Friday eXcursion: Massive Chalice

Title Screen

The Odd Couple

Massive Chalice is a mixture of two of my favorite things: XCOM and Game of Thrones (both of the book and the TV variety). Sounds strange, right? Well, the game is exactly as strange as it sounds. Even stranger, it’s made by Double Fine, a developer mostly known for their quirky adventure games.. Well, they actually have an eclectic catalogue of games, including titles like Broken Age, Costume Age, Brutal Legend and Spacebase DF9. Still, it’s a motley crew of mostly well done – and always interesting – games. Massive Chalice fits right in with its lumps, bruises and occasional glimmers of brilliance.

Set in a grim fantasy world under attack, Massive Chalice begins with a unique story. You take control of the Immortal Ruler of the Nation, first given eternal life by two disembodied voices belonging to, yes, a Massive Chalice. That’s right, this Chalice truly is MASSIVE, taking up the entire wall of one end of a sizable audience chamber; and yes, a humorous older man and a similarly funny youthful woman speak from it, represented only by rays of light shooting out from one side of the chalice or the other (Holy Grail, anyone?). At this point I had questions like:  Should I capitalize Chalice by itself? Are these folks gods? Gods? Thanks, Double Fine, for this quandary! Nevertheless, this Chalice/chalice has chosen you – You? – to protect your nation from the Cadence, a mysterious enemy slowly encroaching upon your kingdom. As the Immortal Ruler you must lead your nation through the entirety of a 300-year campaign, building your infrastructure and growing your strength in order to finally take on the Cadence and win the war once and for all.

Meet the Massive Chalice

Meet the Massive Chalice

The animated introduction that drops all this strangeness on you is told through painted storyboards. The art of Massive Chalice is striking. It trades in the realism of both Game of Thrones and XCOM for a more colorful, offbeat, and somewhat impressionistic presentation. Every aspect of the game has been painted by the mad Double Fine brush, and it works. The soundtrack, composed by Brian Trifon and Brian Lee White, meshes well with the bizarre nature of the visuals, and makes for a great listen, even when you’re not playing the game. Plenty of churning drums and stirring violin are on hand. You can even check it out in its entirety for free on the Massive Chalice page (scroll to the bottom).

Where the smart heroes go to die

Where the smart heroes go to die.

Game of Thrones Strategy

I love Game of Thrones. The series of books, now up to five books and counting (slowly), is known collectively as A Song of Ice and Fire, written by G.R.R. Martin (or, if you’re a South Park fan, grrrrrr Martin). HBO bravely took on the series and distilled the books into a damned fine television adaptation. If you’re not familiar with the books or the HBO series, both tell the ongoing, labyrinthine tale of many different houses allying, betraying and warring with one another.

The houses in Game of Thrones are nations, each with family rulers, unique crests and personal mottos. As the Immortal Ruler of the Nation in Massive Chalice, you are in charge of an assortment of such houses. Initially you are able to choose (or have the game choose for you) five houses. Each one is differentiated by unique flags, last names, founding rulers, Keep name, mottos and battlecries. There are a ton of houses to choose from, divided alphabetically, and you can search through them at the outset. I spent an inordinate amount of time finding just the exact houses I wanted, some of them serious, some of them not-so-serious. I even found one nation with a Keep sporting my last name. Good stuff.

Keep name Massey, woot - I win

Keep name Massey, woot – I win.

Much like XCOM, Massive Chalice is split into two modes: strategic and tactical. The strategic mode is played out on a small map of the nation. You build Keeps, Buildings and Sagewrights Guilds in the different zones. The inner zones, which are less likely to come under attack from the Cadence, offer a decent passive bonus. The outer zones, however, offer bigger bonuses but are more likely to find themselves under attack as the Cadence slowly eats away at your nation from all sides.

The strategic mode is fairly simple but does create a sense of tension and, occasionally, interesting dilemmas – as you can build only one building in each zone. Keeps contain your noble houses and enable you to further bloodlines (and create new heroes to defend your nation) by appointing regents of different classes. The Crucible contains a Standard, also appointed by you, who grants experience to all heroes over time and also has the chance to spread Personality traits (more on this later). Lastly, the Sagewright Guild houses up to three appointed heroes who speed up research. Mostly, you want to build Keeps to keep your bloodlines alive, but if you choose to build your Crucible in an outer zone because it had an awesome bonus and then lose it at year 200, good luck winning!

Building a keep on the strategic map

Building a keep on the strategic map.

Yes, you heard that right, you can lose zones, kinda like losing country support in XCOM. The Cadence attacks every ten years or so, usually in a number of locations, but your Vanguard of up to five heroes can only defend one at a time. Each of the ten zones has a Cadence level of zero through three. Successful attacks raise this level. If you manage to defend a zone the Cadence level in that zone falls. Once a zone reaches level three it’s overcome by the Cadence and disappears into the surrounding Cadence goop forever.

