Chris Capel plays Double Fine's other Kickstarter, a fantasy XCOM
Double Fine have had a rough time of it lately. Broken Age: Act 2 was greatly delayed and wasn’t the LucasArts renaissance we hoped for. Their Early Access experiments with Hack N Slash and Spacebase DF-9 ended up being cut short and the games rushed out. Finally an unannounced game was cancelled and the studio was forced to lay off staff for the first time ever. Into this seething cauldron comes their second Kickstarter, Massive Chalice, a fantasy XCOM-alike and currently Double Fine’s last announced game. Will it be a return to form or a further slump into despair?
Jump right in, the water's lovely!
You are the immortal ruler of an unnamed Nation under attack by a mysterious force known as the Cadence, which is relentless and won’t stop until your nation is destroyed. Your only hope is the Massive Chalice, a huge sentient powerful cup who advises you on your rule. The good news is that the Chalice can build up power and destroy the Cadence for good. The bad news is that it’ll take 300 years. You have to build up your nation, train warriors to fight off the Cadence, and make sure lots of baby boys and girls are born to replace those Heroes that die. Because either to old age or the Cadence, they are all going to die. Cheery thoughts, eh.
Massive Chalice is simple to use in practice, especially if you’ve played Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown (Strategy Informer/GameWatcher Game of the Year 2012), but there is a learning curve since beyond the very basic tutorial the game tells you nothing at all. There are two parts to Massive Chalice: the map screen and the combat areas, much like XCOM. On the map screen you choose what Research project to undertake which will take several years, like building a Keep which will create Noble Houses and families, seeking out new Heroes, looking into new armour, gear and weapons, or building a Sagewright’s Guild to research things faster. You then fast forward the clock, and over the years Heroes die and need to be replaced, important decisions of the realm need to be made, and the inevitable attacks by the Cadence need to be addressed.
The map screen part of the game is slightly less involving than XCOM but is generally fun, and the straightforwardness is actually refreshing as it streamlines the whole game. Only being able to research one years-long thing at a time means for the most part you’re just watching babies get born and people die on the map for a little while until a Walking Dead/Banner Saga-style choice-with-consequences screen pops up, someone dies and needs replacing, or the Cadence attack. It’s a little brainless, but it all shoots by so quickly it’s never long before something of interest happens.
Periodically random events happen. Put them in the Chalice!
The downside of this quick passage of time is that you never get attached to your Heroes, your families, or any part of the entire Nation. This is the biggest problem with Massive Chalice. XCOM has some actual characters and a story, but most of all the player becomes protective of their soldiers and so it’s a tragedy when they get killed in battle. In Massive Chalice one minute on the fast-forward screen without interruption is enough to kill any Hero, so what does it matter if they get killed in combat? There’s no connection with any of them, so when the game pipes up with something like “Verity Schaffer will be gone for six years!” I say “who?” every time. Everyone I knew and built up from the last combat round is likely dead by the next one, which also partially makes Experience worthless. For more than half of the game you’ll be unlikely to see any character make it past Level 6. Then they’ll die of old age. Furthermore only the chatty two-voiced Chalice has any personality, and you’ll get fed up of that since it repeats the same conversations far too often.
There are three character class archetypes. Alchemist, who throws bombs. Caberjack, melee specialist wielding a giant log. And Hunter, who holds a big crossbow and is profoundly overpowered. These character classes can be mixed in various ways such as through marriage or training, so you can get new classes like Trickshots who can fire explosive bolts or Shadowjacks who are Caberjacks with stealth skills. It adds a lot to the game in terms of classes so it’s tricky to decide on just five Heroes to go into combat, even if you often don’t know what the classes can do until you see them in action.
Much like XCOM (again I use that phrase) the combat provides the meat of the gameplay, and these are highly XCOM with one major exception: no Overwatch. Which stinks, but hey, at least enemies can’t use it either. Otherwise it’s all very similar to Firaxis’ reboot, other than the lack of guns. There’s no “Action Points”, just “close” and “far” movement boxes - choose “close” and you can attack afterwards, choose to move further and that’s your whole turn. Attack ability is measured in percentages, so you might well miss completely if you only get 50% on a long distance bow shot. Your objective is to move your five Heroes around and find and defeat all the various varieties of Cadence in the area. Oh, and if a Hero dies they’re gone forever.
Hmm, choices, choices...
It is definitely a lot of fun. While it does leech a lot of that fun from a certain other game I keep mentioning to be fair Massive Chalice is genuinely addictive in its own right. The Cadence are certainly unique and a Wrinkler or Rapture appearing near a Hero can be terrifying. Getting a good balance of Hero classes is important too - there’s a time to storm in with a heavily-armoured Caberjack and there’s a time to attempt a long-distance crossbow shot. I genuinely couldn’t stop playing the game and I might even have another round on a harder difficulty, which I almost never do these days (especially with strategy games). The music is awesome too.
That all said there are a couple of other problems. Firstly, battle areas get very boring fast as there are only a handful of themes and they’re all pretty indistinct. I love the game’s simple aesthetic but the levels are pretty drab-looking “general outdoors” stuff. Why can’t we fight in villages, trying to save local people from the monsters as we go? Why does the one building area just appear as a giant nondescript castle? Can we have a few landmarks? An explosive bush does not an exciting level make. Secondly, while it’s important to the fun value to get a range of classes if you just pick five remotely experienced Hunters or Trickshots the battle’s already won. Enemies never really offer a challenge and with the wide-open areas you can see them and pick them off with a crossbow before they fire a shot. For most of the game on Normal I only lost a single person in combat and that was down to an Alchemist’s lousy bomb-toss.
MASSIVE CHALICE VERDICT
Massive Chalice is lots of fun and highly addictive. Yes a lot of the best things about it come from it being highly influenced by XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but it not only captures a lot of the spirit of our Game of the Year 2012 but Double Fine also manages to provide their own unique spin on it with the Game of Thrones-style setup. Yes it has a few minor problems, most notably not providing a reason to care for any of the people under your command and some fairly unimaginative combat area design, but it remains a damn fun game for the 15-20 hours it took me to finish it and I’ll probably go back and play some more. Well done Double Fine, another good game to add to the roster.
TOP GAME MOMENT
A direct bomb-throw on a group of Cadence, watching them all explode.
Highly addictive and lots of fun.
Nails the XCOM feel while mixing it with a _Game of Thrones_-style setup expertly.
Time moves so fast you never get attached to any Heroes or any part of your kingdom.
Seriously, couldn't the combat areas have been a bit more imaginative?