Double Fine’s second Xbox One outing also marks their second attempt at a crowd funded Kickstarter project. Massive Chalice sees the studio return to turn based gaming, after the well received Costume Quest titles, but into the unfamiliar waters of tactical strategy and it is clear to see just how much the likes of XCOM have influenced it’s development.
Massive Chalice places you on the seat of power as ruler of a kingdom surrounded and besieged by the Cadence, the game‘s evil monster legions. The Chalice the game is named after is capable of purging the Cadence completely, the catch is that it will take a daunting 300 years of your kingdom being attacked before the Chalice has gathered the energy to perform it. You are tasked with managing multiple elements of your kingdom and remotely commanding 5 person teams of heroes on the battlefield to try and stop the spread of the Cadence and buy the Chalice the time that it needs.
Your heroes are split into 3 signature classes. Caberjacks are the game’s melee specialists attacking enemies with 2 handed rams. Hunters, as expected, are the archer class attacking predominantly from afar and Alchemists that are blessed with flask that causes area damage like grenades. These classes can also be somewhat mixed using the game’s “breeding” mechanic to produce hybrid versions of each.
Combat takes place on randomly generated maps and uses a system that will be instantly recognisable to XCOM players. Each character has a movement range and attack options based on whether they stay within the closer orange movement area or “sprint” into a wider white outlined range at the potential cost of being able to take an instant second attack move (unless an enemy is visible and within range). Enemies are hidden within the standard strategy game’s fog of war and can use head high obstructions to hide themselves or their movement from view. Sadly, despite all the depth in the game away from the battlefield, the combat feels somewhat lacking. The system itself screams tactics yet in Massive Chalice there is no flanking or rear attack benefits at all removing a large part of what made the likes of XCOM’s combat so successful.
Cadence enemy types are slightly more varied than your heroes and are able to pose a number of interesting problems. While Seed and Lapses form the early game enemy types with minor nuisance melee and ranged attacks you are quickly introduced to Ruptures that will explode upon defeat or by close range suicide causing a corrosive pool of acid to appear, making damage free movement an issue. When you consider the game uses a permadeath system it is arguably one of the game’s weakest enemies in terms of damage output that becomes the game’s most terrifying. The accurately named “Wrinkler,” while weak, ages a hero by 5 years per hit. With the implications that age has in Massive Chalice they become arguably the priority target each time they appear. With this amount of tactical diversity it really does beg the question of why some of the most fundamental tactical turn based elements are missing.
The key to surviving the 300 year game cycle to purge the Cadence is more than simply being good or lucky on the battlefield. Your heroes’ stats are affected by a number of random factors beyond simple attack/defence stats and hitpoints but also by personality traits both positive and negative that can help or hinder as well as striking without warning during each battle. For example some positive traits include “spry” which provides the hero with an agile character that takes less of a negative hit as they hit their later years, or “quick study” allowing them greater XP at a faster rate. Traits can also be problematic however with possible negative traits such as “heart disease” giving them a reduced lifespan or “asthmatic” that reduces next turn movement after using sprint. While these are random you can swing the odds of less negative traits in your favor through the game’s breeding system.
The game allows you to “research” a wide range of improvements. One of the options is to place castle keeps into a territory. These territories can then be given a regent and a partner from your roster of heroes (including the option of same sex partnerships). The 2 heroes then produce children, that will inherit the roles of their parents, or a blend of the two if the parents have different roles. Use two heroes with good personality and trait stats and the offspring are more likely to be stronger as they age and join the hero talent pool at the age of 15. You can choose to recruit randomly via the chalice itself but that requires research time that you can scarcely afford to spare. It’s a clever mechanic for boosting the size of your forces instead of the traditional purchase method. It also can make that initial regent choice a careful balancing act of risk versus only potential reward. Do you remove that cornerstone of your fighting force with high fertility and hope he produces the goods in terms of quality offspring, or do you keep him on the battlefield in favor of one with less favorable stats and hope to uncover a gem or two?
Choice really is the element that will make or break each play through. Beyond breeding, each Cadence attack will force you to choose which territory to defend, much like XCOM’s panic system. In turn, each territory has a 3 strike system where, if you continue to leave a region to fend for itself, you will lose it to the Cadence for the rest of the save. If this wasn’t enough for you the game will also periodically throw random text based multiple choice scenarios at you, that can be crippling for even the most careful of players. These events take a variety of forms from allowing one of your heroes to go on a journey for a set number of years, to providing marriage guidance options to a regent and their partner. The problem here is that there isn’t a right or wrong option and dependant on the chance percentages tied to your ruling you can be as equally likely to wreck your best laid plans as you are to be rewarded greatly. For example with the marriage guidance event, if you choose to talk to them personally their is an equal chance of both heroes gaining the patriotic trait giving battle boosts, as they are to become “passionless” reducing the chance of producing offspring. For that event alone from your 3 listed choices there are a staggering 9 possible outcomes.
On the surface the game looks and plays like a stripped back fantasy version of XCOM. Graphically simplistic but functional, music that lacks the Hans Zimmer style epicness in favor of unobtrusive background accompaniment, the same tough choices made in research in order to try and gain the slightest advantage in your struggle, the enemy attacking multiple territories at once forcing you to choose which one needs your help most. It really feels like it is taken straight from the XCOM 101 playbook. It’s unique features such as the breeding system feel fresh and require the sort of attention that can make it more enjoyable that the core combat.