Preview: Massive Chalice

300 years is a really long time to ask someone to plan for -- to consider for the future of the kingdom, the best courses of action to lead to victory against a nigh unstoppable foe, to train heroes and delay the destruction of your kingdom. A lot can happen in 300 years. A lot DOES happen in 300 years. Think about where the United States was when this country started compared to where it is now. And that's only been in less than 300! Massive Chalice wants to lightly simulate 300 years of history for a medieval style country as it tries to survive until the titular chalice can charge up and rid the world of a dark force that is encroaching on everything. It's a slow foe, only attacking every few decades, but it's still a powerful threat, and 300 years is still a long, long time.

But when I say it lightly simulates things, I don't know how much more I can emphasize "lightly".

It's hard to come up with something to do over that much time, mostly because it's hard to really figure what you might need. Most of us can barely plan further than a few months, and this game is asking you to come up with a plan to not only continue having children, but claim lands, train your fighters, and develop your technology.

So the game splits into battles and the overworld, but the problem with both of them is that there isn't enough to do in either one. I really don't expect this game to be, like, Crusader Kings or anything, but in both parts of this game there're moments where I just sort of... let time go until something happens. Then it does, I deal with it, and back to waiting.

This is worst on the overworld, where there's a button you press that goes and speeds up time, and you watch the years tick on by. Children are born. Kids go from young and spry to battle hardened warriors to decrepit old folk. Then they die. You select new regents, you run new research, but for most of this, you're never really doing it, just... telling time to go by.

I don't understand some of the ways you're limited, though. You can only do research in a castle, and it makes the keeps feel worthless, except to churn out new heroes and keep a territory from being taken over. Which sounds like a lot, sure, but only being able to research or do one 'large scale' thing at a time keeps it from feeling like a real kingdom. Even if you have places for sages, or multiple keeps, it only feels like you're using one- the main keep.  That’s the one that trained people go to. That’s the one where the research happens at. That’s the one where you rule, equip your people, and make decisions for the kingdom.

Which sounds like a lot but you can only do one at a time, and it cancels out. It just makes me wonder- why can I only research there? Why is it that I can’t build another place to research? Why the pointless limit? It starts to feel like there’s no way to really improve your kingdom, but there are actually a few. Citadels can be built to train your people, for example, which is handy, because it keeps away the annoyance of “wow all of these idiots come out completely untrained”. Sage places (sagewrights, I believe) let you shorten the amount of time it takes to complete research. You can also complete projects to find new heroes (and thus new families, more on those later), and complete others that make those found people stronger.

It’s great having them come in trained, too, because there’s an ability tree that you’re just never going to fill up otherwise, and it’s really annoying when you get someone so promising, come in with battle plans, and then it falls apart because you can’t do anything with them.

Which the battles also don’t do much to really encourage any type of play style. They’re very… flat. A lot of my favorite strategy games like this introduce an extra wrinkle into the game that make you have to worry about how you play. Fire Emblem’s relationship system and permadeath, XCOM’s literally everything… even Pokemon Conquest on the DS has an extra element because of the elemental affinities the series is known for, but Massive Chalice doesn’t feel like it has that. There’s permadeath, sure, but if you can stay away, you can take care of most of the enemies no problem, and it doesn’t really seem to change, especially as there are enemies who can, say, sap your life, or explode upon death. Alchemists and hunters wind up being precious resources, to be kept well guarded… and it actually made me sad when a well-trained soldier finally passed away.

Keeps are where you grow your families strong, and this part tickles my brain a lot, even if it IS really hands off. It probably helps that I’m reading Game of Thrones right now, so every time I see a sigil, house words, and a cool name for a keep, I’m like putty. Sure, “The Gourdburglars” isn’t exactly an awesome name (but it’s a TOTALLY AWESOME NAME), but their keep is called The Cornucopia and their words are “Give thanks to the Gourd!” and they churn out some of my best people. It’s a neat feeling to rely on a family like that, to feel like they give to the kingdom, and I probably spend way more time thinking about it than I need to.

I mean, their children gain some of their traits, and you have to worry about how fertile your heroes are when you mount them as regents, but in the end, all they’re really doing is rolling dice behind the scenes for if they have kids and what they are. Still, I’m way into the Gourdburglars… but the other houses I’ve put in place, such as the Mennutis, not so much. They exist, but they’re not integral in the same way.

It’s just another system in place that doesn’t give you much to actually do with it. Once you make the decision, it’s done and you deal with the consequences until it’s time to make another. There’s a lot here, but there really isn’t that much to actually do.

But at the same time, I just want to keep playing Massive Chalice because as bare as the systems are, it’s cool to see it working together. Taking heroes from their first battle to their last can be satisfying, and when you grow to rely on them but they’re no longer able to fight, or they die, it can be affecting, even if not as consistently as the developers probably hoped. Some families and heroes are just better than others. I wish there was a way to memorialize them, a la Dwarf Fortress. Although, when I think I want a game to be “more like Dwarf Fortress,” maybe I should back up a bit.

Massive Chalice feels like it wants to be “my first turn-based strategy game.” It has elements of deeper games, but only on the surface. Once you delve deeper it feels a little empty, but the game is still in Early Access so I guess I just wonder what else they’ll be putting in. The Double Fine Action Forums are available for feedback, and the developers are active in them, taking feedback. Hopefully there’ll be, you know, more to do, but even as it stands, I really enjoy Massive Chalice and look forward to it growing and morphing. It’s a great base for what will hopefully be an even better game, but even in early access, what you get is a lot of fun.