Thirsty Suitors Is a Jack of All Trades and Master of None
Inverse Score: 8/10
Whether it’s trying to mend bridges with an ex, pulling off a grind on her skateboard, or cooking a meal with her mom, Jala can’t seem to get things right. Exes remain jilted, a trick doesn’t land quite right, and the measurements for the recipe are off. Life for Jala is a mess — or maybe, Jala is the mess.
Just like protagonist Jala, Thirsty Suitors (from developer Outerloop Games) is a bit of a mess at times due to this maximalist design approach. But when the game’s many seemingly unrelated parts do sync up, the narrative shines through in wonderful ways. Thirsty Suitors still has some rough edges, but the overall experience is so committed to its unique style and voice that you can’t help but have a good time.
Jala most certainly does not have her life together. Having just been dumped, she decides to move back to her home of Timber Hills, Washington, and crash at her parents' place. She doesn’t seem to have a job, she hasn’t talked to her parents or sister in a long time, and her long list of ex-lovers conspires to give her a rough time now that she’s back in town.
An imaginary version of Jala’s sister acts as a narrator/conscience to Jala in what is definitely an unhealthy coping mechanism. This not-quite-sister is responsible for getting the player up to speed on the game’s interpersonal relationships.
And relationships are at the core of Thirsty Suitors. Roughly broken into familial and romantic connections, Jala has burned many bridges and stashed several skeletons in the closet. À la Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, she has six exes who form a cabal to win Jala back or ruin her life. In this scenario, Jala takes the role of both Scott Pilgrim and Ramona Flowers, being the one who both left these broken hearts behind and who must take them down one by one.
At home, Jala’s mother is incredibly disapproving of her life choices and insistence on ignoring the family for so long — Jala doesn’t even know her sister is getting married. Even Jala’s grandmother tries to arrange a marriage for the girl who can’t seem to keep a partner.
There is a third, more unexpected, relationship at play in Thirsty Suitors as well — between Jala and the town of Timber Hills. Coming home after so many years requires the same need for connection that relationships with people do.
The narrative triad combines into a wonderfully written story about how we rebuild connections. Centering around the imperfect protagonist Jala only helps drive the game's themes home.
Three in One
Mechanically, Thirsty Suitors gives each of these three central relationships a defining core system. This means three different games battle for dominance within Thirsty Suitors.
The most prominent system revolves around the most prominent relationships in the game, the romantic ones. Throughout Thirsty Suitors' story, Jala will come face to face with her exes and battle it out in the form of turn-based combat in which Jala can attack, taunt, and use special skills to whittle down the opponent's health. Combat also utilizes a QTE system to inflict certain attacks in the vein of Super Mario RPG or Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door.
Thirsty Suitors’ eccentric style makes an appearance here as well, as you can call in aid from your mother to make opponents feel guilty or flirt with them to catch them off guard. It turns flirting and/or navigating the stormy waters of past flames (because why can't you do both?) into a give-and-take that is a nice metaphor for how to deal with conflict in a somewhat healthy manner.
Familial relationships, which mostly revolve around Jala’s tattered relationship with her mother, take the form of a cooking game. Jala can spend time in the kitchen learning how to prepare traditional meals from her mother as a way to reconnect. Nail QTEs during the cooking process and you will impress your mother more, which helps repair your relationship faster.
Jala’s connection to her hometown comes to life in a skating game. Areas across Timber Hills, such as an abandoned theme park that is now a hotbed for skate punks, allow Jala to skate openly down memory lane, visiting old haunts and seeing how the people and places of Timber Hills have changed — all while doing some sick kickflips. It feels like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater-lite, as it’s less punishing, less focused on precision, and includes fewer tricks.
While these three systems all mesh surprisingly well and reflect the game’s core narrative themes, none are without its flaws. Combat always feels like it takes too long, and no matter what strategy I used, I couldn’t help but think the encounters were unnecessarily tedious. Cooking is a cute side activity, but it has the unfortunate fate of releasing after I played Venba’s delightfully designed cooking minigames earlier this year. Skating is perhaps the most underwhelming of the three, as it mostly feels like an afterthought that, as noted, needs more precision to make it exciting.
Bless this Mess
Thirsty Suitors' many systems and over-the-top and colorful art feel truly singular and help reiterate how much better unique designs are than photorealism. But it can’t fully deliver on its grand vision. It is a jack of all trades and a master of none.
Still, what shines through the most, despite the game’s flaws, is its narrative, which is equally as ambitious as the game’s systems. It focuses on relationships and the different ways they manifest in a person’s life. There’s also Thirsty Suitors’ delightful sprinkling of political commentary.
Everything is tied together by Jala, a fantastic protagonist who the player understands is a work in progress, but one who is trying to fix her mistakes. Thirsty Suitors is a game with immense vision, even with the mess.
Thirsty Suitors is available on PlayStation, Xbox, Game Pass, and PC. Inverse reviewed the game on PC.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.