I suspect a common complaint about Massive Chalice is that your heroes die too quickly, and you therefore can’t get attached to them in the same way you get attached to your heroes in X-com, XCOM, the XCOM add-on, and other such games. It’s a complaint I shared when I first started playing Massive Chalice. But as I played, I realized it’s the single most important element of this subversive take on the X-com formula.
After the jump, mortality rates.
Massive Chalice is Double Fine’s tactical RPG. The setting is a slightly less-generic-than-usual fantasy world with three main classes defending the kingdom from six kinds of monsters. That seems awfully limited, doesn’t it? But the tactical combat has a boardgame elegance. There are relatively few types of pieces, but they’re dramatically differentiated from each other. It’s a bit like the reboot of XCOM, where Firaxis rightly figured that fewer bits and pieces mean the remaining bits and pieces are more important. Massive Chalice takes this to an even higher (lower?) level.
The three classes are basically melee fighters, ranged fighters, and area-of-effect fighters, called caberjacks, hunters, and alchemists, respectively. The monsters similarly have specific functions. An exploding suicide bomber monster creates a pool of acid to deny you territory, a monster spawner spawns self healing monsters, a ranged attacker saps your experience points, a brutal melee attacker swaps places with one of your characters, and so on. There are stats aplenty, but the primary fact about anyone is his or her role. Like pieces on a chessboard, none of them does a lot of things, but each of them does some very specific thing.
It’s all tied together with a distinct art style and a really lovely interface, including at least one quality-of-life improvement I now expect from every game. When you mouse over a destination for one of your units, icons pop up over all the monsters within the tile’s line of sight and range of attack. No guessing and less counting. This is the stuff of an experienced and confident developer with a game that’s been through a thorough beta period.
But where Massive Chalice goes wrong — as I suspect the common complaint goes — is the constant hero churn. For starters, your characters routinely die of old age. Yep, old age. The setting for Massive Chalice is the sweep of time, and it wouldn’t be much of a sweep if mortals didn’t die off. Of course, new characters are constantly born. But getting attached to any given character is just going to lead to heartbreak. Everyone is on his way out. Everyone, without exception. And since battles only pop up every ten years or so, you’re never going to get more than three or four battles with any given character.
So what kind of way is that to make a tactical RPG like X-com?
A brilliant and subversive way. The high rate of hero churn does three very important things for Massive Chalice that make it unique in the genre. First, it varies the battles. In a normal tactical RPG, you’re going to have your favorite units and you’re going to play with them as much as possible. Especially your high level such-and-such. You can bet you’ll want him along on every mission. But that leads to using the same characters every mission. That leads to missions where the main variability is in what you’re fighting. You don’t get that luxury in Massive Chalice. As characters are dying and being born, you’ll mix up the pieces constantly. You’ll use different skills and different loadouts. You’ll have to vary which classes you use. You might have a battle with nothing but caberjacks. In Massive Chalice, you play battles you didn’t expect to play.
Second, the high rate of hero churn makes death an acceptable part of a successful battle. Normally, losing a high-level character in a game like this is a serious blow. That’s progress you were supposed to use to beat battles. Maybe you should reload? Regardless, it’s going to be an enormous setback and it shouldn’t have happened.
With rogue-likes, we’re seeing games designed around the concept of permadeath. Characters will die and the designers make their games around this fact. Massive Chalice works the same way. Sure, losing a high level character sucks. But you’re going to lose her anyway. Whether she dies of old age or battle, her death will happen. In fact, at a certain point, you know it will probably happen before she gets into another battle. You’ll be keenly aware that some characters are on their last hurrah. Perhaps a noble sacrifice is in order to save someone from a younger generation? That’s not something that occurs to me in other games.
And third, the hero churn opens Massive Chalice to other kinds of persistence. Long-term persistence is an important part of any game with the letters R, P, and G in the genre. So Massive Chalice creates persistence in other ways. The most immediate way is with relics. These are badass weapons that gain experience as you use them, getting more and more powerful over the years. When the character using a relic dies, you select to whom it will be passed down. I couldn’t tell you the specific names of most of the characters in my first game of Massive Chalice, but I can damn sure tell you the names of Prudence and Catalyst, the powerful relics that endured through the ages.
But the more important persistence is the persistence of a bloodline. The Sims and Crusader Kings feature this concept, and it’s explored cleverly in lighter fare like Rogue Legacy and Hero Generations. But I can’t think of a game where it’s as central as it is to Massive Chalice. The characters you have available are a factor of your noble houses. As the “forger of matrimony”, as you’re dubbed in the opening cinematic, you establish and maintain these houses. You decide who will marry whom, which in turn determines which classes are available, which bonuses they’ll enjoy, and which penalties they’ll suffer.
Of course, plenty of this will be outside your control. When Einstein said God doesn’t play dice, he clearly wasn’t versed in the calculus of fertility and genetics. Massive Chalice is sometimes about rolling with the punishing die rolls. You’ll fret over houses that have nearsighted offspring, or no offspring, or clumsy hunters with inherited dexterity penalties. You don’t dare appoint this guy as the regent of your caberjack house because his puny trait will sap points from the strength of your future caberjacks. But maybe you don’t have a choice. Of course, the flip side is that sometimes you piece together the right combinations for generations of ideal children. Brainy alchemists, bear strength caberjacks, and nimble hunters who have traits like young at heart, pack hunter, stalwart, and quick study. Look what you’ve created with time and bloodlines! Mechanically, Massive Chalice is a game about eugenics. But narratively, it’s a game about the persistence of families for better and worse.
Finally, Massive Chalice does a great job of ending. So few games know how to end, so they just stop. But every game of Massive Chalice is a 300-year endurance test for your kingdom, concluded with a final battle. This is where you’d normally get some cheap boss fight, or even worse, a gimmick that breaks the game by introducing stuff you haven’t encountered yet. Massive Chalice does something similar, but it ties it brilliantly into the larger game. It earns it. And it also gives you a powerful new tool. You’ll most likely lose your first game of Massive Chalice at the final battle because you didn’t know what was in store. But that’s how your second game of Massive Chalice really comes alive. Because now you’ve wrapped your head around those 300 years, you understand how bloodlines work, you know how to set up your noble houses survive the sweep of time, and you’re preparing for what’s waiting for you at the end.
Some of these things will still be a liability for many players. Where I see a bold design, they’ll see annoying hero churn and an endgame sucker punch. These are the same people who reload XCOM when their high level characters die because they don’t want to play a game with painful deaths, because they’re focused on beating the game, because they need to jealously shepherd their most powerful characters through to the finale. Massive Chalice isn’t for them. Massive Chalice, a brilliant and subversive take on tactical RPGs, is for the rest of us. Bravo, Double Fine. It’s easy enough to make a good game a lot of people will like. It’s not so easy to make a great game only some people will love.
...a tactical strategy game set on an epic timeline from Double Fine Productions. As the Immortal Ruler of the nation, you'll take command of its heroes, forge heroic marriages to strengthen your Bloodlines, and battle a mysterious enemy known as the Cadence in a 300 year war.