Throughout my history as a gamer I’ve often found myself magnetized to games with intricate and well thought systems. Naturally, I became addicted to turn based-strategy games at first glance. Yet over the past few generations of systems, I can hardly recall more than a handful of titles that truly feel like special and important landmarks within the genre. I find it difficult to break-away from some of my more traditional standbys (Final Fantasy Tactics, XCOM, Disgaea) within the tactical RPG space, but I always welcome new contenders. Having indulged in Massive Chalice, I now feel confident positioning it amongst the greats.
From the depths of Kickstarter, Massive Chalice emerged behind the veteran development team Double Fine Productions. The premise is simple, you are to lead the way in a 300 year war against The Cadence, fought by heroes from your family lines. Though it may sound reductive, Massive Chalice is exactly what you get when you cross XCOM: Enemy Unkown and the world of Game of Thrones
Right off the bat Massive Chalice will ask you to choose five banners to lead your efforts against the enemy. Each of these banners has a particular sigil, name, and will offer you a bloodline of heroes, should you choose to assign them into a keep. The differences are only cosmetic at first, but each family will also carry unique personalities, traits, and their own form of legacy which you are left to control as their ruler. Massive Chalice also let’s you choose whether you want the names to be serious or silly. While that does not change much, I do appreciate titles that include small things like using silly names drawn from the community to enhance replay value. Once you’ve made your choices, you are off to discover the wonders of your kingdom and what it takes to keep it safe from impending doom.
The kingdom of Massive Chalice is sliced up into ten pieces surrounding your capital. Within each piece you can choose to build a keep to progress a family and breed heroes, a guild to aid research, or a crucible to help train heroes on a nationwide scale. Each of the five areas on the outer ring of the map offer a perk to aid your progress, but are subject to numerous attacks. The inner set of five regions offer no such advantage but remain safely tucked away from attacks within the outlying territory. Much like XCOM, multiple areas of your kingdom will be threatened at once, and force you to choose whether or not the reward and perceived risk is worth the fight. The area that’s been neglected will then receiving a corruption counter, and will be lost once three counts of corruption are present. Defending an area that is already corrupt will help reduce the amount of counters, but events events outside of combat may inflict or reduce more at any given time. Massive Chalice is built to place your kingdom in peril, and losses are at times, completely unavoidable. However, you are often able to make due with less than you might anticipate.
When it comes to heroes, Massive Chalice starts you off with a basic choice of three types of classes: a Hunter (ranged combat), an Alchemist (items/explosives), and a Caberjack (brute). Let’s say you have a male Caberjack named Dargus McDargus who you promote to regent of your keep. You will then choose a partner in marriage for Dargus from your remaining group of heroes. If you choose to marry Dargus to a female Hunter, the resulting McDargus children will be trained into warriors of a new class called Shadowjacks that offer perks from a mix of both Hunters and Caberjacks. The arranged marriages allow for a surprisingly deep level of unique combinations that can both help (if the genes are good) or hinder (if their parents are idiots) you in battle. All of the subsequent McDargus children’s personalities and traits will be influenced by their parents until one of them is needed to take the throne once your regent (Dargus McDargus) dies. And death is something that will happen a lot in Massive Chalice. So, it’s always important to take into consideration what and who you are breeding to get the best line of future heroes possible. The entire legacy system takes some getting used to, but does a great job of keeping battles fresh throughout the campaign. There are instances when you find yourself desperately trying to have or adopt children to carry on a family that’s been decimated by loss. While the ever rotating cast of heroes may seem relatively punitive at first, I thought it was one of the downright coolest themes for character curation I’ve ever seen in a game. I found myself absolutely loving it after a few generations had passed.
On the battlefield, Massive Chalice plays somewhat like you’d expect. It’s fairly standard tactical gameplay at first glance, but is teeming with small things that make it stand out. For starters, none of the enemies in Massive Chalice have basic attacks. The overwhelming majority of items, weapons, and armor you research all have unique abilities, including relic weapons that are passed down through a family and level up as you gain kills. It was enough to make me want to try new things, and prioritize (either age or XP) who took the kill when multiple heroes where within striking distance. The different enemy types also changed how I employed my defensive tactics, as different foes posed different threats. Lapses don’t just hit you, they level down your character by stealing their XP, while Wrinklers age your character five years in addition to inflicting combat damage. It can be a challenge to overcome the odds, or just to not leave a battle completely devastated, but it all operates on a learning curve. It’s also important to take every loss with a grain of salt. I often approached different enemies with new equipment and classes to find much greater success. In fact, I reached a point halfway through Massive Chalice where I was down to my last five heroes, and by the end, I had an entire army worth of well-trained warriors at my disposal. There are times when your Vanguard (AKA party of heroes) will team up to defend a keep and be fighting alongside the regent and his or her partner. Those moments were some of my favorites in Massive Chalice, because the head of a family was at risk of death and the stakes always seemed very high.
The overall graphical and tonal style of Massive Chalice are very reminiscent of Double Fine’s other work. The visuals are stylized, albeit somewhat basic. The dialogue is subtly humorous and not without their typical charm. I was generally pleased with their choice of artistic design throughout, but it’s not anything that will cause your jaw to drop. Which I think is appropriate for a crowdfunded game that manages to excel in so many other areas.
Despite being totally smitten with Massive Chalice, there are a few areas where it could definitely improve. I truly appreciate the amount of attention and refinement all the strategic elements received. I only wish the character models were as varied as their descriptions. The random events that popped up in between battles were fun but seemed to have more adverse effects than not (by a landslide) during my playthrough. Some of the late game research becomes available at a time where I no longer found it necessary but would've been incredibly useful earlier. The final level is long and requires the right loadout more than it does skill. On top of that it holds back some information that essentially forced me to replay it, going from a grind it out loss to a near landslide win. It seemed more unbalanced than any other portion of the game, but still managed to be enjoyable once I knew how it was set up.
In the end, Massive Chalice completely impressed me with it's creativity and strategic layering to nearly every decision I made. It's not a game with many flaws, but one that I would have trouble recommending to anyone not suited for that style of game considering it's easiest mode is still quite a challenge. However, it will satiate absolute diehard strategy fans, and the thirty hours I spent playing it felt like they flew by. Massive Chalice is without a doubt a Coolguy Jones on the Game Awry Review Scale. It's an elite strategy game, that could use a bit of polish. Much like Game of Thrones and XCOM, it can be unabashedly ruthless at times, but those with the right amount of patience and skill will find an experience worth diving into over and over again.