Massive Chalice is fairly new ground for Double Fine Productions, as they are famous for adventure- and puzzle-based games such as Costume Quest, Stacking, and Psychonauts. While these games all had their unique and creative quirks, they didn’t deviate too far from the run-around-and-do-things formula. Massive Chalice tries to take Double Fine’s wacky and bizarre mannerisms and mesh them together with the generally more serious tactical role-playing genre, recently popularized by series such as Disgaea, and more significantly, Fire Emblem: Awakening.
Upon initially booting this game up, I was immediately charmed by the aesthetic and the fan input allowed in the game. You get to pick five heroes from different noble houses to forge your starting party. These houses are seemingly countless in number, and from what I understand, all, or at least many of them, are fan submissions. These houses don’t have much impact, but it’s neat to have characters scream anything from “Never surrender!” to “Tax exemption!” upon defeating a foe. I thoroughly enjoyed the cutscene artwork as well. They’re not particularly action-packed, but they look like very stylized and beautiful water color paintings that are simply a treat to look at. However, aside from a vibrant color palette, the in-game art is kind of ugly to me. From afar, it’s not bad, but the more you zoom in, the worse the characters look. From glued-on facial hair, to wrinkles that look more like indentations in grade school clay sculptures.
As an immortal king, with the guidance of the titular, sentient Massive Chalice, the goal of the game is to guide your heroes through a great, 300-year war against very bland evil entities with a name nowhere near as catchy as Cobra or Darkspawn. When you’re not battling these creatures, you can use your time to build upgrades such as keeps for your heroes to retire and breed the next generation of warriors in, as well as recruiting locals or adopting children to help bolster you army. These recruits and children come with any combination of positive or negative traits to consider before bringing them into battle. There’s also random events to make decisions on, such as whether or not to send soldiers out to apprehend a criminal or to gawk at an ostrich. Anything that involves sending troops out almost always ends in them losing their lives somewhere along the way. So, for the sake of not crippling yourself, it’s really never worth it to involve them in any extracurricular activities.
When you do get to fight, which is typically every 15 to 20 years, there’s generally two regions of your nation that get attacked simultaneously. You decide which region makes the most strategic sense to defend in that moment. However, if you allow a region to be attacked, or fail to defend it three successive times, you’ll lose it forever. The goal is basically to drive the evil back and have a nation to manage when you’re done. You can afford to lose portions of your territory, as long as you leave the majority intact. This basically means you should pay attention to what you’re doing. This sounds exciting, but the enemies are all very bland grunts with one unique ability. And new ones are introduced every 50 to 100 years, then abused until the next new baddie shows up.
The combat is surprisingly enjoyable and fast-paced for this style of game. You have Hunters, which are basically your archers; Alchemists, that are your all-purpose soldiers with weird claws and flasks that they can toss about half as far as your archer can shoot from, but deal damage to multiple enemies instead; and Cyberjacks, who are your standard warrior-type units. There’s also classes with different names that sound unique, but they’re just the three basic classes with a slightly varied amount of upgrades when they level up. This provides some variety, but there’s only a few useful secondary skills, like the Alchemist’s “Free Throw”, which is exactly what it sounds like, and the Cyberjack’s “Charge”, which basically rams through a line of opponents, causing more damage the further away you are. You’ll be surprised and excited by the depth of the combat at first, but you’ll rarely experience anything new past those first couple of hours.
That somewhat segues into my biggest grievances with the game. It has a simplistic, yet intriguing, leveling system. However, you’ll get halfway through the game before you ever get a character to level five, which only offers two upgrades. I played through the game twice and only reached this plateau a couple of times. Which brings me to the most immediately apparent problem: the length and pacing. A battle every 15 years or so means you get to fight, at best, 20 times throughout a campaign. On top of that, the 15-year-old, level four recruit–bred by your two best veterans–will get a total of four battles under his belt, if you’re lucky, before he can no longer fight. It makes pretty much everything you do, as far as army-building goes, seem pointless. The only point is that this game is brutally hard on anything but Easy, and you’ll lose many troops in each battle starting about 50 years in. So you have to sacrifice your best soldiers to create better children and hope your lower-class fighters can hold out until someone decent pops out. Then you have to hope his stats aren’t completely counter-productive to his class, or just overall bad. It’s like I’m breeding Pokemon all over again.
Ultimately, I started out feeling a lot of hope and elation from this game. The noble house mechanic seems cool, but it ultimately is just a big “Thank you,” to fans, which isn’t a negative I suppose. The opening cutscene is great and the good old Double Fine humor is in full force. The game throws a lot of interesting concepts at you, but does nothing to build upon it. It has a lot going for it, but at this point, it’s all extremely shallow and repetitive. It’s hard to recommend the game as-is, but if it’s heavily expanded upon, it has tons of potential.