Yes, Massive Chalice sounds a bit like a euphemism for male genitalia. Contrary to popular opinion, however, I am capable of resisting an obvious dick joke. Especially when the game is this bloody good.
A strategy game played out over 300 years, Massive Chalice is the kind of game that can devour whole days and make it feel like no time at all. This is somewhat ironic; director Brad Muir said “I’m hoping that by playing MASSIVE CHALICE players might reflect on the bigger picture of their lives. I want someone to pick up the phone and call their 90 year old grandmother after playing.”
This is a goal the game comes surprisingly close to achieving. Like nothing else I’ve experienced, it made me understand and feel that inexorable march of time. Appointing someone at the age of 17 then encountering them again at 70, watching heroes be born and age and die is a touching, sobering experience like no other.
In real terms, Massive Chalice owes an obvious debt to the recent XCom reboot. A central command screen sees time race by as events play out over days, months and years then individual battles proceed in immediately familiar style. Once one starts playing, however, Massive Chalice’s personality shines through in every aspect.
Unlike XCom, the time spent between battles is possibly the most interesting. Building keeps and appointing lords, watching their lives play out and their children grow and mature, dealing with story events from the serious and tragic to the bizarre and comical, is engaging, surprising and intimate. Characters do little and say less, but what you know of them grows into characters in the space between words. Heroes who die of old age between battles are sorely missed. Regents appointed in their teenage years age and evolve in the blink of an eye.
Perhaps these sections require an imagination to fully enjoy. A character is given only a name, a model and a few barely described traits when one meets them, but it is easy to allow them to become human beings. When a powerful family heirloom of a weapon is appointed to a young child, who then grows into an adult member of the combat team before becoming the only viable candidate for a specific throne and requiring a husband to continue the line, it is impossible not to develop emotional attachments.
These decisions assault the player constantly as the 300 years roll by. You appoint characters and partners to breed heroes with the traits required to keep fighting through the turn-based battles that rear theirs heads every ten in-game years or so. The cold, horrible eugenics are explained away with fantastical immunity and feudal necessity, but the game isn’t afraid to remind you of the moral vagueness of what you’re doing with occasional events. A character might come to you and complain about the cruel nature of their arranged marriage, forcing you to lie and explain the benefits.
As well as XCom, the game owes another debt to A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones, with lords of castles married together by politics and magic, houses each sporting a catchy and rousing motto along with a cool flag. The world map even looks like a physical model of a real place.
The art style, however, is completely unique, a stylistic painting that captures a certain humanity while being simplistic and ultimately very stylish and cool. The enemy designs in particular, far from the generic orcs, goblins, werewolves and vampires, are bizarre and twisted creatures, believably born from the game’s malevolent Cadence.
The overarching plot is of a land besieged by an inhuman force, the Cadence, which appears as a darkness around the map. This darkness manifests itself as various enemies the player must defeat in combat scenarios and as a corruption which blights the land if the player fails. The eponymous Massive Chalice is a literal really big cup which, after 300 years, will have built enough power to cleanse the world of the Cadence.
Brilliantly, the game plays on the old optical illusion -- is it a wine-glass or two faces in profile -- by being both. The chalice is possessed by two spirits who recruit the player as an immortal ruler, bound to the throne. They also provide exposition and advice throughout the game. Though much of the dialogue is repeated as events play out again and again, the sound clips are short enough and of a certain gentle humour that prevents offence.
The turn-based battles against the Cadence incursions play out in a manner which will be familiar to those who have played XCom; the same systems of one move then a further layer of movement or attack, lines of sight and fog of war are all in place. The blueprint XCom laid out for how to take classic turn-based combat and optimise and streamline it for modern console play is taken here and built upon exquisitely; the classes and enemies are superbly designed and balanced down to every nuance.
Criticisms, where they can be levelled, are in the minor details – certain button prompts that are never explained and left to the player to explore or specifics of items and upgrades that are a little fiddly—or gameplay specifics where one’s mileage may vary, like a sharp upwards difficulty curve after the halfway mark that may provide the tension the early game is missing or may be an unwelcome hindrance.
Overall, the game is difficult to criticise in the specific because of how perfectly it delivers an overall artistic vision. The soundtrack, though used sparingly, is effective at setting tone and mood and can worm its way into the head very successfully. The world and lore, though often left vague, is both familiar and novel in sufficient measures to stay with the player long after the game is switched off.
If you’re an Xbox Gold member, don’t be the kind of cretin who complains about the lack of "AAA titles". Bland, identikit Ubisoft games and endless first person shooters would be poor substitutes for memorable games like Massive Chalice. Instead, embrace the chance to play such a beautifully crafted game. If you’re somebody who is going to have to pony up the cash, either on Xbox or PC, to play this game, do so safe in the knowledge that you are buying what is so far one of the year’s most engaging, memorable, gorgeous and valuable games. Whatever you do, make sure you’re filled right up with Massive Chalice.