“While its creative gameplay ideas are spread thin, Thirsty Suitors offers a charmingly nuanced coming of age story about messy adults.”
- Nuanced story
- Creative combat and cooking
- Very stylish
- Streamlined skating
- Overarching narrative is weak
- Gameplay gets repetitive
- Skating feels disconnected
If you feel unwelcome in your hometown, wait until you meet Jala. The star of Thirsty Suitors, a new narrative skateboarding RPG from Outerloop Games, gets one heck of a homecoming when she returns to the childhood town she left behind without a second thought. Not only does she have to face her disappointed mother and angry sister, but a whole fleet of scorned exes out for revenge — or at least a little closure. It’s enough drama to make someone want to pull a 180 and skate right out of town.
Like a pot of water filled to the brim, Thirsty Suitors explores the disastrous moment where all our messy life choices finally boil over. Little problems morph into larger-than-life battles in a unique adventure that blends the grand exuberance of Indian cinema with the nerdy sincerity of Scott Pilgrim. But it’s not the creative RPG battles or over-the-top cooking interludes that make it special; it’s the mature moments in-between where Jala gets a chance to heal the lingering wounds she’s inflicted.
Like its hero, Thirsty Suitors is a charmingly messy game that juggles a little more than it can handle. Its multipronged gameplay loop wobbles between inventive and repetitive over the course of its eight-hour story. What it lacks in polish, though, it makes up for with a nuanced narrative about how the past isn’t always a haunting specter to hide from.
Thirsty Suitors doesn’t waste time unloading emotional baggage. As soon as I select New Game, I’m quickly forced to confront Jala’s hometown reign of terror. Part of that is a cultural battle, as the queer skater punk returns home to an Tamil mother who isn’t shy about telling Jala that she betrayed her family and culture by abruptly leaving town years ago (her TV-loving Sri Lankan father is much more chill about the arrangement). At least mom is kind enough to say it to her face, though; Jala’s sister has opted for the silent treatment, even going as far as to cut Jala out of her upcoming wedding. It’s a grounded story made up of tangled threads, one which expertly unveils another piece of Jala’s history as the story progresses.
No battle paints Jala’s lovers as evil obstacles impeding her progress, but as real humans …
Jala’s battles aren’t just symbolic. On top of everything else, her exes have bonded together and are intent on making her answer for her reckless past. It’s a setup that draws clear inspiration from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, but one that’s approached with more maturity. Each ex (and their heartbreak) paints a fuller portrait of Jala’s evolving views on relationships and where she sees herself in them. What starts with a harmless reconnection with her third-grade fling Sergio builds to a more soul-searching reconciliation with her most recent ex, Tyler. No battle paints Jala’s lovers as evil obstacles impeding her progress, but as real humans seeking understanding of what happened.
Those moments make up the heart of Thirsty Suitors’ story, as Jala learns more about herself each time she’s confronted with a piece of her past. Fights aren’t just won by knocking an enemy’s health bar down to zero; each concludes with a prompt to “make up” with the person, allowing both of them to move on. With each bit of closure, Jala gains the clear-eyed confidence she needs to heal the bigger family wounds still festering.
It’s not always the cleanest story. An overarching plot about a townie youth cult (led by a man in a bear suit) tries too hard to ratchet up the stakes and some key plotlines abruptly start and stop. I get the sense that Outerloop Games tried to pack in more narrative than its small indie scale allowed at times. The entire adventure takes place across three small locations filled with side characters that fight for limited screen time. I almost get why Jala was so eager to leave as so many people fight for my attention.
Despite that, it’s those one-on-one moments with Jala’s exes that make Thirsty Suitors’ story worthwhile. It’s an unabashedly queer story about a woman balancing her responsibilities to others with her own personal needs and self expression. There’s space for all of that as Jala grinds down the rail of life; she just needs to nail the balancing act.
While Thirsty Suitors tells a grounded story, it’s dressed up with over-the-top gameplay that blows things up to a grander scale. That starts with its underlying RPG hooks, as Jala fights both her exes and arranged suitors in turn-based battles. It’s an immediately lovable system, as Jala inflicts her foes with status ailments like “thirst” and (symbolically) bashes them with her skateboard. Attacks are interspersed with vocal barbs as Jala and her exes hash out their past midbattle. It’s a clever use of an RPG framework that turns what could have been a visual novel into something more active. Those fights lean into Thirsty Suitors’ stylized panache too, as Jala unleashes charmingly exaggerated attacks presented in vibrant pop art style.
There’s no real skill to combat after a while …
Outerloop Games takes notes from the Mario RPGs to pull that off. Each attack is executed with quick minigames that have players mashing buttons or moving their joystick at the right moment. It’s more fun than simply selecting a move from a list, though that system does get repetitive fairly fast. There are only a handful of attacks Jala learns, and their prompts never change. There’s no real skill to it after a while, as it just becomes busy work that extends already lengthy fights even further.
Different exes don’t exactly shake that formula up either. The strategy is more or less the same in almost every battle: inflict a status effect the enemy is weak to, push the momentum with an attack of that type, and hit basic ones to restore willpower. An occasional dancing minigame or narrative twist breaks up a few battles, but there’s not too much depth to be found after getting the system down pat. Fortunately, there aren’t a glut of battles either, as it’s more of a light RPG with a handful of central battles than one that calls for grinding.
That idea of great gameplay concepts being spread thin carries over to Thirsty Suitors’ other components. Between battles, Jala can cook meals with her mother to create buff-inducing consumables in battle. It’s another ingeniously creative idea as Jala works to win her mother’s approval with each recipe step during a Cooking Mama-style minigame. There are even some hilarious cultural gags peppered in, as Jala can try to gain a bonus by complimenting her mother — a move that can backfire, as the game notes that Indian mothers are hard to predict. Like combat, that playful loop gets stale too as it doesn’t mix up its button timing minigames or exuberant animations much, even between recipes.
Skateboarding is more varied than cooking and combat, though it’s also the least important to the experience as a whole. Jala gets around town on her skateboard and Outerloop Games tries to make that as smooth and satisfying as possible. Players can’t really wipe out, which allows them to chain together massive trick combos like they’re in a Tony Hawk game. Players can test those skills even more with optional challenges that reward cash, battle items, and cosmetic gear, which lets them change up Jala’s style. It’s a fun way to kill time between big story developments, though it winds up feeling detached from the experience at large.
Thirsty Suitors never fully loses its balance, as it tackles everything it does with its whole heart, but it does leave the whole package feeling a bit like Jala herself. She’s pulled in too many directions during her trip home as several people fight for her attention. How can she possibly be expected to wrap every relationship up neatly? She’s only human. That’s ultimately what’s so endearing about her journey, as Thirsty Suitors never demands perfection from Jala. It’s comfortable showing players a messy character who’s trying her best to juggle her complicated life. The fact that she’s able to stay standing through all of it is a small victory worth celebrating. I’m willing to extend that same compassion to an ambitious indie that dares to dream beyond its small town restrictions.