Massive Chalice: Double Fine - Games Weekly

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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Massive Chalice: Double Fine

Orange is the new black, at least when it comes to videogame corruption. First Xbox One brought us  Sunset Overdrive’s tartrazine monstrosities, and now Double Fine’s strategy game cum genealogy manipulator is driven by a threat called the Cadence that nibbles away at its beleaguered fantasy kingdom with vivid tangerine ooze. As usual, you are called upon to save the realm, which here means defending it on the field of turn-based battle until the colossal sentient cup has charged its world saving power. Unlike usual, however, your party won’t be polishing this quest off in a few days and then propping up their +5 boots of foot odour at the local brewhouse it’s going to take generations to get the job done.


At least these aeons won't be dull. As you’d expect from a game that swaps the usual evil forces palette (lich purple, none more black, demonic red) for chunder orange, Massive Chalice is colourful in all senses of the word. One of the earliest choices is between joke names and serious ones for the heroic bloodlines under your command, and every character is rendered in a charmingly chunky faux-low-poly style that carries over to the often brightly hued maps. The fighting that takes place upon them borrows its basic mechanics from Firaxis’s XCOM, though simplified to the base constituents of a two part catchment area for movement keep within the orange zone to follow up your move with an action, while pushing into the larger white area consumes that unit’s turn and growing bars of unit abilities, with cover and tiered structures absent. Also gone, sadly, is the vague indication of where enemies are when you’re lost, which can gum up the pace.

Tactical complexity here instead relies on the interplay between enemies and the hero classes, lent further nuance by the genes of the individuals at hand. Broadly, Caberjacks are your tanks and heavy hitters, specialising in swinging a thwacking great log at anything foolish enough to get close. Hunters carry shoulder-mounted bows as tall as a human and double as scouts via a camouflaging movement power, though the trade-off for range is vulnerability when caught out up close. The wild card is the Alchemist, armed with a scoop blade which does decent damage when scything at a Cadence’s face, but which can also be used to lob explosive flasks with mild inaccuracy from a finite supply.

Still, heroes in Massive Chalice are both born and made, each bearing a list of traits drawn from their genes, personality and age that, alongside an ability tree, affects how they play. A fumble-fingered Alchemist is a terror to both sides, but the lone-wolf bonus can make for an excellent scout. It still feels cerebrally slighter than its inspiration, like something XCOM’s Commander might play on his day off, but cheeky enemy powers such as the Bulwark’s reactive shell, which shrugs off damage after the first hit in a turn, or a Lapse’s XP-sapping blasts do enough to keep target-priority decisions engaging.

The toughest and best choices come between missions. While a base that needs building and upgrades that need researching sound trivial at first, every endeavour takes several in-game years. On the main map screen, you can fast-forward so the decades slip by in seconds, but your heroes will age and eventually die of natural causes if Cadence incursions don’t claim them first so you’ll have to ensure a fresh supply. And that means you should get them breeding.

Build a keep  and once it’s ready you can appoint one hero to preside over it with another as their spouse, though both are then retired from your active pool. The more experienced they are, the more they’ll pass along to any kids, who will also inherit some of their genetic traits. All of a sudden you’re playing Francis Galton and selecting for desirable combinations, a programme of eugenics propping up other considerations such as virility. In context, it’s delightfully, if gently, subversive. Supporting buildings also help the cause, but again deplete the available hero stock to use. And so you come to a delicate balance between having enough heroes on hand to fight for the future and enough in noncombat roles to ensure there will be a future worth fighting for.

Available via Early Access now, Massive Chalice is already good enough to have its own bright future ahead of it. Yes, the text has a few little holes, but the bigger issue is that the Cadence could do with picking up in variety faster, perhaps also introducing more variety as a whole, to make the turn-based play feel a touch meatier. A bit more polish on its already-favourable traits could deliver a game to make its ancestors proud.

Gay pride
Being a Kickstarter funded project, Massive Chalice has been subject to input from its backers. And while the gaming community is often not given much credit for its inclusiveness, it was a forum thread that brought up the lack of gay marriage in the game back in mid-2013. Project lead Brad Muir and the team have responded in the very best way possible: by not only adding the option to partner up same-sex couples, but thinking about ways to make them work in a design that revolves around childbirth. They can now care for children that need adopting, or you can simply retire two guys or girls in the same structure and ship them together yourself. It’s not in your face, and no one has to engage with it, but its presence here is a sign some players do want to progress beyond blanket heteronormativity.

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