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MASSIVE CHALICE: Moderate Impressions

Big Cup: Some Words

MASSIVE CHALICE (their capitals, not mine) is a Kickstarted strategy-roleplaying game from Psychnoauts, Costume Quest and Broken Age dev Double Fine. (Yes, they do seem to be chucking out a game every other week right now, and not without casualties.) Set in a fantasy kingdom besieged by demonic forces, you must raise and then control a defensive army, ideally sourced from the offspring of your best fighters. I've spent some time with the 'premium backer beta.'

Disclaimer: These impressions are based on an early, beta build of MASSIVE CHALICE. Everything they mention is subject to change by the time of release.

SEXCOM! The joke came true after all! Sure, the sex is implied only by the arrival of babies, and that happens only because of arranged and probably loveless marriages, but still: XCOM-like strategy game with sex in it! Theoretically.

I hadn't followed Massive Chalice at all, as that period of time was very much Too Many Kickstarters and I'd felt a powerful need to look at things I could actually play instead, and this meant the vague impression I'd had of it was of a sort of heraldic roleplaying game. I took a look at the premium backer builder this week (I'm not a backer, but Double Fine sent over a code) and was initially surprised to find that, well, it's heraldic XCOM. Maybe a little too XCOM in some ways, and maybe not enough XCOM in others, but there's definitely something to it.

I don't know that 'but does it feel like a Double Fine game?' is an appropriate question to ask, as tempting as it is to do so. When we say Double Fine game, we're thinking 'Psychonauts' but what we really mean is 'primarily a comedy.' Most Double Fine games are comic to varying degrees, but they've splintered into many different sorts of projects of late - sadly the majority of which have underwhelmed despite great ambition. It is, however, true to say that this is perhaps the least comedic DF game to date, with the possible exception of the ill-fated Spacebase DF-9. There are a pair of unseen advisors who quip and bicker on occasion, but it's very low key stuff, and deliberately so.

Other than that, this is straight-laced. There are places where gags could have been inserted, particularly in the genetic traits your soldiers pass down to their offspring, but in that regard it chooses to lean towards statistics rather than go down the Rogue Legacy (i.e very silly inherited traits) route. Massive Chalice is almost solemn most of the time. Perhaps I'd like to see a little more character from my characters - for instance, marriage is just a button on a menu - though I much prefer it this way than to have my turn-based strategising be soundtracked by manic chatter.

Let's get back to what Massive Chalice is, rather than what it isn't. It's turn-based squad battles, interspersed with what's essentially a base-building mode where time and implied regal nookie are the key resources. New soldiers can be recruited from off the map, as it were, but what you're primarily up to in base building mode is getting your best units to sprog so that you've got an ongoing supply of trusted rookies to replace those who perish out in the field or from old age.

What Massive Chalice is really doing is approaching XCOM from an alternative angle, which entails exploring how to do more with players' attachment to their units. In XCOM, you can become over-protective of your most-valued soldiers, and by hook or by crook wind up taking them all the way to the endgame without experiencing the crushing horror of seeing them die. In Massive Chalice, there is no escaping death.

As the years (measured in seconds in 'base' mode) wear on, so do your squads' ages. They are going to die. The longer they live, the better they'll get - unlocking new skills as they level up - but the time in which their improved abilities can be leveraged is winding down, down, down. They may also suffer minor or major performance hits as they approach their twilight hours, so there becomes this lingering question of whether you're using particular soldiers because you should, because you're being sentimental, or because there's no-one else to call up. This is probably what Manchester United fans feel when they watch Wayne Rooney these days - that guy just ain't gonna be here too much longer. Is there new blood to replace him, or is the team hopelessly dependent?

I'll end that analogy there, because no-one needs the mental image of Wayne Rooney breeding. In Massive Chalice, offspring are how your best units cheat death. Via a system of arranged marriages (and please forgive that I don't feel qualified to discuss the politics of that. I will note that none of your units ever express either positive or negative emotions about anything, however. They are ciphers, for better or worse) you hook up your guys and, ideally, they'll have kids who'll have at least some of their traits and specialisms.

Fertility comes into play, and that's affected by both age and random traits, so you're often choosing between the best match or simply a possible match. I cocked it up pretty badly in the early years and accidentally bred out every class save for Hunters, so I wound up with a couple of dozen crossbow-wielding teens skipping around just a couple of geriatric Alchemists and Caberjacks. Slowly, laboriously I could draft in and breed new ones, but it had made life pretty tough for a while. I guess this is how the British royal family wound up having no practical skills besides shooting, horse-riding and surreptitious political lobbying.

Between fertility, traits, age, level and to some extent equipment, there's a hell of a lot to keep an eye on as you try to assemble and maintain the best team you can. It's compelling in its own right, in terms of driving how you choose each unit's fate (maybe this infertile dunderhead is banished off to do research for the rest of his life, like a clerical version of Westeros' Night Watch, or maybe you're mad keen to get these particular two star players to breed). But. Big but. Cannot lie. In my experience so far (n.b. early version, subject to change, yada yada) a whole lot of this stuff just hasn't mattered too much out in the field. Not on normal difficulty at least, and I don't have access to the other settings yet.

A steady flow of new units is vital, but I haven't actually found myself hand-wringing because I've sent out someone whose DNA makes them a little less accurate, or whose advanced years mean they can't travel quite so far each turn. Even when I accidentally bred only Hunters for a couple of generations, it turned out Hunters were pretty good at fighting the demonic thingies that were threatening my kingdom. Battles do become a meat-grinder as the campaign wears on, but it didn't seem to much matter who I threw into it. That's really my greatest concern about Massive Chalice - that it's got all these clever lineage levers to pull and buttons to press, but their effects seem disassociated from what happens on the battlefield. Invariably, my guys had succumbed to old age before they'd reached their full potential anyway.

Early days, of course. Harder difficulty settings may well require far more careful thinking about who I'm breeding with whom, too. I hope future updates can also give the battles a little more zing, because right now they're on the ponderous side, steeped in repetition and lacking that nebulous Just One More Turn magic. It feels suspiciously like it's trying to copy XCOM's fights without directly lifting everything, so changes some stuff almost awkwardly (e.g. no overwatch, three rather than one or two equipment slots) but doesn't quite find its own beat.

It looks lovely, with its generous colours and stylised, angular characters, and there are some very fine ideas in there despite that niggling Something's Missing feeling. It's especially inventive on the enemy side of things - e.g. wraiths that can suck experience points from your units, even to the point that they lose levels, or terrifying slender-men who will age your units permanently if they get too close. It's there that Massive Chalice's frontline fighting and homeland snuggling become fully entwined, because you don't simply risk losing a prize racehorse - you risk taking it home hamstrung. Somehow, that's worse. Somehow, that forces far more careful strategy.

Massive Chalice does feel like Double Fine going far outside their giggly comfort zone, and all the better for it. This is a game with substance and a heraldic warriors concept it doesn't treat lightly. It is lacking something in its current, early form - there's a starkness to it, both in tone and in the limited choices you can make in battle - but at the same time I think this is the most promising horse in the DF stable right now. That studio has been all over the place lately, so I hope the MC team is allowed to knuckle down on this and keep pushing it for a while longer yet, to tease out its themes and personality, rather than have an arbitrary 'finished!' stamped on it as was the sad case for Spacebase DF-9. MASSIVE CHALICE should be allowed to earn its capital letters.

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