When we first meet Jala in Thirsty Suitors, we quickly learn that, uhhh, she's a bit of an asshole. Her past is far from pristine, riddled with not-so-great life choices and terrible decisions that have changed not only her life but the lives of those around her. We actually see the direct result of one of these mistakes at the very start of the game as Jala makes her way back to her parent's house – a decision made in desperation.
Release date: November 2, 2023
Platform(s): PC, PS5, PS4, Switch, Xbox Series X, Xbox One
Developer: Outerloop Games
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
The story of Thirsty Suitors is the result of that single decision. It's one of redemption, but not in a way we're used to seeing in games. You can forget swollen-knuckled cowboys, sad frowny fathers, and the like. This is a story of a twenty-something-year-old queer Indian American woman looking to reconnect with her family and culture by amending her past mistakes. It's a story of immigrant families, generational trauma, and the messy reality of being young and queer. Thirsty Suitors tells a rare and important story, and the result is an absolute force of storytelling.
Our hero's journey begins at her lowest point. She's been kicked out by her latest romantic partner, and with nowhere else to go she decides to return to her hometown of Timber Hills to stay at her parent's place. The plan is to make amends with her family and confront aspects of her past, all while figuring her own shit out. She doesn't know it yet, but her comeback has stoked the fires of her exes, a romantic spark for some, a burning rage for others. Thirsty Suitors takes place over the course of a week, and each day sees you skating around town, cooking with your parents, and taking on your exes in 1v1 Scott Pilgrim-style fights.
These encounters are the beating heart of Thirsty Suitors – bombastic, dramatic affairs. Think of the flair-filled verbal ripostes of Ace Attorney's courtroom with the epic move sets of Street Fighter and you'll be in the ballpark for how these showdowns play out. Each battle takes place in the Persona-style inner world of that ex and is a combination of combat and dialogue – both brains and brawn – as the two work through their feelings with words and fists.
Combat is turn-based and your move set includes small attacks, taunts, quick-time-events, and Final Fantasy-style summons like calling on a giant version of your mom to slap opponents with her chappal. Every ex in Thirsty Suitors has a weakness, one which you need to find and exploit using the game's mood system. For example, Sergio – Jala's third-grade boyfriend and an "impeccably waxed" macho dude with Daddy issues and big arms – is incredibly thirsty for Jala, so knowing this you can choose the 'flirt' taunt, making him flustered and prone to botching his wooing attacks.
Jala's moves have an incredible amount of flair and can vary from her fluttering her eyes in a flirtatious way to powerfully dunking on an opponent with a basketball causing major damage. When you reach the end of a fight, everyone's feelings are out in the open, you can address the drama, shake hands, and make up.
These psychodrama battles are also home to interpersonal drama told through sharp and witty dialogue. The banter between Jala and her exes is incredibly tongue-in-cheek, like how Sergio's overly thirsty comments are constantly met with Jala's blunt rejections or mocking flirtatious comments. But as fights go on, it gets more personal. It's all thirst jokes and fun mini-games until Thirsty Suitors decides to get incredibly real. One gut punch moment is your confrontation with Tyler, Jala's on-again-off-again romantic interest. Tyler isn't just any ex, they are the ex, and the pair's emotionally turbulent past comes crashing to the present as the two once again come into the other's orbit.
These characters are complicated and have complex queer experiences that are interwoven with their family dynamics, their sense of self, and their cultural identity. Rejection, acceptance, and forgiveness are all explored within these fights, giving way to some incredibly heartfelt and poignant moments.
They're spoken with such insight and painful authenticity, as if the developers at Outerloop Games are directly speaking about their experiences through the game. In one encounter Jala faces Andile, a South African non-binary ex who she dated in high school. "I'm scared of being disconnected," they say, talking about their identity. "But the idea that my family and community might reject me hurts me more."
This feeling of disconnect is something Jala also learns to confront throughout. She's a second-generation Indian living in America with a Sri Lankan Sinhalese father and an Indian Tamil mother. Jala's own connection to her parents and culture is another aspect of her life she explores over the course of the game, but instead of the heat of the battlefield, these revelations are in the heat of the kitchen in the form of Thirsty Suitors' wonderful cooking segments.
These sequences have all the energy and flair as the fights, with Jala flying around the kitchen, flipping over countertops, and spinning into action. With one of Jala's parents instructing you, each step of the recipe tests your reactions with QTE mini-games, and the better your timings the better the dish, plus the more impressed her parents will be.
These scenes are a great way to get consumables for incoming battles, but they're also opportunities to better understand Jala's dynamic with her parents. You're essentially repairing their relationship one meal at a time as you make your way through a rich menu of delicious South Asian-inspired dishes. Cooking is a way for generations to come together and take part in a sharing of heritage and family history (this is a perspective shared with Visai Games, which we similarly praised in our Venba review earlier this year too).
All of this reconnection can get pretty emotional. We discover how Jala's family reacted when they found out she was queer, and learn more about her Paati – the family's terrifying and judgmental matriarch. When she visited the family's home all the way from India, I immediately switched to Ultimate Gamer Mode, determined to impress her with my QTE cooking skills.
Let the good times roll
These moments are small brush strokes that contribute to a wider portrait of Jala's life, but it's something Thirsty Suitor's skateboarding sections unfortunately lacked. Jala is big into her skateboard meaning you can happily skate around Timber Hills popping tricks as you go. There's also Bearfoot Park, an old plaza that's been turned into a skatepark by a bunch of indoctrinated teenagers led by 'Soundie', a person in a bear costume. As a favor to Tyler, Jala has been roped into trying to topple Soundie's reign by knocking some sense into the skate punks through battles.
The storyline starts out strong as you get to know a handful of the teens and their lives. These teenagers are a different generation to Jala and they see her as an outsider who left Timber Hills and is now trying to dismantle their skate community. It's an interesting storyline that unfortunately kinda fizzles out towards the end. It's not a major disappointment, far from it, just something that felt unresolved as the credits rolled.
Thirsty Suitors is full of fun, wit, and flair, but it's also a story of community, identity, messy relationships, and family trauma. Jala knows she'll face all of this when she makes the decision to return to her family home. If you knew all that awaited you on your doorstep, would you go back? We root for Jala even when we learn of her mistakes because, ultimately, her decision is incredibly brave and it speaks directly to a universal want of always trying to be better. Thirsty Suitors isn't a game about saving the world, it's about going home.
Thirsty Suitors was reviewed on PC, with code provided by the publisher.