By Scott Southard. This is Load File, a space to overturn the rocks we stumble across throughout the vast landscape of games. This week, Scott observes Massive Chalice, available on Xbox One and PC.
When it comes to the wheel, innovation and invention are thin lines to tread. In a general sense, we tend to look at digital media with severe scrutiny, and that scrutiny only gets magnified as burgeoning technological formats and genres begin to pop up. We see it with suspiciously similar social media platforms or copycat apps arising months or even weeks after big name products are released. And with the abundance of creative tools and access to information, the splurge of copy-and-paste clones are now an institution, for better or worse. Most of the time, the games are inferior cash-grabs, and occasionally, the original begets something greater than the creators imagined. However, it’s rare when a game like this doesn’t live up to its predecessor, but still manages to be a truly fun and rewarding experience. Somehow, some way, we’ve found ourselves in that vein with a little gem called Massive Chalice.
THE UNKNOWN KNOWN
Let’s just get it out of the way; Massive Chalice owes its entirety to 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It is a turn-based tactical strategy game that tasks you with commanding squads of up to five units as they’re faced with various arrays of fantastically multi-talented, non-human opponents. The gameplay is functionally identical, as is the visual setup. Between battles, there’s a pressure-free metagame of building a home-base and strengthening your team for the next showdown. The similarities could fill their own goblet, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves with seemingly insulting lists of analogous affinities, because XCOM was a great game, and Massive Chalice is its scrappy little brother.
Developed by the heavily pedigreed Double Fine Productions, Massive Chalice puts you in the role of an omniscient ruler of nations. To forestall the impending death and doom of you and your people, you must oversee the smaller integral battles (with your deployable heroes, provided they survive) that accumulate throughout the game and determine the overall progress of the war against The Cadence. And the battles are the most blatant example of the carbon-copied facets of this game. Placed on rotating scenes of gridded ancient ruins and miniature forests, units are shuttled one at a time through the fog of war in search (or fear) of a variety of seemingly unrelated superpowered enemies (a Wrinkler ages its victims five years per strike, a Lapse siphons experience with each attack). Each turn, line of sight and order of action queues are both preeminent factors that can spell either dominance or the death of long-loved heroes in your army. It’s a four-letter-word-inducing, edge of your seat type affair.
It’s important to note the roots here. This is a Double Fine game, after all, and thusly follows suit in terms of tone and humor. While the stakes of the game are high (an invading army, known as The Cadence, is poaching the reaches of your kingdom, and you must stave them off until a magical — and eponymous — chalice is charged and capable of demolishing the enemy), the long-running humor stays the course. You can see the fingerprints of Double Fine founder, Tim Schafer, and his second-in-command, Brad Muir, all over this game, and that’s a wonderful thing. Tidbits show up in text-based propositions (will you send your best soldier on a potentially fruitful, but glaringly treacherous, hot air balloon ride?) and “randomly” generated names (my most treasured archer was a woman named Bearface) that hint at the depths of the humor sewn deep within Chalice. To be fair, anything less from folks behind indie legends Brutal Legend and Psychonauts would be disappointing.
PLEASE SIP RESPONSIBLY
But to cover just the action and vibe of such a highly orchestrated entity would be to sell Massive Chalice short. Behind the straightforward battle sequences is a sim-like management system that demands just as much attention as it’s violent counterpart. Each hero you employ has varied traits that affect their performance on the battlefield (“Arthritis” lowers accuracy as a character ages, “Brainy” raises their intelligence). Heroes age and die. It’s a real life fact and true within the rules of this game as well (hence the previously mentioned Wrinkler). As characters gain experience and new abilities, they also get closer to death, which necessitates a calculated balance. Some characters must be removed from the militarized hero scene to be reappointed as regents (or heads of a bloodline), all of whom can be manipulated to breed new heroes with favorable traits.
Some of the most enjoyable time I spent with the game was mixing and matching some of my favorite heroes, and debating whether I should retire them from battle to create new, young talent. There are loads of mathematical odds involved (which feels similar to actual genetics) so you never really know what you’re getting with any given pair of matched up heroes. It’s deep and cutting-edge, especially for a game that’s otherwise very cookie cutter.
Couple a simple, but effective, kingdom building/upgrade and R&D sim with the rest of Massive Chalice (Sidenote: Can we all agree that the title sounds like an undoubtedly filthy double entendre?) and there’s a complete packaged product especially at a $20 price point (free right now for Xbox Gold members!). It has flaws, and it’s unabashedly iterative, but that doesn’t particularly detract from the core gameplay and old school fun factor inherent in this type of experience.
Massive Chalice follows the If-It-Ain’t-Broke philosophy (even if what isn’t broken wasn’t theirs to begin with), and manages to do it successfully. It’s not as deep or smooth of a game as its ancestors, but the minor innovations Double Fine put forth are intriguing and a total blast to mess with. Which is to say, spinning this same old wheel is utterly engaging and pleasant as can be.