Massive Chalice – Analysis

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Unfortunately for me, most of my thoughts on Massive Chalice are already well-covered by the critical community. Kotaku’s review hits pretty much every key point I’d like to make about the game, and Campster’s description of Massive Chalice as “a crappy XCOM mixed with a crappy Crusader Kings” which “needed more development,” is spot on. But for what it’s worth:

Massive Chalice is not a bad game. It’s too slow, not as interesting as the games it’s aping, and has balance issues, but it’s also fun, colorful, and conjures a level of scale rarely seen in video games and pretty much never seen in any other artistic medium.

In Massive Chalice the player controls the “Immortal Ruler of the Nation” as he or she psychically governs an unnamed land besieged by a darkspawn/taint/daedra knockoff known as the Cadence. I really like how the game actually gives some sort of identity to the player’s omnipotent being while the equivalent player-characters in the Civilizations, Total Wars, Europa Universalis’, Victorias, etc. are left as unknown entities which somehow control entire civilizations. The player is told up front that the way to defeat the Cadence is simply to hold them at bay for 300 years until the titular “Massive Chalice” can store enough energy to wipe them all out somehow.

While every reviewer has noted Massive Chalice’s similarities to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I actually think most downplayed it a bit too much. Not only is XCOM’s basic structure of splitting gameplay between strategic resource management and turn-based combat directly transcribed, but so is much of XCOM’s research system, upgrade system, and enemy progression. For all intents and purposes, Massive Chalice is a medieval fantasy version of XCOM.

Unfortunately, nothing in Massive Chalice seems to work as well as in XCOM. The main problem with Massive Chalice’s grand strategy is that it’s too passive. In XCOM, the player constantly has new objectives, like capturing a certain type of alien, developing new technology, or storming a key enemy base. In Massive Chalice, the player has only one objective: keep the Cadence at bay for 300 years. The only way to do so is to send “heroes” to fight battles every decade or so in various posts around the nation. If a particular region sustains too many undefended attacks, it falls to the Cadence, just as the sponsor nations in XCOM withdraw their support. If the Cadence makes it far enough inland to reach the Nation’s capital, the game ends.

For the first third of the game, the player spends much of his time building up a basic infrastructure, like hero production and research amplifiers. But at around the half-way mark, everything settles down in a bad way. Most of the research options are either too expensive (in terms of time) or useless (why would I use any items besides health potions?) so there’s nothing to look forward to other than slogging through dozens of more samey enemy incursions until the clock runs out. The final 100 years of the game were a massive slog for me I do not wish to repeat.

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Massive Chalice’s big strategic hook is that instead of just recruiting random soldiers like in XCOM, the player has to “breed” his own heroes by appointing key families to oversee chunks of territory. The products of these families are children whose stats, traits, level, and class are determined genetically. It’s actually a pretty damn cool idea, especially for anyone who’s into the genetic complexities of Crusader Kings and Game of Thrones. The system really clicked in my mind was when I restarted my first game after playing for 60 (in-game) years, and then started a new game with a different set of starting families. During my first game I thought the archer class was vastly overpowered, while the melee class was useless, and the bomber class was worse than useless (my only two hero deaths had occurred due to bomber friendly fire). But during my second playthrough, I noticed that my bombers were not only better than the other two groups, but became increasingly so as the game went on and the bomber families bred better and better heroes.

Basically, the design works. Different pairings create different children with different classes and different strengths and weaknesses, which all work together to create plenty of strategic variance and make the game interesting to play.

Or at least the design works as a means of producing diverse strategies, because it also hinders the game in a fundamental way. The problem is that Massive Chalice moves too fast over too great a time span. Unlike with XCOM or the similar cult classic, Valkyria Chronicles, there is no way to identify with the individuals the player sends onto the battlefield. In XCOM, the player can stay with the same soldier (or group of soldiers) as he goes through countless battles, upgrades, gets better equipment, become psychic, and maybe even tragically dies over the span of an entire playthrough. Valkyria Chronicles works much the same way, but the soldiers also have small bios to get a bit of backstory on who they are and why they fight.

Meanwhile, in Massive Chalice, the heroes come and go with such rapidity that it’s not even worth learning their names. Each in-game year lasts less than five seconds (when the time line isn’t paused, which it usually is), and battles typically occur about once every ten to fifteen years. As a result, most heroes who do fight (and most never fight at all) will probably only participate in two to four battles throughout their entire lives. As a result, I found it impossible to care about my brave combatants. Every time a battle occurred in my game and it showed me my deployment team, there was almost always two or three slots open from parts of my team dying off of old age or being appointed to non-combat positions. At most I would remember which families produced which classes of soldiers, but identifying with, let alone caring about my random lackeys who were born, raised, and died under my rule was an impossibility for me.

