Thursday, December 31, 2015

Massive Chalice

Massive Chalice puts you in charge of a kingdom beset by a relentless monstrous enemy, known as the Cadence. Each time there is a Cadence attack, you control a squad of heroes in turn-based combat to beat them back. In between attacks, your job is to build up the kingdom, holding your ground while building up power to end the Cadence threat. If that sounds at all interesting, I suggest that you stop reading here and go play the game, because a good part of the fun is discovering how Massive Chalice puts a new spin on the tactical, squad-based game genre.
I picked up Massive Chalice for two main reasons: I love the genre, and Tom Chick wrote a great review that really sold me on the game. (He also wrote a game diary series well worth reading.) I've played a lot of these kind of tactical build-up-your-squad games with turn-based combat: the various XCOM/X-COM games and Shadowrun Returns are some of my favorites. The two levels of strategy - clearing each individual combat encounter, and building up your squad of heroes/warriors/hackers/etc as the game's story progresses - is perfect for my play-style.

Massive Chalice starts out with two voices coming from a giant talking magical cup, informing you that you'll be ruling a kingdom for the next several hundred years, while they build up power to destroy the Cadence. You're immortal, but you're stuck in the throne room with them, so all you can do is issue orders to be carried out by the kingdom's people. If that sounds a little silly, it is...the whole tone of the game is like that. You'll hear a lot from the chalice duo, and most of it is tongue-in-cheek comments or outright jokes. It gets a little repetitive once you've gone through a few battles, but I thought the tone fit perfectly.

As with most games of the genre, when you're not fighting, you're building up your capabilities. There are buildings for producing more fighting heroes (keeps), improving your research (sagewright's guilds), and training your heroes (crucibles). You can research improvements to your weapons and armor, create some new items from the remains of Cadence enemies, build new buildings, etc. All of this will seem familiar to anyone who has played a similar game (i.e. X-COM).

Where Massive Chalice differs most from the standard genre is in how you get more heroes. It's possible to just grab some random new recruits, but the main focus is marrying off a couple of your current group so they can produce children. Every fighter has a combat specialization, a set of Traits that they are born with, and Personalities that they pick up from their parents and trainers. Your choice of parents in each keep will determine what the next generation of heroes looks like. Marry a Caberjack (front-line melee fighter) and Hunter (stealthly sniper), and the kids turn out to be Shadowjacks (melee fighters with stealth abilities). The children might pick up good Traits and Personalities (extra strength, quick movement) or bad ones (reduced XP, slow movement) from their parents. All this means the choice of who to marry off is a major component of the game. Massive Chalice is as much about creating a solid bloodline of heroic fighting families as it is about actually fighting the Cadence.

This focus on building up a family tree means that Massive Chalice isn't about building up one super-powerful fighting squad. Your heroes will age and die over time, being replaced by their descendants. They'll even pass down their special weapons (called Relics) to their descendants. In combat, this means that losing one of your heroes isn't a massive setback. You still want to keep them alive when possible, of course, so they can eventually either be married off or set up in a crucible to train the next generation. But if they do die in combat, it's not a major problem, since that makes room for the up-and-coming youngsters. This approach solves one of the less enjoyable aspects of games like X-COM, where losing a single high-level hero can be such a massive setback as to make the game unwinnable.

The gameplay isn't all about combat and applied eugenics. Random events occur regularly, in which you need to choose an action, usually affecting one or more of your heroes. The effects range from minor effects on a single hero to major impacts on the kingdom, such as losing a building or an entire land region. There's no right or wrong answer to the events, and I've seen the same answer to the same event have two different results (in different play-throughs). So it's truly a random system, giving you some additional opportunities or disasters to deal with as ruler.

There's no mystery about the length of a Massive Chalice game. The main screen has a countdown timer showing how long until the chalice has charged up enough power. Of course, things aren't as simple as "survive the countdown and win." Discovering what awaits in the final battle, and how things are different there, is one of the better surprises in the game. At least, it was for me. I can see how someone might be upset that there are significant differences in the final battle. I looked at it as a learning experience for my next game, though.

I've played through Massive Chalice three times now: my first failed game, the learning experience; the second attempt on Normal difficulty, which resulted in a easy victory; and a third game on Hard difficulty, which was also a win but not nearly as easy. There's still the Brutal difficulty level, which I may try at some point, and plenty of things I haven't tried. A lot of the weapons/armor/items that can be made from Cadence corpses, for instance.

Any fan of the strategic squad builder genre with tactical turn-based combat should definitely play Massive Chalice. Try it even if you're not a fan of other similar games. Massive Chalice is different enough that it just may win you over.

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