Massive Chalice

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Massive Chalice
PC and Xbox One
Developed by Double Fine
Released in 2015

Ever since I first gotten to play it years ago, I have held up Psychonauts as one of my all-time favorite games, as seen in my top 12 list last year. By now I have replayed the game several times and it gave me a lot of respect for its creator Tim Schafer and his studio Double Fine. While they haven’t really topped Psychonauts since, I was definitely excited when I heard the studio would be tackling a crowdfunded strategy game, even if it was directed by somebody other than Tim. In fact, considering how he handled Broken Age it might actually have been for the better.

War never changes, right?

The premise of Massive Chalice is definitely an interesting hook. You play as the immortal king of a tiny stretch of land surrounded by endless darkness. The world is covered by a force known as The Cadence, which turns anybody who touches it to dust and has so far consumed everything but your lands. That is because you have the Chalice, a powerful relic home to two guiding voices that helps you protect the land. Notice the word “help” because the chalice’s power is not limitless; all it can do is transport heroes that are immune to the Cadence’s instant-death effect to the battlefield and provide advice.

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While the Cadence has all but won the war, there is a solution. The Chalice can charge up for a powerful blast that will save the world by eliminating the darkness, but it will need a lot of time to charge up for that. That is where you and your immortality come in: while heroes come and go, you must take command and keep the world afloat long enough for the Chalice to prepare.

In terms of writing you can expect some of Double Fine’s high standard for comedy tinged with seriousness. The game plays the severity of the plot rather straight and I ran into several events during my playtime that showed how desperate and fearsome the Cadence is. It even surprised me at times with how brutal it could be. At the same time everything is narrated by the two voices within the chalice, an excited young woman and a wise, elderly gentleman respectively, who have a lot of good banter and react well to what is going on in the actual gameplay.

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Then there is the ending… I get that the game was going for a bit of a twist here, but it just doesn’t really click because it just gives the impression everything you achieved was meaningless. I feel it would have suited the game well if it just had a straight, simple ending or a true good ending, rather than this elaborate lame one.

Story score: 4.5/10

Pro tip: Don’t throw bombs on your own dudes

That this game was inspired by the resurgence of the XCOM series is not hard to see, as it features a rather similar take on isometric turn-based strategy. Each time the Cadence appears you will send in a maximum of five dudes to go take care of it, picking from the long-ranged hunters, the bomb-throwing alchemists, and melee-focused caberjacks. Each character can level up all the way to level 10, unlocking skills across a simplistic upgrade tree, and each one has a number of traits that affects their effectiveness. A hero could be slow or quick, be a complete klutz, a quick learner, or an avenger, which will enrage them when an ally falls in combat. There are a lot of traits out there and their impact on the gameplay is easy to figure out, which makes it pretty exciting when you run into a hero that only has positive traits.

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The XCOM similarities continue as you click your dudes around the battlefield, choosing between walking a short distance and making an attack or taking a risky run further forward. There is no overwatch system and cover doesn’t factor into play, but you do have various special abilities, like the caberjack’s charge or the hunter’s stealth, that bring variation into the combat. And, of course, each attack has a to hit chance indicated with a percentile that will invariably leave you missing an attack at the worst possible moments.

A downside here is that the enemies in this game are sort of a compilation of gaming’s most obnoxious enemies. The “Seeds” are perhaps the most basic foe you’ll get to fight, because every other enemy has gimmicks to them that make them a hassle to deal with. Lapses will zap you for a ton of damage and reduce your experience, often knocking you down a level and removing upgrades. The Rupture is terribly common in the early game and explodes into goo that reduces your armor and does corrosion damage to all who stand in the puddle that remains, rendering caberjacks almost useless early on. And then there is the Wrinkler that ages you with each hit (even when he deals a glancing blow, the bastard), the Cradle that spawns in seeds whenever it can, the Twitcher that randomly teleports your dudes across the map. These enemies just aren’t very fun to fight, and that coupled with the semi-random and large maps, which often leave you scouring every corner for the last pocket of foes, made the missions kind of a bother to deal with despite the overall good gameplay.

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When the battle is won (or lost) you return to a tactical map where you can press a button to rapidly advance through the timer counting down 300 in-game years. From this screen you also decide what to research or build, make decisions when story events occur, and manage your families. 300 years is a long time after all and, unlike you, your heroes aren’t going to stick around for the whole thing. They grow old, often develop illnesses or other problems, and then pass away. By building a keep, you can install a character as a regent and marry them to another hero, which starts a bloodline. Children born from this romance are your future heroes and will earn starting experience from the regent and his wife as they grow up, before moving to the crucible (if you build one) when they are adults. You can also retire heroes to the Sagewright’s Guild, where they will provide a boost to your research projects. But of course you’ll still need people to send into battle when the Cadence launches an assault, so it’s best to be wary of how many people you stuff into keeps or guilds.