After you’ve made your decisions you click on the “play” arrow next to the timeline above your nation and time progresses. Some events, like births, just appear on the timeline; others, like deaths, require your intervention, including events like new marriages, hero appointments to the Crucible and the Sagewright Guild, and research choices.

Research unlocks each of the three building types. It also offers options for discovering new weapons, armor, items, abilities, and nation boosts like increased fertility. There are also named weapons that pass down from generation to generation and level up through the years, which is a neat, persistent touch in a world based almost entirely on impermanence. Also, it seems impossible to research everything in the allotted 300 years, unless maybe you cripple your nation with half a dozen Sagewright Guilds, but I wouldn’t recommend it. You’d look real smart with all of your maximized weapons, armors and weapons without a single hero to wield them. Or, hell, maybe it works, the game gives you the choice to build your nation however you want, which is one of its strengths. For my playthrough, it seemed like sustaining your keeps was the most important strategic decision. You can’t fight a war without heroes, right?

Not looking so good just before the final battle

Not looking so good just before the final battle…

XCOM Tactics

I love XCOM. I lost so much sleep playing the original when it was released. I mean the original, UFO Defense, not the 2012 reboot. Which, I suppose, is actually X-COM with a hyphen instead of the newly minted XCOM, but we’ll keep rolling with the latter.  

[Random aside: My first UFO Defense game was played completely cooperatively. It was kind of amazing. Both the strategic and tactical modes were enriched by the addition of a buddy. These sorts of games need more cooperative play, especially with the improved modern online play. Anyway, a friend and I sat for hours playing every night, making decisions together, splitting up our squads between us, coming up with our own unique names for those doomed squaddies. It was a hoot.]

Shadowjack doing some work

Shadowjack doing some work

Moving on, Massive Chalice takes the power of this customization one step further; however, in this case, genetics takes the wheel. VROOM!

There are three main classes: Caberjack, Hunter, and Alchemist. The Caberjack is a big warrior sporting a massive log as a weapon. The Hunter is a ranged specialist. The Alchemist rocks some nasty claws but is named after the explosive, grenade-like concoctions he (or she) loves to toss onto his (or her) enemies. Heroes also marry and the combination of classes gives their offspring different classes with different abilities, depending on who is the regent of a keep and who is the partner. Same sex coupling is also possible, and adoption too!

If a Hunter marries an Alchemist the babies will grow up to be cowboys… I mean, err, Trickshots. If a Caberjack marries a Caberjack, well, they have more Caberjacks! Silly genetics… A Caberjack and an Alchemist, though? Blastcapper! It’s an interesting system, but I found that, by the mid – to late game I was very reliant on the ranged classes capable of stealth. It was nice, occasionally, to have a heavy around when some muscle was needed. Sometimes the “teleporter” goes wrong and will deposit your Vanguard in the middle of a pack of baddies, and stealth is not an early option. Oh yes, Double Fine, I see through your ruse…

What happens when the teleporter goes bad

What happens when the teleporter goes bad.

Second, heroes differ according to their various traits, personalities, and even their current status. For example, one trait is Sickly, which gives that hero decreased max HP, or Clumsy, which hinders the hero’s dexterity. They’re not all bad, though. Brainy increases your hero’s intelligence, but my favorite is when one of my characters is constantly Drunk on the battlefield. There’s even an achievement titled “Drunken Master.” To earn it you have to kill five enemies in a single battle with a drunken member of your Vanguard. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but a fun achievement. Anyway, these differences can be passed down from generation to generation and also spread from hero to hero if you have a specific hero with bad (or, hopefully, good) traits in charge of the Crucible.

Unfortunately, action on the field of battle doesn’t match the depth and excitement of the customization system. The tactical combat isn’t bad, per se, but it quickly begins to wear thin. The Unofficial Shortlist of Shortcomings: The maps are small and often tactically uninteresting – there is no cover system, for example, other than basic line-of-sight and the option to hide in foliage from time to time. For better or worse there’s plenty of RNG, which rarely seemed to favor my team, but isn’t that how it always goes? (Yes, I’m looking at you XCOM.) Regrettably, there are only seven different enemy types. As you progress, they grow stronger and receive new abilities, but after only a dozen battles the opposition isn’t all that interesting, you’ll have seen it all. And there’s no overwatch feature, which I miss.

As for the enemy AI, it is terrible. It’s easy to stay just out of range and pick them off while they wander around aimlessly, probably too dumb to even question the arrows in their heads. Seriously, you can fire ranged shots at melee characters across an open chasm and – even though there’s a route around to your ranged units to one side or the other – the baddies will just wander back and forth, confused. It is more interesting when some of the scenarios force you into close proximity from the very start, but only because you rarely have the option to hide or run. You’re just overwhelmed.

Choosing your Vanguard

Choosing your Vanguard.

