Turns out the chalice is neither massive nor especially deep
Alternate Title: "Games I should like, but don't 2: With Apologies to Brad Muir"
It's weird to think that around two years ago I seriously considered backing this game on Kickstarter, but didn't. A turn-based tactics game with Crusader Kings-esque dynasties of heroes? That sounds like a thing I might have given my money to! But I didn't. By June of 2013, when this game was funded, I think the initial hype machine surrounding Kickstarter as a way to make games had started to die down a little. I had given money to Torment: Tides of Numenera like a complete sucker (and here I am, still waiting for that game to be more than just the occasional backer update and actually be something I can play at some point), but I think I was probably a little more hesitant funding the second kickstarter for another company that had yet to release its first crowdfunded game (which, may I remind you, was not released in full until this year). Fast forward to now, and, you know what? I think I'm okay with not funding Massive Chalice. Had I any financial or personal stakes in the game, I think I would be more disappointed with it than I am now.
Massive Chalice is a game developed by Double Fine, a developer everyone loves to root for but I personally don't have much affinity towards beyond thinking that
Trenched Iron Brigade was pretty good for the week or so that I played it. That game as the exception, I've found their output over the years to be heavy on the charm and light on the actual substance, which likely explains why I despised Costume Quest as much as I did. No, I haven't played Psychonauts, but I have it in my steam library from something. Maybe I'll play it one of these days. But onto the topic at hand: Massive Chalice is a game that doesn't so much fail on its own terms as it is a game that underwhelms on the terms of the turn-based strategy genre as a whole. It's sins are of omission more than commission but are no less egregious, resulting in a game whose greatest weakness is its own lack of substance. Perhaps its first mistake is borrowing heavily from the 2012 reboot of XCOM. Now don't get me wrong, I liked Enemy Unknown quite a bit and would rather have that than the overly-slavish Xenonauts any day, but also that game was a little on the slight side and I can understand, though not agree with, the people who thought it was too watered down and "casual'd" for its own good. For me, Massive Chalice is actually that game. Maybe if you're not too keen on strategy games, this might fit the bill, but as someone who eats strategy games (ranging from "pretty straightforward" to "grognard crazy") for breakfast, this chalice did not satisfy.
Like XCOM, Massive Chalice is split into distinct halves, with a strategic overview where you manage your hero dynasties, mixed up with the occasional tactical battle here and there where your heroes run around and kill things. Like XCOM, you have a tech-tree of sorts where you research better weapons, armor and equipment to help you fight off "The Cadence". Unlike XCOM, which basically ended with you training up a super-powered squad of high-level soldiers to wipe out the enemy, the passage of time in Massive Chalice ensures that any given hero won't be useful for more than a few battles before they get old and you throw them into research or training because they can't fight well anymore. In conceptual terms, this means that the strategy-level management among your heroic families is more important than any of the individual heroes themselves, who will all eventually succumb to old age and death soon enough. In real terms, that means that once you have your leaders pumping out babies with desirable genetic and personality traits as part of your weird fantasy eugenics experiment you don't need to worry about the strategic layer at all. Yeah, (Once again, like XCOM) you can lose territory to The Cadence because of contrived "You can only send out one team but the aliens are attacking multiple locations" nonsense, but you can get decent armor pretty early and new weapons are less important than they seem. Why? Because if one of your heroes does well enough, their weapon will become a "relic" to be passed down the bloodline, which can level up and otherwise be utterly superior to anything you can research. I guess it would be possible, through poor planning or perhaps bumping the game up a difficulty level or two, to create families spawning weak, nearsighted and asthmatic children but even with some early-game fumbling that turned out fine. Even if one generation of children doesn't really satisfy, chances are you'll have plenty of other soldiers from other families ready to be thrown through the meat grinder like the disposable tools they are.
That leaves the tactical stuff, which I also think is too simple for its own good. There are 3 base classes (which split into an additional 6 hybrid classes) falling into the basic archetypes of Melee/Ranged/Control. (Again, again, like XCOM) each class has its own skill tree where you have to pick between two mutually-exclusive perks depending on how you want to build your characters. Of the classes, I personally found most of my melee characters to be lacking in effectiveness, given that my ranged heroes could run around invisible most of the time and snipe enemies thanks to their generous range. By the end of the game (in the last few "decades" of play) that dynamic had shifted more in favor of my alchemists, given the game's inability to throw strong enemies at my heroes in favor of mere swarm tactics. Did I mention there are only like 6 types of enemies overall and the game just randomly upgrades them to "advanced" variations around the halfway mark? Well, yep. They all have gimmicks associated with them, be it causing your heroes to lose experience/age, fortifying against damage after the first attack, switching positions or simply spawning more enemies, all things that do a better job at being annoying rather than actually threatening. And really... that's about it. There are some hints of interesting mechanics here and there, like how the caberjacks' ability to knock enemies back allows you to stun fools if you knock one enemy into another or into a wall, but other than that and maybe throwing jars of bees as an AOE hazard it's depressingly straightforward. There are hints of good tactical combat, but on the default difficulty I honestly just found it pretty monotonous, and not in a way that making it harder could fix. There simply isn't enough meat on Massive Chalice's bones (or water in its cup, as it were) for a difficulty bump to make the game any more interesting. I know I said the same thing about Invisible Inc, but I really mean it about this game. It does what it wants to do competently, but what it does is limited and uninteresting by comparison to the vast and bountiful fields of tactical/strategy games that have come out over the past... 25 or so years.
This is the part where I wish I could tell you that Massive Chalice at least has the trademark Double Fine charm to compensate...Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Not really. I see what they're going for with the art style; stark and minimalistic with a lot of angles like Endless Legend but unlike aforementioned 4X game it doesn't really pull that off and just comes off as dry and cold. There's some decently funny dialogue from "The Chalice" (which consists of an older, scholarly man and a younger warrior-ish lady) and from the random FTL-like events that occasionally pepper the strategic layer, but that's icing. Your heroes all look indistinct and blur together, which really continues the analogy of them all being disposable tools rather than memorable or singly important.
It took me about 12 hours to do one playthrough of Massive Chalice, and I have very little interest in doing another. I might as well play XCOM, which this game already wants to be on so many levels. If you want to take a look at this game, do so when it is on sale. I don't think it's worth full price.