Double Fine Productions has changed their focus in recent years. After creating a couple of critically well regarded games which failed to sell well, Tim Schafer and his merry band of game developers began creating smaller games at a more rapid (and presumably less expensive to produce) pace. They have been experimenting with genre, game platform and financing method and producing some very interesting results. Their latest game, Massive Chalice, received funds via Kickstarter and was released on Steam and Xbox One on June 1st.
Massive Chalice is a tactical, turn-based RPG with some interesting, experimental twists. The game plays out over a set time table of three hundred years, which is the time it will take for the eponymous chalice to charge up and push back the evil of the Cadence, a nasty brood of strange outsiders who attack with a variety of weird abilities. The player plays as an immortal ruler of the land, and makes decisions regarding what to build, what technology to develop, and even which subjects should couple up and produce then raise offspring. The last part is the most interesting, as with a proper eugenics program players can create hybrid classes and try to breed for certain traits that might be helpful in the tactical game.
The atmosphere of the game is spot on. Everything is rendered in dark, rich melancholic tones and the music, ambient sound and voice acting all combine to create a cosmetically immersive world that is informed by generic fantasy tropes but freshens them up with a sense of creativity and whimsy.
Beyond the ephemeral aspects of the game, however, there is not much to the world. The story is never well explained; why is there an immortal ruler who gets to tell people who they marry? Why is there a Massive Chalice that talks to this immortal leader with two different voices? Why are the Cadence so hell bent on destroying the entire land including the Chalice? The lack of structured narrative works well in some regards. It leaves the story of the conflict and the drama of the individual battles up to the player’s imagination, but it still feels like the game is missing a critical component.
The designs for the characters, including the armor and weapons, do a great job of making the three types of units distinguishable on the battlefield, but lead to some other issues which can make gameplay unnecessarily difficult. Units come in three basic types: Alchemists who throw flasks to do damage over an area and have a decent melee attack, Caberjacks who use huge battering rams to deal big melee damage, and Hunters who wield over the shoulder crossbows for ranged attacks. As players upgrade armor and get more options, the cosmetic of the unit changes so it’s easy to tell differently equipped characters apart on the battlefield. However, different hybrid classes are distinguished by different skill loadouts which are impossible to identify at a glance. It’s necessary to check the skill loadout for each character of that type, slowing down combat.
Because the characters are so small on the screen, giving each individual his or her own look would be silly. However, because the game deals with family bloodlines over the span of the three hundred year timeline, it would be nice to have better ways of distinguishing the various families from one another. A lot of the skin tones and facial designs look very similar. It would have been nice if some of these aspects had been pushed further; since we’re dealing with a fantasy world why not have people with bright red or green skin? The similar look of the characters also makes it hard to get deeply invested in the fates of the various families, and investment has to take place on the level of a bloodline rather than an individual character because characters die frequently of old age or misadventure.
Since the game is a tactical turn-based strategy game, combat on a grid is really the main point of the game. In this regard, the game plays well. The user interface is clear and issuing commands is simple enough. The camera is flexible, allowing player to rotate perspective and zoom in and out as necessary. The difficulty curve seems off a bit, but that could also be attributed to the open structure of the breeding aspect of the game. New enemy units are introduced gradually, but at about two-thirds of the way through the timeline advanced units start popping up. These versions of the standard Cadence units seem to hit shockingly harder, and become much more difficult to damage.
The breeding program is the linchpin of the game. It is complex and flexible and gives players a lot of freedom to mold the game in interesting and unpredictable ways. Unfortunately, that freedom also means that players have the ability to paint themselves into a corner without a clear way to get out. In my first play through, by the time I reached the later part of the game I had accidentally bred most of the Caberjacks out of existence so I had more or less lost an entire tool from my toolbelt.
The save system in the game is generous, allowing players to save more or less at any point. However, since the breeding can take years to yield results it becomes tough to figure out what decision lead to things going awry. At some point, it seems wiser to just try to tough it out to the end of the three hundred years then to lose a few hours worth of game play trying to undo breeding or tech research mistakes to find the problem. There is also an option for IRON mode, which takes away the option for multiple saves.
Massive Chalice is a very interesting twist on tactical RPGs, but the lack of a structured story and individual characters to get really invested in means players really have to love the methodical, tactical components of combat and plotting out breeding and technological development over the course of generations.
My first playthrough took around eleven hours. I made it all the way to 295 out of 300 years, but the last 100 were basically a chain of defeats as decisions I made earlier in the game lead to an ill-prepared stable of warriors. Ten hours feels like a big time investment to learn the basics of the game and have an idea of what I need to prioritize early in the game in order to succeed in the later game. Some players may thrive on a gameplay-focused, concentration demanding tactical combat RPG with a steep learning curve. It didn’t turn out to be my cup (chalice?) of tea, but if you’ve played please speak up in the comments section below and let us know what you thought.
GAMEPLAY - 7 The tactics are fun, but the difficulty curve can be brutal especially if early decisions paint you into a corner that there’s no clear way out of. The end game can be a miserable slog to the finish line for players who don’t plan ahead.
VISUALS AND SOUND - 8 Massive Chalice takes what could potentially be a generic fantasy setting and creates something melancholic and charming at the same time. The sights and sounds pick up a lot of the slack left by the lack of story.
LONGEVITY - 7 This is a game designed to be played repeatedly to experiment with different combinations of technology and class skills. Getting through the first play through to learn some of the hard lessons of the game might prove a barrier to some players, but those with the time and patience to learn will find a lot to love.
POLISH - 8 There was one game crashing bug that I came across during gameplay which was addressed on the official forums for the game where the developer said they’re working on a patch. Otherwise, the game ran well, looked and sounded great, and did everything I expected it to do. That does not mean, however, that some of my heroes didn’t fall victim to friendly fire.
VALUE - 7 It’s not an expensive game, but it’s also a somewhat experimental game. Players looking for a lot of story might find more satisfaction elsewhere, but the gameplay is solid and repeated playthroughs will yield a variety of experiences.
OVERALL SCORE 7.5
- Fun tactical combat
- Create hybrid classes
- Cool armor and weapon design (a battering ram that can knock enemies through time?)
- Early decisions can make the game very difficult
- No real structured narrative
- No reason to get invested in individual characters