MASSIVE CHALICE is, according to every reviewer ever, XCOM squad tactics meets Crusader Kings eugenics. These are two of my very favourite games, so obviously I had to check the thing out.
For many, many years I have had an Ideal Vision of a Perfectly Formed Game in my head. If we’ve met in a drinking-and-talking-about-game-design context, there’s an excellent chance that I have bored you senseless about it already. It’s basically XCOM – in my version, the soldiers are more of a Men in Black-type community police force dealing with an underground paranormal subculture, but this is not the crucial feature – but in between the missions the soldiers and scientists and admin staff have lives – like, families and hobbies and complicated relationships with their co-workers*, all of which might impinge on the actual Missions, but (more to the point) would give you some Serious Investment as to whether they lived or died.
MASSIVE CHALICE is not that game. I did not expect it to be that game. I do not consider it remotely reasonable to expect it to be that game; that game is a beautiful mirage conceived by a teenager in blissful ignorance of the hard realities of game dev and AI design. When I get down to what I found disappointing about it, though, it boils down to not being enough like that game.
Double Fine are held in reverence largely because they aim to make games that are unconventional and high-quality in an industry where that’s not meant to be allowed. They have, unsurprisingly, learned to play up to this; sometimes the markers of unconventionality are very skin-deep. Even though the three base classes of heroes in Chalice fall neatly into standard CRPG styles (ranged, melee, area-effect ranged) they’re visually distinctive. Hunters have huge crossbows wielded like a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher; a Caberjack’s eponymous weapon is a big log with handles in the middle; the Alchemist launches his explosive flasks with a device like a jai alai cesta, only bladed. (No healer class. I don’t miss it.)
The other Double Fine hallmark is that its games never take themselves entirely seriously, even – especially – when the subject-matter is dark, which is a blessing indeed in a medium afflicted with an adolescent fixation on Srs Grimdark. Still, there are traces of Arthurian feel to Chalice: the TH White-y noble struggle against ever-encroaching doom, the Grail that is also a round table, the island nation. The doom is particularly noteworthy: where games dealing with territorial control almost invariably assume the steady expansion of the player’s territory, Chalice employs managed decline, even as successive generations of hero become more powerful. I was inevitably put in mind of Ben Lehman’s Polaris, with its elfy knights led to inevitable, civilisation-ending destruction through demonic influence.
The big thing about Polaris, though, is that its antagonists work ceaselessly to make the protagonists more interesting. The Cadence is boring, and doesn’t make anything else less boring. In theory, the Cadence feed on discontent and negative emotions; in the menu-choice events that happen periodically, choices that disturb or anger the populace tend to make the Cadence spread. This is an old saw but a decent one; a standard mode through which to reify whatever nastiness exists in your world. In practice, Chalice never develops enough of a sense either of the world you’re meant to be protecting, or the nature of the Cadence itself, for this to feel like anything more than a shruggy justification for the mechanics.
The thing that it really does care about is the marriages, appointments, education and abilities of its heroic dynasties. And that’s all the subject-matter you need for a good story, as Shakespeare and Crusader Kings testify. Given that, in theory it’s totally cool that the Cadence is just a generic external pressure. (And not a zombie one, for which I am grateful.)
Except that… mrf. This is an arc which is shaped by the player’s motives – to produce a regular supply of characters with strong stats and traits – and by circumstance. The heroes don’t have motives, either as individuals or as Great Houses. And individual, conflicting motive is what’s required to turn a list of begats into a story.
OK, OK, even a modest implementation of that would have added a pretty substantial layer of complexity, representing months if not years of development. But there’s a way that narrative engagement could have been improved with an afternoon’s work.
The graphics are an expense-saving low-res, which I am totally fine with – it’s employed with taste and skill. Except that it’s a little hard to identify individuals at a glance on the battlefield, and particularly hard to distinguish them from their grandparents, who have the same clan colours, the same base class, similar skin tone, probably the same legacy weapon. And this compounds a problem that Double Fine basically created for themselves. The right to name a clan and its starting characters was one of the game’s Kickstarter mid-tier rewards; well and good, but they didn’t just grant the right to the default values; they didn’t allow renaming. Somebody probably thought that renaming characters in this kind of game was a nifty optional extra, rather than a key feature, and that making the naming right more exclusive would make it more valuable; I think they were very wrong about that, and it should be obvious that pushing key features into backer rewards hurts everyone – including those backers, in this case, because they only get to choose names once, for one clan, and then they’re stuck with it.
I think it’s great that an individual hero might fight in three or four battles in their lifetime, and consider that a really good run. I like that it has bothered to make up its own character classes and monster types. The narrators are pleasant and mostly natural-sounding and sometimes actually funny. I think the tactics are deeper than they appear at first (I’m playing on Hard now and it has made me really appreciate Caberjacks, who are pretty superfluous in Normal). But I’m trying and failing to care about the story of individual playthroughs, which is what I need to really love and stick with a game.
It’s fairly nifty. It is its own thing. It is not overpriced at twenty bucks. If this sounds like damning with faint praise – well, trading on reverence is a rough road.
* Minor trivia of interest to nobody but me: Tsawac Poitier, star of Oxbridge Pissheads and Invisible Parties, came into being as a character randomly generated for a pen-and-paper prototype of this concept.