Occasionally a Keep is attacked by the Cadence. These scenarios are a bit more interesting, in theory, forcing your regent and partner to personally defend their throne from the Cadence while your Vanguard makes its way across the map to their rescue. Unfortunately, if your royal couple can find a good spot to stealth up and hide for the duration, they won’t even have to fight. They can hide all the way until help arrives, turning what should be one of the most tense, strategic moments of the game into a snoozefest.

Nonetheless, the tactical combat is tied together nicely with a simple, smart interface. I really like how you can hover your movement cursor anywhere and see icons on the enemies noting whether they can see you and if you’re able to fire on them. Takes a lot of the guesswork out of the planning, and would be great to see this used in other similar games.

Not How the Strangeness Makes Sense, But When

My relationship with Massive Chalice across the 20 hours it took me to finish up my first playthrough was a tumultuous one. It began with interest and a love for both the low poly art and the music. This is typical with the Double Fine games I’ve played. They have wonderful people behind their art and music design. I loved the banter from the man and woman in the Chalice as they taught me the basics of the strategic and tactical play. The initial learning curve was short and enjoyable. Learning to take advantage of the generational system was a bit more tedious, but I still found it enjoyable.

Then, somewhere around 150 game years into the 300 year game length, I started to feel the grind. Aside from upgraded items and enemies, I felt like I’d seen most of what the game had to offer. I could only stomach a battle or two at a time before I would wander off to play something different. I kept coming back, but I visited less and less often. When I was about 50 years from the final battle, though, the strategic aspects of the game started to weigh on me. I was beginning to lose territory to the Cadence. Would I have enough troops to defeat the final battle? Would my Vanguard be experienced enough? My soldiers were starting to drop like flies. Was my research strong enough? The battles became more meaningful. And then the final battle kicked my ass. To say it was tough would be an understatement, and it had an awesome twist that I did not see coming. Maybe it was made implicit and I missed it, but knowing the twist before the final battle would have been useful. But I wasn’t bitter. Everything clicked while I watched the final credits roll. I immediately wanted to start a new playthrough.

A week passed, however, and I still had not started another game. And I don’t think I will. There’s a lot to like, but the occasional brilliant bits aren’t worth the drudgery of another 300 year journey. It was a decent experience but not one I’m likely to repeat.

Cya next time sucka

Choosing your Vanguard

TL;DR: Massive Chalice might just be a great game. It offers fanciful aesthetics, interesting generational progression and a beast of a final battle. However, it’s also marred by an often tepid strategic mode, lackluster tactical battles and woefully stupid AI. Still, it’s one of the more unique strategy games I’ve played in a while and those that can overlook the flaws may find a unique, rewarding experience. Or, if you’re like me, Massive Chalice is a one-and-done, time to move on.

You Might Like This Game If:

  • A Game of Thrones/XCOM mashup sparks your imagination.
  • You love marriage sims and very interesting offspring.
  • You don’t mind RNG.

You Might Not Like This Game If:

  • If you’re looking for the tactical depth of XCOM.
  • You like deeper, more complicated strategy games.
  • You really don’t care for RNG.

Chris has played this game 20+ hours on an Intel Core i7-4790 CPU (3.60GHz), 12GB RAM, nVidia 4GB GTX 745.

2 replies »

  1. I actually quite enjoyed the strategic combat… at first. The low AI is fine in a bug hunt. What matters is difficulty, and lots of dumb bugs is fine. That setup can be just as challenging as fighting smart AI, because it openly acknowledges that a human is smarter and that you’ll have to exploit the AIs flaws to win. And after all, that’s what you do in XCom when you worry about triggering waves… might as well acknowledge it and openly build it into the system.

    I also really appreciated the forced movement system, which leveraged simple rules (throw one but at another bug to hurt both bugs and line up area effect attacks) to create tactical complexity.

    That being said, there’s just so MUCH of it. It did eventually get boring. Things picked up in the end and I’m glad I played overall, but once I ran a successful playthrough I didn’t want to play again- I wanted to design a game that used the best ideas from Massive Chalice, but used them better. I actually filled up a few notebook pages with my own MC inspired tactical combat game. That was as much or more fun as the game itself.

    I would heartily recommend buying this at discount and running one successful playthrough. It’s worth that experience. But I don’t think most players will keep coming back.


  2. Great article! ;)

    I played a few hours of Massive Chalice but was utterly disappointed.

    The strategic game was way too agonizing for me. I simply couldn’t get interested in caring about all the various genetic quirks and traits and trying to finagle together different combinations of parents to produce genetically superior offspring (gosh – that sounds a lot like Eugenics …. shudder….). There was an overload of stats and statistics that I just didn’t care a lick about. In concept it was cool – in practice it was headache inducing for me.

    The tactical combat was interesting, but coming off my time with Age of Wonders 3 it just felt utterly, utterly lacking. And after a dozen battles, utterly repetitive.

    Maybe I ruined by motivation to get to the end of the game because I knew about the “secret twist” of the final battle. And knowing that I had no real desire to play the game and work towards that.

    I love the concept – but I really didn’t care for the actual experience of playing it.



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