Thirsty Suitors aims to accurately represent South Asian culture, a milieu we’ve rarely seen in mainstream games. To do this, developer Outerloop Games uses a mix of genres that we have never seen in mainstream video games. The debut title from the 15-person studio finds protagonist Jala Jayaratne returning home from a breakup and battling her exes in Paper Mario-inspired turn-based battles, between hearty doses of third-person exploration, skateboarding wheels and kitchen mini-games.
At the start of the hands-on demo I saw last week, Jala is on the bus home and takes a quiz called “How thirsty are you?” At first, we’re transported to an abstract world that seems to draw inspiration from the irregular shapes and curvy lines of ’90s graphic design. Neon pink triangles, cotton candy blue rails, and lemonade yellow lightning bolts. This tutorial space is our introduction to the game’s pessimistic yet romantic heart. Here, the Narrator – who looks exactly like Jala’s sister – taunts Jala for “the disaster [she’s] made of [her] life.”
“Thirstsona is how we track player choices and later when we enter battles we will see how the Thirstsona affects player skills as well,” says game director Chandana “Eka” Ekanayake.
Jala starts out on a floating platform and must grind along rails and cling to pipes to reach the next one. On each platform, she was asked a question about her dating preferences, ranging from the trivial – “Your date shows up in a TERRIBLE outfit. People are staring. What’s your reaction?” – to the most personal – “Have you ever been in love?” After this question, an imaginary version of Jala’s ex, Tyler, appears, towering over Jala, to probe why their relationship didn’t work out.
After completing the tutorial, Jala receives a Thirstsona. In the demo I saw, his result was “The Bohemian”, with the description: “Each new face sets your heart on fire. And why not? There’s nothing wrong with a little experimentation. You spend your life defying expectations.” To which the Narrator replies, “Is it because you are a rebel? … Or because you don’t think you’re up to it? Next, a results screen appears with a point inserted into the gypsy profile.
Based on the interjections I saw during the demo, it looks like the narrator will have a constant adversarial relationship with the player, much like Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Silverhand in Cyberpunk 2077. Here, however, the negative thoughts aren’t the result of a corrupt brain chip. Given that Jala’s self-talk is personified as her sister, this aspect seems designed to address the game’s deeper themes. Ekanayake says that Thirsty Suitors “explore themes of generational trauma”. At this point, during the Thirstsona quiz, Jala’s mother and father also make appearances, with her mother questioning her about her celibacy and her father pushing her to understand each other.
After the quiz concludes, Jala returns to her hometown, Timber Hills. From the demo, Jala’s past isn’t entirely clear, but it appears that she left town with a partner, Jennifer. This relationship has recently failed and Jala returns home to recover from the breakup and gain emotional clarity. And, whether she likes it or not, being back in Timber Hills will mean coming face to face with six of her exes.
It’s dark when we get to Timber Hills, and there’s a brief third-person exploration section in downtown as Jala runs along the street looking for someone to drive her around. last leg of the journey to his parents’ house. She heads for a restaurant with a black-and-white checkerboard floor and a counter with the kind of red vinyl stools on which you can imagine teenagers gathering to sip milkshakes. In an early example of the absurd amount of animation work that seems to have gone into Thirsty Suitors, Jala can initiate a QTE that culminates with a dog doing an ollie on Jala’s skateboard and giving him a high five. Never “Can you pet the dog?” received such an elaborate response.
It is in this restaurant that Jala meets her first ex: her handsome, but aggressively thirsty third-year boyfriend, Sergio. He wears a heavy gold chain necklace, a Lord Licorice-style mullet and mustache, and bursts with insecurity disguised as macho confidence. While this relationship obviously isn’t as serious as others, Tyler’s childish fixation on Jala makes for a low-stakes introduction to the game’s elaborate boss battles. They indeed draw a lot of inspiration from Paper Mario. Combat is turn-based, but in a unique twist, dialogue options are shuffled between attacks. After Jala lands his first punches, Sergio says suggestively: “Did I mention I spent a year abroad? I learned a lot of new moves in Milan.” Jala then has the choice between “Insult” and “Flirt”. She can also do a Thirst Taunt, a flirtatious move that puts Sergio in a thirsty mood – the game’s equivalent of the Confusion status effect from the Pokemon games.
While, for Jala, the emotional stakes in this opening fight aren’t high, the production values on display are. Because there are only six major fights in the game, Outerloop was able to pour an immense amount of unique detail and animation into each one. Midway through the fight, the restaurant setting disappears as we’re transported into Sergio’s inner world, a psychonaut-style representation of his psyche complete with barbells, muscle cars, and a sitar player. The narrator explains that, in the inner world, Sergio is as he sees himself, which includes being invulnerable to attack. To overcome his defenses, The Narrator makes a suggestion.
“Like all South Asian men, all it takes to destroy Sergio’s ego is one word from his mother,” she says. “But, since we can’t bring her in there, we have to summon the next best thing… Our mother.”
After completing a QTE, a giant version of Jala’s mother rises up and kicks Sergio with her shoe (“Not the chappal! Noooo!”) flattening him like a squished insect. After that, the narrator suggests that Sergio’s toxic masculinity might make him susceptible to a Rage Taunt. Jala does, and for the rest of the fight, Sergio’s head is on fire and he’s more likely to land a critical attack or miss completely. Jala can also do a Rage Attack and, in an example of the game’s rich animations, it knocks Sergio out of his pants. Embarrassed, he covers his underpants with his hands, picks up his pants and jumps into them again.
Once Sergio is defeated, the pair make up their hands clasping against the brightly colored background we’ve included in our featured image at the top of this article. A prompt appears on screen that reads, “You’ve worked out your differences. Now you can be friends…or something more?” In the demo, the player chose the “Insult” option every turn, but the “Flirt” option was still there. From what I’ve seen, I’m not sure how Jala’s choices will affect her romantic options going forward.
After a level up screen, Sergio takes Jala home. The game then cuts to a meeting that Sergio called with Jala’s exes. We don’t get much characterization for most of them yet, but Tyler conclusively states that she doesn’t want to be Jala’s friend. Given that Tyler features in the game’s key art, we know that attitude likely won’t hold up for the game’s full six to 10 hour runtime. But we’ll have to wait until the game launches on Steam to see how Jala’s relationship with her exes and family members plays out outside of her head. The game published by Annapurna Interactive does not yet have a release date, but the Steam page says it is “Coming Soon”.
NEXT: The Ferryman Is A Chilling Indie Horror Game About A Cursed Ship Captain