The transition to adulthood is a volatile time of anybody's life, but it's something that hits especially harder depending on a person's ethnicity or nationality. Speaking parenthetically, I'm a first-generation Mexican born in Southern California. I understand the pressures that come from familial expectations and also grasp how hard it is to play the dating game. Sometimes, you just want to run away from it all, only to discover that family is something that you ultimately cannot leave behind. Thirsty Suitors from Outerloop Games looks at all of this from the perspective of a queer first-generation South Asian woman and tells a heartwarming and hilarious story of growing up, making amends, and the struggle to find love and acceptance. It puts its hands in a lot of gameplay cookie jars, but they're all in service of the game's greatest strength, which is its dialogue and storytelling.
Thirsty Suitors follows the story of Jala, the youngest daughter of an immigrant family. Her mom is from India and her dad is from Sri Lanka, which will be on the test. She spent years away from home chasing a fling that ended badly for everyone, so her failed relationship has led her back to her old hometown just in time for her older sister's upcoming wedding. In a Scott Pilgrim-esque twist, however, Jala's exes have all united with the goal of making her pay for her transgressions.
The "person faces evil exes" idea has been done before, but Outerloop pulls it off beautifully with some of its own original ideas. The characters stand out instantly from single-minded Sergio, egotistical Diya, and overprotective Andile. They all come with rich backstories that show that their upbringing hasn't been any easier than Jala's. The story also illustrates how Jala helped mess each of them up in different ways, each of their paths all somehow tying together through the central relationship of Jala and her first real love Tyler.
Putting a pin in the story for the moment, Thirsty Suitors' gameplay formula focuses on three distinct elements. There are turn-based RPG battles, which are fun, if a little simplistic. The idea is to use certain taunts to exploit enemy weaknesses. Jala can try to impress her foes, shock them, enrage them, or even make them thirsty for her physical affection. This sets them up for hard-hitting attacks, which hit harder when completing timed button cues. The QTE formula can wear thin after a while and the combat can start to feel shallow after it becomes apparent that Jala doesn't learn any more attacks or abilities over the course of her journey. I did forgive the simplicity later in my playthrough once I grasped what Thirsty Suitors was at its core. More on this in a bit.
The second major gameplay component is skating. Jala is a skateboarder, so players will find themselves skating around frequently. Tricks are easy to grasp, as skating controls are styled closer to arcade titles like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. This aspect of the game feels smooth enough that it's easy to learn, but slightly frustrating to master. There were several instances where stopping became an issue and I couldn't stop doing tricks if I tried. Fortunately, skating is more of a side activity than anything else. There are skating challenges for those hardcore players who want to play around with this aspect of the game and show off their high scores. However, not only is skating not a major requirement to finish the story, there's an accessibility setting that allows players to automatically complete the tougher challenges and just move on to the next part of the story. Since I'm not an expert skater by any means, this was a welcome option.
Lastly, there's cooking. This plays into Thirsty Suitors' cultural leanings, as players learn about various South Asian dishes and prepare them to both endear Jala to her family and friends as well as add to her consumable inventory. Cooking is something that could have been a truly unique experience in comparison to RPG battles and skateboarding, but instead, it comes off as little more than a series of quick-time events. I do appreciate the narrative purpose of cooking, but the actual activity itself could have been done better.
Growing up, Jala
With Thirsty Suitors built on three major gameplay pillars, it might lead one to ask what type of game it is. Is it an RPG? Is it a skateboarding game? Is it a cooking sim? The answer is actually something else. By the end, it felt more like a visual novel with the major gameplay components mainly there to push the story along.
This starts to become clearer as Jala battles her exes. After every turn, the characters will banter back and forth. They'll offer exposition, they'll quip at one another, players will hear more from the Narrator (who coincidentally takes the form of Jala's sister), and eventually, there will be a point where there's more chatter than fighting. After initially feeling annoyed by that, the realization set in that the back-and-forth conversation is ultimately the point. The idea behind battles, specifically boss fights, isn't to "defeat enemies." It's for Jala to confront her past, share moments of introspection, have major epiphanies, and eventually, learn from what has happened and grow as a person. This is why battles with exes offer Jala a chance to end conflicts by making up with her adversaries. This concept later extends to the other gameplay elements, in which they are there less for Jala to "win" and more to push the story forward and allow Jala some moments of reflection. Cooking, especially, is there for Jala to converse with her parents, ponder her previous actions, and determine what she can do to move forward.
To Outerloop's credit, dialogue choices that stem from these conversations could have been overly simplistic. However, there are a lot of complexities to the choices that are presented. A big part of why they're so complex is because the game's characters are so well-defined. By the end, these are either people you don't wish to hurt anymore or they're people who you want to feel pain without quite knowing how to express it. Regardless of how an individual player decides to approach these dialogue choices, they won't be able to deny that these characters are written as human beings with motivations, faults, and trauma.
This all comes to a head near the end of the game, where players will focus less on Jala being Jala and more on what it means to be a first-generation immigrant and the heavy burden that it presents. I may not be South Asian myself, but seeing the pressure that comes with pleasing family hit me hard. I felt seen by this game by the time I rolled credits.
The lone downside to the story is that it feels like certain plot points are resolved a little too easily. Without spoiling anything, there's a side story involving something wacky happening at the park that felt like it was settled abruptly and without much drama. There are some questions that players might have of Jala that might feel like they're brushed aside a little too quickly. To go into specifics is to go into spoiler territory, so I'll just leave it there.
Drink it up
Thirsty Suitors isn't going to be the deepest RPG, skateboarding, or cooking experience. However, the sum of its parts adds up to a richer story filled with memorable characters. It'll be a long time before I forget Jala, her family, and her array of exes. Her father, especially, is one of the most heartwarming and delightful characters I've met this year.
While there are RPGs out there with deeper systems and more engaging mechanics, Thirsty Suitors' story more than makes up for any shortcomings. You don't have to be the child of an immigrant to appreciate the story, but it helps. Even if you aren't, the narrative is filled with raucous humor and laugh-out-loud moments that will make you glad you picked it up.
This review is based on a Steam code provided by the publisher. Thirsty Suitors will be available on Thursday, November 2 on PC, PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo Switch. The game is rated T.
- Brilliant and touching story
- Memorable and hilarious characters
- Imaginative boss fights
- Battles and skating are simple
- Accessibility options allow for skipping harder sections
- RPG combat doesn't really evolve
- Cooking feels like a QTE fest
- Some plot points get resolved too simply