a game I'd say that I love, but I'm terrified it'll diagnose my "love" as nothing but desperate people-pleasing. Fair warning, this game has a lot to say about toxic relationships, and some of its home truths hit much harder than a basketball to the noggin.
You're Jala, fresh from a nasty breakup and heading back to the hometown you dramatically abandoned several years ago. It's a narrative-heavy RPG, with some Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, a dash of Persona 5, and a sprinkling of Cooking Mama, too. A mess, then? Surprisingly, no, but Jala's love life certainly is. There's a whole conga line of bitter exes waiting to face you. You're barely back in town before one makes a move, forcing you into a turn-based battle. Try not to get distracted by his new abs.
If you've ever played a turn-based RPG before you'll know what you're doing. You have a flimsy basic attack that costs nothing, a series of skills and summons that cost MP, and several taunts that can open weak points. We've seen taunts like "rage" in tons of games, but how about ones that leave the enemy thirsty or emotionally devastated? It's hard not to giggle when you inflict the heartbreak taunt and watch your ex burst melodramatically into tears. Which I suppose proves they're much better off without me.
Punch dunk love
It's the most stylish turn-based RPG since Persona 5, and the funniest since Yakuza 7, more than making up for a lack of depth. You taunt your foe and then you select the attacks that now hit harder. Rinse, wash, repeat. I like how using your rubbish basic attack recharges your MP (all RPGs should do this!), but it doesn't reinvent the RPG form.
Thirsty Suitors isn't really trying to do that. At seven hours it's about 1% as long as Persona 5 (not a criticism), so it doesn't need combat as deep. The physical bouts are only half the battle anyway. Fights are constantly interrupted with verbal confrontations, as your ex calls you out on your past appalling behaviour. Dialogue options often vary between admitting you were the one at fault, doubling down on your stubborn self-righteousness, or just saying something incredibly dumb and tactless. That's always the hardest option to resist. What? Shut up yes it is.
All this tough talk is helped immensely by Thirsty Suitors' terrific, often laugh-out-loud funny script. Exchanges can get delightfully catty and mean, but there's compassion under it all, and every member of its flawed cast gets a moment in the sympathetic spotlight. Jala's lovely dad is a particular highlight. "I can see you're not in the mood for talking," he says, when we join him in front of the TV after a particularly hard day. "Maybe a nice documentary about the Cold War?" he sweetly suggests.
There are optional fights all over town, with awful suitors your meddling grandmother has sent to serenade you. But it's Jala's exes where the game pulls out all the stops. One is too timid to confront you directly, so his pet cat becomes a ferocious lion prepared to tear you to shreds. Diya "exudes punk rock domme energy" and fights with a trio of crystalline backup dancers. Somehow she isn't even the game's biggest visual treat. They all have the glorious invention of Persona 5's heart-revealing palaces, with none of Persona's gay panic gags. Then each battle concludes with you making up and deciding what your relationship will be going forward.
These conclusions aren't always as neat as I'd like them to be. I found it a little too easy to overlevel myself by doing side quests, which meant it sometimes felt like I won a fight just as the conversation was really getting going. Still, it's a minor gripe, and there's nothing stopping you from pulling your punches until you've exhausted all the dialogue. Fights are surreal and cartoonish, anyway: bloodless performative punch-ups that feel more like numbers in a musical than actual brawls. The game's far more interested in how Jala's relationship changes with these broken people. It's willing to tackle heavy subjects (like one character who's been thrown out by her homophobic parents) but they're all delicately and compassionately handled. It's been scripted with real care.
You can cook meals that help you in battle, too. This consists of fairly simple minigames, made far more entertaining because you're cooking under the critical eye of Jala's mother. Cooking Mama's eyes occasionally burst into flames when you messed up, but Mama's got nothing on this nightmarish head chef. She's hilariously snippy and backhanded in her praise no matter how well you're cooking. You can attempt more difficult versions of the minigames to try and impress her (why simply wash your hands when you can SUPERwash your hands?) or risk complimenting her in the hopes it's reciprocated. She described one of my dishes as "I've seen worse" and it felt like finishing Elden Ring blindfolded. There's a lovely character arc simmering away in the background of all this cooking too, as Jala gradually gets the confidence to stand up to this kitchen demoness. Rather her than us.
The skateboarding—oh yeah, there's skateboarding, by the way—is perfectly solid arcadey fun, if lacking a similar novel twist (we'd have loved our mother directly behind us on a unicycle, berating our poor ollies). It's a neat way to get around town and there's even a skate park with a long list of challenges. All nice enough, but fairly throwaway. I do love how almost every character in the game can be unlocked as a skater, though.
It's all the little touches like that which make Thirsty Suitors special. Tutorial hints are given to you by your Uncle Hinti, a pun so horrible I want to applaud. Every night ends with you falling asleep on the sofa with your dad watching TV, and then he gently piggybacks you up to your bedroom. It's got some of the best LGBTQ+ representation I've seen in a game and isn't afraid to dig deep into the unique difficulties, messy dramas, and outrageous behaviour that can make being a part of this community so exhausting, yet wonderful. I wish you the best of luck not falling in love with the cast yourself. Jala may have been dreading returning to her hometown but I'm glad she made the trip, because she's ended up starring in one of my favourite games of the year.