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The idea of an XCOM game that spans several lifetimes is actually pretty fun, but it falls somewhat apart in the execution. Part of the fun in XCOM is to see your soldiers improve and grow a fondness for them through their efforts. My friends and I often chat about our favorite soldiers and the crazy feats they accomplished. However, Cadence attacks are so far apart in this game you’ll rarely get to take any one soldier along for more than one or two battles, and if your regent is being productive you’ll have like 10 warriors with the same last name all vying for a spot on the 5-man team. That hopeful 18-year-old that did well in his first battle may be 34 before the next one happens, and at that point you may as well give the spot to his younger sibling who will be able to use the experience for longer. There were a lot of events that felt like they were meant to give me a connection to the characters, but their fleeting natures made this all for naught. It was also terribly frustrating to have to start each and every battle with upgrading and equipping five new characters, it’s really time consuming especially when you always take pretty much the same stuff anyway.

On the upside, I felt the game had a really nice feedback loop. You are constantly seeing the next generations benefiting from the heroes who came before them, whether it is their parents who train them, the master of the crucible who keeps them in shape, or the Sagewrights that develop new technologies for them to use. As the final years were dawning on me I had fresh heroes coming into service that were already level 9 and that felt fantastic, except I didn’t realize traits could be passed on, so I had a lot of slow people with the “reveler” trait, meaning they were prone to getting drunk. One family was particularly party-happy and eventually most of them ended up being nearsighted too, which for hunters is kind of an issue.

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Family management really is central to Massive Chalice and I definitely ran into challenges like having one bloodline die out due to some misfortunes, leading to me having to do several battles without any alchemists to back me up. A particularly fun touch is that if you marry different classes their children will get sub-classes with their own abilities and upgrade tree. They will always play largely the same as the regent’s class, but provide a few nice twists. My favorite was mixing an alchemist (as the regent) with a caberjack, which made the children “brewtalists”. These were alchemists that were much sturdier in a fight at the cost of being more inaccurate with their bombs. Also fun are the relics. A hero that does well will give their weapon a legendary status and you can then pass that weapon on throughout the family, improving it gradually with each holder. This provides another incentive to keeping a bloodline going, because when nobody is left to adopt the weapon it must be destroyed.

Taking the gameplay of XCOM and setting it in a fantasy story that spans centuries was a daring move, but one that largely pays off. While it’s a shame players won’t feel much attachment to their characters, the family management is a fun touch and it’s cool to see your heroes evolve throughout the generations. This was also a tough game because you are almost certain to lose territory. Each zone has 3 charges for corruption and once those are filled it falls to the Cadence without an opportunity to save it. With attacks generally targeting 2 to 3 areas at once and you only being allowed to defend one, math is going to catch up to you eventually and difficult choices will have to be made. It’s fun, but once you have gone through the game once it’s simplistic combat and the more obnoxious features will leave you with little reason to return for a second round.

Gameplay score: 7.5/10

Low-poly, much lovey

Massive Chalice has a very striking art-style due to the decision to deliberately use an early-90’s 3D approach to modeling. Characters and scenery are visibly constructed from sharp polygons, invoking memories of PC games like Alone in the Dark, but with a much brighter and more colorful art-style. It’s not a limitation, so much as it’s a deliberate artistic choice, which shows in how great the characters can look and how beautiful the world is.

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I was particularly fond of the clothes and armors the characters wore, which looked really nice in this art-style. The acute angles on all the polygons really suits armor well, though it did make it somewhat hard to discern somebody’s gender. At times I found myself clicking through marriages and seriously wondering if I just married two dudes or two ladies. It’s a petty niggle, though it is worth mentioning you apparently can do that in this game. They won’t be able to breed children, but you will be able to have them adopt babies, which can be really useful if the couple has a lot of experience and traits to pass on.

The voice-acting for the Chalice is also neat, with Simon Templeman (Loghain from Dragon Age, Kain from Soul Reaver) doing the male voice and Anna Graves (Demon Hunter from Diablo 3, Caroline Becker from Wolfenstein 2009) doing the female one. While I do enjoy their well-written banter and the delivery is solid, it has to be said that across the entire game you’ll hear the same few lines with such frequency you’ll be able to recite them yourself before the end of it.

Presentation score: 8/10

Verdict

Massive Chalice has a great concept to it, but trying to find the right length was always going to be an issue. By taking 300 years and putting a healthy amount of break time between battles, the game doomed itself to leaving players disinterested in its characters. While they are beautifully animated and the voice actors do their best to lend some flavor to their fleeting lives, as the player you simply have too many heroes to work with and too little time to grow a fondness for any one of them. Choosing instead to focus on family management was a solid move and one that means Massive Chalice is at least still a fun game to play, even if it could have done with some more development on all fronts.

Strategy fans won’t be amazed with its features, but they and any gamer that happens to find the concept fun will almost certainly find the game entertaining enough to finish, but after that first round there is little to return to.

67/100

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