Platforms: PC, Xbox One
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Double Fine
Publisher: Double Fine
Turn-based combat where every attack is dictated by a percentage chance of success and a world overview where you must construct new buildings and conduct research in order to continuously improve your chances of survival, all mixed with a distinct possibility of failure. It’s impossible to write about Massive Chalice without first acknowledging the huge debt it owes to the existence of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a game that it borrows massively from while also introducing a small slew of ideas all of its own. The end result is certainly interesting, but it never manages to capture the same sense of tension that its sci-fi cousin has in spades.
Perhaps the reason the game lacks tension is become you never do manage to become attached to the heroic warriors whose job it is to defend the realm against the encroaching Cadence, as you have to treat them more like raw resources that brothers-in-arms. In XCOM you could rename your soldiers and, assuming you played well enough, could keep them around indefinitely, with the most experienced becoming key members of your army. A veteran soldier in XCOM could potentially have dozens of memories attached to them of dramatic stands against the incoming enemy and such, thus also making their death’s more personal and impactful – you felt the loss both from a strategic sense and an emotional sense. In contrast Massive Chalice puts you in the shoes of an immortal ruler that cannot move from his/her/its throne, forced to wait 300-years for the titular chalice to power up and annihilate the threat that surrounds your country. In that vast span of time powerful heroes, wives, husbands, daughters and sons will die, and new humans will take their place, carrying on the legacy. You have a hand in shaping their lineage and you’ll appoint many of them to positions of power or command them in combat, but you’ll never give a damn about them on any personal level. Their lifespans are so short that it’s hard to care about their deaths and triumphs, and that makes the combat feel less tense. If you lose a soldier, there’s another one to take his or her place, and they’ll die soon, too, either from being stabbed or old age or some random ailment that befalls them.
It’s a reflection of life and war, really, showing how in the chaos of warfare individual soldiers become a faceless mob, and that in a pro-longed conflict there’s little room for actual attachment. Whereas XCOM wanted you to think of your troops as comrades in arms, in Massive Chalice people simply become yet another resource to be managed and used effectively, even to the point of carefully selecting who marries who in order to sire the most gifted children possible. This is where the game’s genetics system comes into play as you become matchmaker, choosing who will marry who, even to the point of forcing incest, which is more than a little disturbing. Children can be a mixture of their parent’s three core classes, creating a total of nine possible unit types to play around with in combat. You might, for example, cross the long-ranged Hunter class with the Alchemist, creating a hero capable of launching explosive arrows. These offspring can inherit good and bad traits from their parents, too, like enhanced strength or inherently good stamina or a nervous disposition which negatively impacts their accuracy, a nightmare for Hunters. They can also pick up personality traits acquired as they grow up and spend time with parents, trainers and other heroes. Your job is pick and choose which heroes get together to rule a Keep that you’ve constructed on a piece of land, thereby guiding their lineage through the years, slowly breeding the most powerful warriors possible by avoiding less desirable traits and focusing on the more useful ones for the specific class you want. If all goes well, you’ll eventually end up with marriages churning out children who grow to be powerful warriors. Get it wrong and you’ll end up with a bunch of morons who struggle to tie their own shoe laces, let along swing a weapon.
Heroes with more experience will better train their offspring, but naturally tend to be older as well and thus may not rule as Regent of a Keep for very long. You also have to consider whether a powerful hero should remain fighting for as long as possible, and thereby also potentially block a younger warrior from gaining much-needed combat experience, or if they should perhaps be given a Keep to rule. Combat is a big part of the game, but it takes a backseat to this constant weighing of human resources. Take the Crucible as a prime example; by installing a hero in this structure they’ll then increase the rate at which trainees level up so that by time they’re old enough to enter combat service they’ll hopefully be quite capable, making the Crucible an incredibly valuable asset, but who do you put in their? A more experienced warrior equals a much more powerful effect, but that also means taking a strong part of your combat force and retiring him or her permanently, which could a huge problem if you’re already struggling to maintain a healthy roster of cannon fodder. Place a more inexperienced hero in their and the effects may not feel worth all the time you spent building the damn thing, but he or she will also probably live far longer, saving you from having to select yet another Crucible leader in a short time frame.
