Each month, with their relative subscriptions to enable online play, both Microsoft and Sony throw free gifts at consumers to ensure that the premium experiences that they offer are as good as they possibly can be in order to ensure at least another thirty days of brand loyalty. But with multiple games being handed out every time, where exactly can the best of these freebies be located each and every month? Well, that dilemma is exactly what prompted us to step in to fill the void with a brand new monthly review that aims to pick out and recommend one game from the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One line-ups as our coveted “Pick of the Month”. Now, with the backstory now firmly out of the way, it’s time to pick out and review our inaugural free gaming highlight…
This month, Xbox One owners are being treated to Double Fine’s latest offering, Massive Chalice, which may sound an awful lot like a double entendre, but fear not, behind the name, their lies a brilliantly constructed real-time strategy game that appears to be more than capable of helping X-Com fans see out the otherwise long wait until November. And perhaps most surprisingly of all though, it’s actually managed to arrive with no fanfare, making it one of real rarities in gaming today, a surprise.
The game begins by introducing you to a rather sizeable, talking chalice (with two personalities) which announces that you, the player, are to fill the shoes of an unnamed immortal who must protect a fantasy kingdom from the continued onslaught of a race of beings known as the Cadence. Unlike 2K’s X-Com, however, the passage of time is not merely measured in hours or days, but in years, and it is the player’s job to hold off the advances of the Cadence until the Chalice is fully charged and capable of dealing with them once and for all. This process, however, takes around three centuries - yes that’s right, three hundred years - which roughly equates to around eighteen hours or so of gameplay. I must note that whilst the player may be immortal, the troops that they control are not, so they can expect to see both men and women alike rise and fall over the passage of time, so perhaps it’s best not to get too attached to these ones…
In each territory located within the land, a building can be placed, these not only take years to produce, but yield various effects, however, should the player build a keep, they can instil members of their forces to shoulder the responsibilities of being the area’s monarchs. They will in turn produce children who will take on some of their character traits, and eventually enter active service from around the age of fifteen or so. Cleverly, this adds a vital resource management aspect to Massive Chalice, for outwith time itself, the most important resource available within the game, are the people.
Characters all have various strengths and weaknesses, and over the course of time, through numerous encounters with their bitter adversaries, will level up and generate new skills, though as they age, they begin to lose their lustre for battle. Eventually, these once fine warriors will need to be put out to pasture, either as a monarch within a keep, or as a trainer to pass on their skills to the upcoming generation of troops as a stat boosting asset. Once a decision has been made, however, characters are sworn to them, and cannot change roles or re-enter active service, which means that these pronouncements cannot be taken lightly, and must be done so with one eye placed firmly on the future that lies ahead.
Once the Cadence launch an attack – they usually assault multiple areas at once, forcing the player to make a decision as to which district should be defended – the game changes gear and switches to a very comfortable real-time strategy style of game. Like X-Com before it, encounters take place of fairly sizeable maps, each littered with both enemies and structures that pass for cover, with the player’s view obfuscated by the now obligatory “fog of war”. Once the player has taken control of a character from their team, they can take two moves, though moving larger distances consumes both of these, with such surmountable expanses marked out by different coloured perimeter markings. Characters are initially divided into just three different classes, though by mixing these up when breeding, it is possible to create hybrid classes that can take on characteristics from either parent, and as one might expect, the key to enjoying successful combat scenarios comes from having a both varied and balanced outfit, so try to experiment with different team set-ups.
Each character has a fairly minimalist skill tree that sees new perks unlock at predefined levels, and whilst this might seem a tad restrictive at first, when one considers their relatively short lifespans and the fact that combat is something that happens only sporadically, Double Fine seem to have made the correct call here, slowing character progression accordingly. On the subject of perks, when the Cadence do attack, and the player must decide where to send their forces, each potential mission offers up a reward for successful completion, this could be new abilities or resources, but it ensures that once more, the player must not make their choices too swiftly. And if all of that wasn’t enough, regions attacked successfully by the Cadence three times are lost permanently to their plundering forces, so one really must think carefully before acting.
With some intelligent enemy designs in place, some fairly solid AI and a surprisingly harsh difficulty curve, Massive Chalice looks set to be one of the surprise hits of the year. It certainly isn’t often that a videogame makes you feel as though your decisions carry real gravitas, but in here, they most certainly do, and it could very well be this becomes Massive Chalice’s finest feature, making it one of the most immediately engaging releases that I have seen for some time. With a more than generous helping of wit on the side, and a thoroughly surprising amount of depth, it is entirely impossible to not see Massive Chalice as the game that Double Fine have been needing to make for a very long time indeed, but does it mark a comeback for these famed indie darlings? Yes, I think so.