Love them or hate them, you can’t fault Double Fine for a lack of variety. While recently, their point-and-click adventure Broken Age has gotten plenty of attention, that’s not the only Double Fine title worth checking out these days. Massive Chalice, yet another Kickstarter endeavor, is a turn-based strategy game along the lines of XCOM: Enemy Unknown that takes Double Fine in a new direction.
Massive Chalice casts you as the ruler of magnificent kingdom. Well, formerly magnificent. The kingdom’s being besieged from all sides by a dark power known as the Cadence, an insidious force that devours the land itself when it’s not spawning monsters to gobble up citizens. You’ve got the help of a, well, Massive Talking Chalice on your side, and this uber-cup contains the power to eventually banish the Cadence from the land, but it’ll need time to charge up and you’ll have to hold the beasts off in the meantime. Cadence monsters are capable of slaying the average person with a single touch, so you can’t fight back with just anyone. You’re going to need heroes.
Heroes come from heroic bloodlines, allowing them to resist the fatal touch of the Cadence, though a good beating will put them down same as anyone else. They’re still human, though, and they aren’t going to live forever. That means that part of your job as a ruler is studying your heroes’ compatibility and pairing up partners who can bear children. Much like the Vita’s Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines, there’s a genetic system at play that determines how children turn out, so that’s another thing to keep in mind. Finally, as mentioned, heroes are mortal and will eventually pass on from old age, assuming the Cadence doesn’t kill them first. Elderly heroes are much weaker in combat and may be better served training up the new blood. Remember how I said the Chalice was going to take awhile to charge up before eliminating the Cadence? Yeah, that’s being measured in hundreds of years. You can expect to go through many generations of heroes before your job’s through.
There are a few classes of Hero available and, as you might expect, a decent mix is valuable in combat. Caberjacks are mighty warriors wielding giant logs, which they use to smack the Cadence around. It’s not subtle, but it works. Hunters use enormous shoulder-mounted crossbows for ranged attacks; they tend to deal the most damage of your team, but are also very frail. Finally, Alchemists wield a claw-like weapon that does decent melee damage and can also be used to fling toxic vials around. These characters serve as a sort of hybrid, offering both melee and ranged capabilities while not excelling at either, along with giving you some area-of-effect damage. Heroes will level up over time, gaining skill points that can be in spent in an XCOM-style limited skill tree.
Paired characters’ children will result in a pure version of one of these classes if both characters were the same class. However, if the two parents were different classes, you’ll end up with hybrids. These can be good or bad – Shadowjacks are stealthy Caberjacks resulting from hybridization with a Hunter, for instance, and it’s up to your strategy if this ability is worth their decreased melee output and durability. Hybrid classes usually end up with a skill tree that’s got a little from one side and a little from the other, so they can vary significantly in effectiveness. You’ll want to carefully select your vanguard before going into combat.
Frankly, though, careful planning might not always have a choice. Massive Chalice is a game about working with what you’ve got, not what you wish you had. Time is painfully short in pretty much every way, and Cadence attacks always seem to arrive at the worst possible moment. As a ruler, you’re going to have to force your heroes – who, I’ll remind you, have dedicated their lives to you and put themselves on the line whenever you ask – into loveless marriages of convenience for breeding purposes. If they’re infertile or too incompatible with the rest of your force, you might just force them into Massive Chalice’s version of a nunnery to live out the rest of their days researching in solitude. As a general, you’re going to find yourself fielding characters who are too old for combat or too inexperienced to fight safely, or entering battles with woefully imbalanced vanguard compositions.
Even when you do make it to the battlefield, you’re not just going to run roughshod over easy prey. The Cadence have a wide and varied array of units to field against your heroes. Even the basic Seed foot soldier, for instance, is capable of draining your heroes’ health in melee. A particular “favorite,” such as it were, was the Lapse – a sort of headless banshee that does significant damage at range and drains experience points, making it an obvious early target in any confrontation. The variety of opposition you face helps keep the game fresh.
This is not, as you might have surmised, a happy game. It tends toward the stressful, actually. People are going to die. They’re going to die a lot and it’s not always going to be the Cadence that kills them. You’re often presented with decisions to make in your capacity as a ruler, and these don’t tend to go as planned, resulting in your populace hating you and your heroes deserting. Finally, yet again like XCOM, you can’t be everywhere at once. It’s possible to fight off the Cadence…from one location at a time, meaning that eventually you’re going to lose territory because there’s just too much to defend. Oh, and you’re doing all this while trying to also manage marriages between heroes. Have fun.
The bleak outlook saturating Massive Chalice makes the odd spot of Double Fine charm here and there feel more than a bit out of place. The Chalice cracks jokes fairly often, for instance, which is endearing early on and kind of awkward later when your beloved heroes are being eaten by horrific extradimensional monsters. Some of the Cadence are actually kind of cute, even. It’s not all darkness and gloom….at least if you don’t think about it too hard. Part of your job as a ruler is to try and do the right thing to keep spirits up, as it’s made clear early on that the Cadence feed on negative emotions and allowing darkness to rule the land is only going to make your job harder.
The overall presentation here is a sort of rough cel-shaded look. The graphics aren’t anything to write home about, but there’s a unique aesthetic and the hero and monster designs are all interesting enough to keep you going. It’s an easy enough game to get into as well, though there’s an annoying tendency toward asking you to confirm actions a little too often, and if you misclick you can’t just click elsewhere to cancel – you have to tell the game “NO” directly before trying again. While not a dealbreaker, it’s the sort of minor annoyance that tends to come up in Double Fine’s games and suggests that a couple more months with non-backer play-testers wouldn’t have hurt.
XCOM fans are used to the sort of tough decision-making that lies behind every part of Massive Chalice. Hardcore Double Fine fans most likely ponied up the cash for their copy via the game’s successful Kickstarter campaign. For those groups, Massive Chalice is an easy recommendation, and anyone else who can deal with the difficulty is likely to find something to enjoy here. Just don’t get too attached to your heroes – they probably won’t be sticking around long.