The game sometimes seems to delight in being a dick, sadly. Occasionally scripted events pop up that have entirely random outcomes that can leave you reeling. In one instance a cornerstone of my empire, a powerful house that was pumping out damn fine Caberjacks, a melee unit and therefore the basis of any good force, was suddenly all but destroyed when a message popped up declaring that the Keep’s husband and wife were struggling with their marriage. Opting to talk to them personally about how their marriage was for the good everyone I was dismayed to find out my honeyed words hadn’t worked and so the couple took on the “passionless” trait, which massively decreased their chances of having kids. Struggling I began work on a new Keep to compensate, but in the mean time what few kids the couple did have also picked up the passionless trait, and before long a powerful part of my Empire had crumbled into dust, all because of one choice. I encountered the same option yet again at another point and out of curiosity decided to do the exactly same thing I had done the last time, and thus the game randomly decided that the couple accepted my humble words and actually rekindled their love for each other, resulting in lots of healthy new babies. There didn’t seem to be any actual logic behind the system.
The random traits of each character that they’ve picked up also becomes difficult to keep track of. After just a few hours I didn’t have a clue what traits what warrior’s had as they were dying and being replaced so quickly that my brain couldn’t keep up with the deluge of stats and information. Is this strangely named chap the one that works better away on his own or with the rest of the team? Better check the details tab for the 1000th time, I suppose, since these can and do have important roles to play in combat.
I am, though, being somewhat harsh. Like XCOM this is a game where your decisions in the first few hours of play can come back to bite you in the ass much, much later, although it’s considerable more forgiving than XCOM in that regard, and random elements far outside of your control can make that fact even more annoying. It works better in rogue-likes were playthroughs tend to be short and sweet, not in a game like this where a single run can take quite a while. However, the random elements do bring some spice to a game which can otherwise boil down to a repetitive pattern of, “Research, appoint new rulers, fight, repeat.” and often manage to inject just enough randomness into proceedings to make them more interesting without feeling like too much control is being taken away from the player. Furthermore on a second playthrough, which is quite likely for most players as failure is common, you’ll be more equipped to mitigate the effects of any random event, learning how to better balance your houses and roster of heroes so that a random event can’t topple your entire plan.
The vaguely evil Cadence (it’s never actually explained who or what they are) don’t simply sit around, though. Combat plays out in relatively typical turn-based fashion with each of the five heroes you can take into battle being given a set amount of action points to spend in a single turn. Moving within the orange zone costs a single point, while opting to move even further, out into the clearly marked grey zone, takes up two points, thus the foundation of most turns is choosing how to spend your points, be it choosing to forgo an attack in favour of trying to outmaneuver the enemy or just smacking something in the face. At your fingertips are the three core classes; Caberjacks cart around massive logs that are good for dealing heavy melee damage, making them your front-line troops; Hunters are the long ranged fighters who wield bows, and Alchemists hurl explosive jars. But as we discussed earlier through the joy of arrange probably joyless marriages you can mix classes together, creating such things as the Stealthjack who can blend into the environment before popping out to clobber something, and the Trickshot, who can strap an explosive flask to his or her arrow for some extra carnage. All of your attacks and many of your special skills are based entirely on the horrible whims of chance, each action given a clearly indicated percentage chance to actually work. A Hunter, for example, may have a 64% chance of actually hitting his mark based on the distance and angle of the shot, plus other factors like genetic traits. In exactly the same way as XCOM this serves to make the combat more tense, and also bloody frustrating when a character somehow has a 95% chance of hitting the target standing not 2ft away from and STILL MANAGES TO F****** MISS! It only gets worse when an Alchemist completely misses a throw and ends up fire-bombing one of his or her allies. So far so expected, then, but what is surprising is the lack of bonuses for performing flanking moves and the absence of a cover system. With these two things absent the combat feels like it’s lacking in strategy compared to other offerings in the genre. The variety of enemy types do help make up for this, though, forcing you to consider which foe to concentrate on and where to position your forces for maximum effect. You’ll encounter beasts that can hurl mortar rounds that can either hurt your own forces or spawn a new enemy on impact. There’s even a couple of tricky enemy types that can actively remove XP and levels from your heroes or age them prematurely, which is a clever idea, I have to say.
Combat boils down to hunting through the fog of war for the enemy and the quickly deciding what order to take them down in, and when certain skills should be used. It’s frankly very shallow stuff that lacks the incredible tension of the XCOM games where every move felt like an important, potentially game changing decision. Again this harks back to the lack of connection you have to the heroes, the complete indifference to their deaths during combat. In XCOM I wanted to keep soldiers alive because they were important to the war, but also because we had a history together, cultivated through numerous hard-fought victories and losses. Speaking of losses any hero who dies on the field of battle stays dead, and if you lose the whole battle the Cadence will move a step closer to destroying your precious country. Each of the territories you control is able to withstand three successful attacks from the Cadence before succumbing entirely, and usually when the Cadence do attack, around once every 10-15 years, they strike two different locations, only one of which you can actually defend, creating something else that needs to be carefully juggled along with the marriages, children and research.
