Double Fine Productions is an oddity, a rare breed in the industry. Critically successful, they've never had a major commercial hit in the ten years they've been making games. Their titles have ranged from niche to cult classics, but the fans they do have remain enthusiastic and trusting. That trust was turned into money recently when the studio took to Kickstarter to crowdfund two new games. MASSIVE CHALICE
, a turn-based strategy RPG is one of those. After reaching its funding goals the game has migrated from Steam to the Xbox One, as this month’s free game no less. That means the only thing you might spend on it is time, but is it time well spent?
Massive Chalice I propose a toast! Someone help me lift this thing.
puts you in the unseen and immortal shoes of an overseer tasked with directing your nation’s army across three centuries of war against plant-like invaders known as the Cadence. Because no one but you lives forever, and 300 years is a long time, you’ll witness countless deaths among your Heroes. At the onset, you select five Houses which collectively form your Vanguard. Appointing Regents and partners of these Houses serves as he game’s key feature, the Bloodline system. By pairing leaders together, they retire from battle and take up baby making as a full-time hobby. You can even pair partners of the same sex, which just means you’ll have to rely on adopting your future soldiers instead of birthing them. You can carefully select partners to breed soldiers of a certain type, minding their fighting class and genetic traits, but I found a lot of this to be superfluous micromanagement. The most vital aspect is actually the fertility probability stats. You could search your Houses for the absolute best pairings to create the absolute best babies who grow to become the absolute best Heroes, or you can just pair any two Heroes with a high probability of having children and your army is hardly any worse off for it.
It's not often arranged marriage is practiced by the good guys.
That’s not to say Massive Chalice
is without difficulty. When on the procedurally generated battlefield, the combat unfolds on a grid with turn-based actions with which tabletop gamers will be immediately familiar. Managing inventory, enemy movements, and character health are all keys to surviving. You can bring up to five soldiers to do battle, though there’s no reason to ever bring fewer if you want to win. When you arrive you won’t be able to see the whole map and therefore you don’t know how many and where enemies lie within the fog beyond your Heroes’ sight. This can lead to some dire battles when your resources are depleting and you don’t necessarily know how much longer you need to hold out. When characters die, there’s no coming back for them, but the war rages on. Losing battles doesn’t necessarily spell game over either. Because of that, the combat sequences reward intelligent decisions and punish hasty or stupid ones. This puts your fate in your hands which any good strategy game should do. The varied environments also help the combat stay fresh. In a 300 year war, things could easily get stale. Some landscapes are close quarters, some are wide open. Many of them have destructible obstacles that can alter a battle when destroyed.
The permadeath component is effective in making you mourn your losses, but for all the character building and breeding you’ll be doing, you’ll only ever mourn the level, not the person. Each fighter on your side has a personality, allegedly, but it’s only ever expressed on a character sheet. There’s really no attachment to anyone for any reason other than their skill level. Characters are battle-eligible from age 15 til their death which can occur off the battlefield too by means of old age. When a soldier becomes famous for their heroics, they can acquire relics, weapons which are leveled up and passed down generation after generation, eventually equipping your grandkids' grandkids with weapons of exceptional power.
Research and nation building also play key factors in your war of attrition. Spending years, sometimes decades researching armor, weapons, items, and most importantly Keeps will surely make the difference in the long run whether you succeed or fall to the Cadence. Keeps are perhaps the single most important element of the entire game. Without keeps, you can’t appoint leaders. Without leaders, you bear no children. Without children your bloodline – and eventually your nation -- dies out. It’s a numbers game. You don’t always need to breed the perfect super soldiers, but you have to have warm bodies ready to go to war for you.
Granted there will be a bunch of corpses there when the smoke clears, but that's really pretty.
Combat sequences arise every 8-12 years and in between you’ll spend a lot of time in the menus, researching and choosing new skills for your hopefully many soldiers, and making executive decisions on matters throughout your land. These are presented as brief text-based scenarios where you choose how to proceed from a list of options. Some have positive effects, some work adversely to your goals. All you can do is choose what you think is best and sometimes you don’t see the effect of your decisions until years later.
Double Fine’s games always come with some quirky dialogue and intriguing visual palettes and Massive Chalice
is no different in that regard. The characters and world combine watercolors and cubism and the enemies all carry a unique color scheme. Lapses are vibrant blues, Bullwarks are mossy greens. They all look great. The sound design in comparison is lacking. Two comical voices guide you by introducing new mechanics and occasionally commenting on your actions. They’re goofy and lighthearted which is fine, but over the 300 year campaign, you’ll hear the same lines over and over. There’s also a good soundtrack to the game but sadly you won’t hear it enough. Battles are often played without music for at least half the sequence. Alongside the completely silent Heroes, going to war has never been so quiet.
Talk it out, 80's sitcom style.
One look at the current TrueAchievement score should warn you how stingy and difficult the game’s list is. On normal difficulty the game is a fair challenge, as enemies level up with you and always demand you outsmart them on the battlefield, but they still make mistakes for you to capitalize on. The game is much less forgiving on hard difficulty and, not being a completionist myself, I see no reason to invest another 300 game years into getting tossed around by the Cadence at an unbeatable pace. For those who can’t help but chase the high ratios, be on the lookout especially for Fire With Fire
, which requires you to head into battle equipped with only Cadence weapons and items. Doing that will mean you’ll first have to research all of those items which will take decades to do. There’s also a Brutal difficulty with its own achievements for TA’s masochists and the humorous Geriatric Brigade
, which requires you win a battle with only senior citizens. There are a staggering thirteen achievements that, at the time of writing, have been unlocked by fewer than 4% of the game’s 17,000 tracked players. It would take unskilled strategy gamers 300 real years to complete this list.
If you're a fan of strategy games, there's a lot to enjoy in Massive Chalice
. The combat demands you play smartly, which doesn't always mean conservatively. It's visually appealing and carries with it the charm that all Double Fine games have been known for. It's also not as difficult as other similar strategy titles which can make it more accessible, though the menus and new concepts are still rather daunting if you aren't a genre veteran. The Bloodline system never fully achieves what it set out to do, which, as its selling point, is its biggest disappointment. While it lacks the depth it initially promises, the system still plays a crucial role in the outcome of your centuries long war. Decisions you make early on will impact the tide of war decades later. It's just too bad all those people growing up under your command ultimately die without their story ever really being told. This is by no means a must-play if you aren't a strategy fan, but those who do frequent the genre should consider Massive Chalice
a flawed but worthwhile addition to their Keep.
- Simple yet beautiful visuals
- Intelligent combat
- Sound design feels incomplete
- Bloodline system not fully realized
The reviewer spent approximately eleven hours in a war of attrition with sinister trees, rocks, and whatever Ruptures are supposed to be. Along the way he collected a mere eleven achievements for 170 gamerscore. A review copy of this game was provided by Double Fine.