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Weirdly, the player’s predominant activity on the strategic side of Massive Chalice is delegation. The player has to appoint regents to run keeps, partners to mate with the regents, scholars to speed up research, and trainers to keep the heroes in shape. Given that the game progresses each year in less than five seconds, that the player has multiple keeps and scholar posts, and that your kingdom will end up with dozens of idle and active heroes, much of the mid to late game consists of watching people die and then appointing replacements. I even became tempted to shift to appointing younger heroes just so I wouldn’t have to keep replacing the 60-year-old scholars I kept appointing, so I could lighten my work load. Maybe the player-character should be called the “Immortal General Secretary of the Nation.”

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Just as with its grand strategic elements, Massive Chalice’s battle system is functional, but lacking in complexity and nuance compared to its competitors. It is virtually identical to XCOM, except there’s no overwatch, no taking cover, a less interesting skill tree, and less interesting class dynamics. I don’t know if it was just because of my experience with XCOM and Valkyria Chronicles, but I also found it to be quite easy. I didn’t lose a single battle until the 60th year in my first playthrough, and I didn’t lose any battles at all in my second playthrough until the very final one (which is a bullshit, unbalanced level anyway). I didn’t even lose heroes very often, though I didn’t care too much about protecting them anyway.

Unfortunately, Massive Chalice also shares one of XCOM’s greatest weaknesses: a lack of battle diversity. 90% of the battles in both games are the same “search and destroy” missions which each take 15 to 20 minutes to complete. The only occasional variety comes with the defensive-oriented castle assaults, which were a welcome change of pace, especially since they involved protecting weaker soldiers. My most memorable battle throughout the entire game occurred when I tried to rescue three weak, elderly scholars from a Cadence assault and tragically only managed to save one, though another one went out in an explosive kamikaze blaze of glory.

(This reminds me that Valkyria Chronicles actually had the most battle diversity of the three games, with search and destroys, assaults, fort defenses, wildly varying terrain, boss battles, and more. On the other hand, Valkyria Chronicles’s battles lacked tactical flexibility and therefore they were far too trial-and-error oriented. Clearly there is a balance between rigid and loose level design which still needs to be worked out in this genre.)

On the plus side, I do like Massive Chalice’s level and enemy design. The maps are procedurally generated with each of the Nation’s regions having its own environmental templates. The enemy layout makes good use of gaps between platforms and destructible obstacles as well. The enemy types are well varied and progress in terms of size and strength in much the same way XCOM’s aliens do. I especially like how some enemies incorporate damage elements to harm the player’s strategic meta-game, like how one enemy type’s attack lowers hero experience and another’s attack actually ages them (which sometimes caused heroes to drop dead of old age on the battlefield).

I can’t help but mention how annoying the final battle is. After not losing a single fight the entire game (and only coming close to losing two or three times), I was beaten pretty badly and lost the whole game because of a single arbitrary, and unbalanced fight. It’s arbitrary because heroes can’t be born at elite levels, but have to train up to them, so whether or not you have elite soldiers (level 9s and 10s) for the last fight is pretty much up to when the random number generator decides to let your heroes die of old age (I lost two level 10s a few years before the last battle). It’s also by far the longest battle in the game, which directly hinders the bomber classes, whose unique weakness is running out of ammo. So if your long-term meta-game plan was built around cultivating strong bombers, and these strong bombers happened to successfully and easily carry you throughout the entire game, too bad, because they are pretty much going to end up being worthless in the second half of the final battle.

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I’m being too mean to Massive Chalice. The game has a good personality. I liked the Chalice’s split personality, the writing’s sense of humor, and the art design. Despite the story being about the end of the world, the tone is comfortably upbeat, and it works. I also appreciate the sheer scale such a small game tries to tackle. The only other games which try to take place over 300 years are Paradox games (Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, etc.) and those are different beasts entirely.

At the very least, I enjoyed the first half of Massive Chalice and I admired what the game tried to do. Ultimately, it was only a middling success, but fans of XCOM and Valkyria Chronicles who can’t find enough other games in this strange, small niche genre of dualistic strategic meta-game and turn-based combat, could do a lot worse than playing a round of Massive Chalice.

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