The problem is the combat is just a bit…well, meh. It’s competent and there’s some light tactical thinking in the form of what enemies to crush first, what hero should deal with what and ensuring that you don’t get swarmed under, but it’s just completely mundane stuff. Meanwhile stun attacks become all but required later on, while the stealth ability remains weakened by the fact that there’s no bonuses for flanking and that there’s no equivalent of Overwatch from XCOM, or Ambush from Invisible Inc. that let’s you set up an ambush. It doesn’t help that the enemy AI is quite frankly poor at best, exhibiting some supreme stupidity that just isn’t acceptable in a genre like this. Upon finding a group of enemies, for example, I’d patiently sit through the game informing me that each individual enemy had spotted my troops before then watching as the Cadence ran backwards and forwards or in circles. They’d generally do this until I moved a bit closer, at which point they would finally figure out where they needed to go. Even then, however, their intelligence amounted to running straight into the fray, or just hanging around the outskirts.
Does this mean the combat is terrible? No. I managed to get some light enjoyment out of it and there are some occasionally cool moments where you hit a group of enemies with a killer attack despite the chances being low. Furthermore it’s nice to see your work on the marriage front pay off in combat as you gain more and more powerful heroes with hopefully very few negative traits. Having said that the negative traits can be both somewhat funny and really damn annoying. Your heroes might get an asthma attack, reducing their movement, or may turn up for combat drunk or with a hangover. It’s kind of funny, until you miss the most important shot of the battle because of it. Ugh.
Down time between battles is spent managing your kingdom, which as we’ve covered involves quite a lot of marrying people off. At any given time you can have one building being constructed or one piece of research conducted, and on the timeline these take numerous years to complete. There’s just three types of building, though; Keeps are the most fundamental, and having around four of them is a sound plan, but they also take forever to complete. On top of that the Crucible helps train potential heroes, while the Sagewright decreases research time. You can also opt to spend time looking into improved armor or weapons, and even look for new heroes among the general population or adopt kids if you really are struggling to maintain a decent roster of victims. Much like the combat, though, the problem is one of shallowness; there’s just not very much going on when it comes to kingdom management. Mostly it boils down to picking a research option, usually a keep, and then hitting the fast-forward button and watching the births and deaths rack up until eventually you either have to appoint some new regents or the Cadence attack. Then you repeat the cycle, dispassionately watching as your heroes perish from old age or other nonsense, although sometimes they do leave a power relic, a weapon that can be handed down through the generations.
Oh boy, is the game damn ugly. The artists seem to have opted for a strangely angular style mixed with large, flat areas devoid of texture, creating a race of people who look like they belong back in the days of characters being made out of a couple dozen polygons. And sweet Hades’ don’t bother even looking at the children. They’re like some hideous offspring of a cabbage and Michael Myers. This strange, unattractive style also leaves most characters looking alike, and is also responsible for a raft of rather dull looking enemies. At least the sound is a bit better with completely forgettable but solid score that sits nicely in the background as you play. There’s only actually two voice actors in the game who take on the role’s of the two personalities imbedded within the titular chalice, and they do a stellar job. Mostly these voices chime during combat or when certain events happen.
Massive Chalice is a competent game in many regards, but also a difficult one to become invested in as the mechanics seem determined to keep you at a distance. Above all else the gameplay feels shallow and uninteresting. The combat lacks a cover system, flanking bonuses, morale or other options like setting up Hunter’s in an Overwatch style mode or changing stances, and that leaves simply figuring out which enemy needs to get clobbered first. On the kingdom management front we again find that there’s just not a whole lot to actually do. Carefully selecting the best candidates for breeding and watching as you manage to bring forth more talented children is actually quite interesting, at least for the first few hours, but after that you realise that there’s not very much to it and eventually you swap over to auto-pilot, which is a shame because I really do quite like the idea of a genetics system in a game of this type. Likewise when it comes to choosing what to research or what to build there’s not much thought required, either. Building a Keep on certain bits of land earns you a bonus, but the usual strategy is just to construct four Keeps, a Crucible and a Sagewright, and spend the rest of your time researching random upgrades while hitting the fast-forward button, waiting the next battle or demand to appoint a new Regent.
In short, there’s better strategy games out there. However, for all my harshness Massive Chalice is a solid game, and if you have a strong desire for more XCOM goodness but don’t fancy replaying it yet again then this a decent alternative. And if you’re one of those people who found XCOM a little too daunting and complicated then this is a good alternative as it acts almost like a streamlined version of Firaxis title, with a few ideas of its own tossed in for good measure.