Massive Chalice is an XCOM-like, fantasy-themed strategy game from Doublefine, divided into turn-based, grid-based squad battles and a real-time base mode in which you build structures and marry nobles to provide a steady stream of new and upgraded soldiers to fight for you, in the hope of surviving a centuries-long siege by plant-like beasts. It left Early Access a few days ago.
I'm looking at a corpse. It's someone's son. Was someone's son. That someone is regent of a keep in my kingdom, but if they are upset that their son is dead, felled by the acidic explosion of a hunched monster in its own death throes, they do not say so. No-one says anything. Is his corpse even collected from the battlefield, taken back to his family's home for a respectful burial and private mourning? Or does it still lie there now, gradually dissolving into that acidic puddle it lies in? Does anyone ever speak his name again?
Massive Chalice actively warns the player not to take death hard - there are always more soldiers-to-be being born to the regents, there are always still more casualties, and so there is no time or headspace to become attached. I see the sense in this: it's a time of war, a centuries-long siege by invading horrors. The entire kingdom is dedicated to mere survival. There is no time for love. But there is consequence to this ruthless practicality: without humanity, it is hard to care at all.
A regent's wife, their partner for decades, dies suddenly, of one of the many maladies we gently refer to as 'old age.' The male narrator mutters something sympathetic, a single line in sad tones. "They'll be fine," says the female narrator, not unkindly. Immediately, I'm asked to find a new partner for the widower. The dynasty must continue, yes, but at what cost? If we cannot have grief, we cannot have love, we cannot have meaning beyond mechanical breeding?
Every child is a number. Every death is a statistic. I wonder why my regents and soldiers even have faces and names. (I also wonder why there is no option to change those names, but that's another concern). I wonder why I am supposed to care about my kingdom.
Massive Chalice is a game about lineages rather than the individuals within them. The relentless parade of new soldiers negates investing in them, treasuring them. When one gains an interesting perk or heirloom, it's theoretically important to make them breed and pass those traits on, but the effects are so minor in battlefield practice that it's almost not worth the effort of combing through everyone's stats to decide exactly who you want to bring on the next away mission. They'll be dead within the hour whatever happens, and you'll never think of them again. They all dress the same, act the same, repeat the same mechanical victory cry, die the same. I carefully, painstakingly keep them alive in combat, only for them to perish of natural causes not much later, or be lost to a random event between fights.
It's certainly important to choose breeding partners carefully enough to maintain and hone a balance of character classes in your future retinue, and to pay close attention to people's fertility lest they have no offspring at all, but most other perks and traits are not hugely disruptive. It's all in there if you want to dig in and pursue perfection, but in my experience - and I should note that I have not played on the highest difficulty settings - it is not particularly necessary to.
I don't know what I'm fighting for.
I don't feel as though I'm making any progress. I churn through people, I fight the same fights and all I have to show for it is minor expansion which births yet more meat for the grinder, minor upgrades to weapons and armour, and the option to keep going. I do keep going, because I'm waiting. Waiting for purpose: it always feels as though it's just ahead of me, that I'm on the verge of reaching a point where all these faces in my crowd become more than petals on a wet black bough. It doesn't happen. I continue for the sake of continuing, and that would be just fine if I wasn't so uncertain that I was enjoying myself.
I should be: so many elements of so many games I've spent dozens of happy hours with are in here. A slow-burn of realtime R&D, tense and deadly turn-based battles, perma-death, observational learning, a loose structure that doesn't aggressively push a narrative at me, an overarching sense of stakes much higher than whether my guy successfully shoots the other guy or not. I like too that anyone can marry anyone, and that same-sex couples can freely adopt to continue their dynasties, and that this is just there naturally rather than ever remarked upon. Massive Chalice is, clearly very consciously, a dynastic take on XCOM, where new soldiers are raised by my existing soldiers rather than drafted in from some place unseen. On paper, I thrill to that concept.
In practice, Massive Chalice feels cold and mechanical. It's a game which asks me only to go through the motions, much like the uncomplaining but surely loveless participants of its endless arranged marriages. I press Fast Forward in kingdom mode and the years zoom by, sporadically popping up terse news of birth or death, requests to bind more soldiers to loveless lifelong partnership, choose-your-own adventure vignettes which usually result in a minor statistical adjustment to a soldier or two, or a fight. To know what these stats mean both on the battlefield and in breeding, I must comb through screens of numbers presented in an irritatingly clicky UI, as a wash of samey names and faces scroll by.
Burrow through pop-up events and you'll get images of babies or sombre-looking couples forever standing by a throne. It's pretty, with its colours and its model-like, Game-of-Thrones-intro-sequence style, but there isn't much life to it. The 'base' is just a waiting room, a flat view to stare at while you wait for tasks to complete or battles to pop up. Massive Chalice needs its fights in order to provide any kind of excitement, to be more than a to-do list, but many of thm are too short on dynamism to offset the slight irritation and mild dread whenever such an interruption is announced. Clearly Massive Chalice does not have XCOM's budget, but a little flash would have gone a long way toward making it less like clockwork marionettes performing their routines.
Massive Chalice is determined to be more of a meat grinder than even XCOM was, but it does this by repeatedly and often tiresomely swamping your squad with enemies, many of whom present complications: the one who becomes near-impregnable after one hit, the one who spawns three minions upon death, the aforementioned one who showers acid upon anyone close... All these require strategy and thought, which is great, but all too soon this strategy becomes a laborious ritual.
So much takes so long, too. I groan when a soldier wanders in range of a pack of enemies, and I have to endure a short pause and a message that they've been spotted for each enemy before I can do anything about it. And I too often feel like there's little at stake - my soldiers will die soon anyway. At least in battle I get to see it happen, a moment of reflection and guilt for my decisions.
I enjoy the fights much more when a new enemy is introduced. Massive Chalice likes to seem unfair, and learning how to make it fair is a satisfying thrill. There is definite invention here, but it's often obscured by cyclic busywork. Again, the delight wears off once you know the routine, but now and again there's something new to master. I liked the fights even more when, due to recklessness with appointments and casualties, I could only field a team of two or three rather than five. Extreme caution and almost a stealth aspect, as I skulked around the edges of the map, striving not to enter sight range of any more enemies than I could handle.
I don't think Massive Chalice was designed to be played like that, but when it was it had some of the tension and satisfaction of Invisible Inc - more of an organic and panicky puzzle, rather than a practiced reaction to whichever enemy shambled towards me. The dry world of stats and staff turnover faded away: I was caught in the moment, absolutely determined to keep these two people alive no matter what, no longer cognisant that they could be replaced easily and would be gone soon anyway. Something excellent and lively hides underneath Massive Chalice's stony exterior; I only wish I could get at more easily and more often. I keep playing it because I want to like it so much, because in so many ways it seems made for me, but I can't quite seem to. I feel bad that I don't like it much, but I don't like it much.
I can choose who to marry to who in order to know exactly what Class their offspring will be. I can choose who to shackle to breeding or research or novice training for the rest of their lives. I can choose whose life to gamble with. I can't change anyone's name or appearance. I can't change any family's banner. I can't change the canned line printed on the screen when they score a kill. I can't find anything that would make them, or Massive Chalice, feel like mine. I wonder why that is. There are many good things within Massive Chalice, but they're frustratingly kept at arm's length from me.
Massive Chalice is out now.