Thursday, January 21, 2016

Review: Massive Chalice

I've been playing Massive Chalice lately, and it bothered me enough that I feel the need to write a review. No spoilers, because the game doesn't really have a story.

Long-view Gameplay

There are two core gameplay mechanics in Massive Chalice. The first is long-view gameplay, which takes place over the course of three hundred years. Here, you're building on the land, doing match-making between bloodlines, train heroes, and engaging in research. The second is battle gameplay, where you equip heroes, bring them onto a battleground, then fight against the Cadence.

Massive Chalice claims to take place on an epic timescale, but part of the problem with the long-view gameplay is that it never feels like it. Keeps take years to build, but all that's involved with building a keep is pressing a button and then waiting for the years to pass, which happens over the course of a few seconds as time goes into fast speed. There are five events that can happen when you're in fast mode:
  • Someone dies, sometimes accompanied by passing on a relic or a vacancy needing to be filled
  • Someone is born, no action needed
  • Random events, pick one option
  • Build/research finishes, pick a new one
  • Cadence attack, go to battle
The random events and births aren't exactly irrelevant, but there's not much aspect of choice involved in the random choices, in part because their results are opaque to the player. Deaths do represent an actual choice, because people are one of your two resources (the other being time), but again, there's not that much weight to this.

In part, I blame this on presentation. There's an established visual grammar to moving forward through time; show a spinning clock, then day flickering to night and back again, then the seasons passing from summer to winter and back again, then a tree growing and blossoming. Maybe throw in some blurred lights of passing cars and pages falling from a calendar. Massive Chalice gives you no visual indication of time passing aside from a countdown of years and days. In fact, there's no indication that there's anything going on in the kingdom at all. There are no people moving along the trade routes (and no trade routes), no crops being harvested, no real indication that things are being built, no festivals, no seasons ... nothing. Moving forward in time is a completely sterile experience. There is no appreciable difference in moving through time that makes it different from XCOM, which happens over the course of a year or two instead of centuries.

Another way that presentation falls flat is that you only rarely see your heroes. There are only two times; first, when you're taking them into battle, and second, when you're looking at them in the keep (usually this only happens when arranging a new marriage or replacing the person running the keep). Massive Chalice doesn't allow you to see a baby grow into a teenager who then goes to fight in battles, since in the course of normal gameplay you never see them, just a name and a banner (and maybe some stats). Even your vanguard (those you take into battle) you only see when the Cadence attack, which means that on average, you see them four or five times before they die of old age, and that's if you start them young and never put them into retirement.

My other main problem with the long-view gameplay is the shallowness of choice. There are only two resources in the long-view; people and time. People can either be available as vanguards, used as sagewrights, used as trainers, or used as breeding stock. All of these options are, for no adequately explained story reason, mutually exclusive, even though Cadence battles only take about a day. Okay, so the sagewright thing is explained as those heroes taking up the white banner, stripped of their house so that they might aid the kingdom in matters of learning. But that doesn't explain why people in the vanguard can't have children of their own.

The other major resource is time. Research, building, and finding children all take between 5-20 years and are all mutually exclusive. I suppose one way of thinking of it is that your kingdom's entire productive effort is being geared toward that one single thing, but regardless of what justifications we might make for that, it's not particularly fun or interesting. This is a case where combining trade-offs results in a paucity of actual choices and makes the choices less interesting than they might otherwise have been. Also, because the only resource spent on research/building/recruitment is time, that means that there's very little trade-off. We're only speaking in terms of a single currency.

So how to fix all this? I know that Massive Chalice didn't have a massive budget, so I'll try to stick to things that could have been different that would have given better depth without greatly increasing development time.
  1. Use something else as a currency in addition to time. The kingdom should be producing something; it doesn't need to have complex animations, but I would have liked some basic high level things like stone or iron, which would then be spent on keeps, guilds, crucibles, etc. This would also give the sense that the kingdom was more than the sum of its keeps, and could add some much-needed strategic variety to the game by allowing different plots to generate different amounts of things.
  2. Place the heroes more front and center. If nothing is going to be happening on the world map while time is moving forward, I would have liked to see the heroes aging in real time, preferably with all of them standing around together, grouped by family. If I could see a woman holding a baby who grows into a toddler over the course of seconds, then drops to the ground and climbs up, aging into a teenager, I think I would have felt more of a connection. This does dip slightly into budget issues. Failing that, I would have liked to see some ceremonies, such as funerals, to give some sense that these are actual people who are mourning the loss of their loved ones. For that matter I might have liked an actual graveyard instead of just a list of the deceased with only a banner and name to represent them within a submenu.
  3. I really wish that there were something proactive I could do. All decisions made within Massive Chalice are the result of waiting around until you're presented with a choice (usually a binary one). There is nothing that you can do, most of the time, except pass the time. Most of the time, you want time to pass as quickly as possible, because time is what separates you from actual gameplay. I would have liked some ability to strike out on my own, to take the fight to the Cadence, clear out the creeping sickness, or send someone on a quest. That would at least have given me some pause before hitting the button that speeds through the years. (XCOM includes this as part of between-mission downtime.)
  4. I want there to be more for my heroes to do between missions. This ties in with both proactivity and putting the heroes first, but also with complaints about the game feeling like it's got no weight. Heroes are locked into doing one thing, the same as research and building are locked into one thing, which removes many interesting elements of choice. I would have liked heroes to have children, even if they were children outside of a royal marriage that I had arranged. I would have liked them to be training (and specifically, to establish a padawan/master relationship, which would help them to feel more like real people). While I really like the idea of sagewrights giving up their banners and renouncing their faith, I would have liked some way for my heroes who aren't doing anything to contribute to building or research. If those were distinct things, perhaps they could be barred from research and put their efforts toward building.
  5. Slow things down. Battles happen about once every ten years, on average. If heroes start at 15 years old, that means that they have about five or six battles until they die, assuming that they devote their entire lives to battle (which you don't always want). If battles happened every five years instead, you'd get twice the time with your heroes, so might feel a little bit more weight. Unfortunately, I don't think the core battle gameplay is fun enough to support this. In either case, if you did this you'd want to make the long-view gameplay more crowded so there was more to do in the intervening time.

Battle Gameplay

Battle gameplay makes up the majority of the game. Pick your five heroes, equip them, then send them into battles against the Cadence. This all takes place on a grid, presented from an angle. They have two actions every turn, they can move, they can attack, etc. It's basically just doing the XCOM thing. Notably different from XCOM though, there's no overwatch (the mechanic where you can get in a position to shoot the next enemy that moves) and no cover (though you can still sort of hide from sight).

The first and biggest problem is that there's very little variety in the battles. Here are the types of missions in XCOM:

  • Abduction missions: The aliens have landed, go kill the aliens
  • UFO missions: We've shot down a UFO, go kill the surviving aliens
  • Escort missions: Take this guy to the evac zone
  • Terror missions: Kill the aliens before they kill the civilians
  • Asset recovery missions: Protect the assets and kill the aliens
  • Target extraction missions: Find this guy then take him to the evac zone
  • Bomb missions: Defuse the bomb then kill the aliens
Some of these are fairly similar and only really differ in the sort of art you're seeing when you go around killing the aliens, but others actually change how you play the game. Some of them put on a time pressure that's not in place during the main game, while others put constraints on how you're allowed to position your resources (a major part of the game). In Massive Chalice:
  • Attack missions: The Cadence are attacking, kill them
  • Defense missions: The Cadence have attacked a keep, go protect the people living there
These do not play terribly differently. The people you're defending in defense missions are heroes as well, so the only real difference is that you start with a segregated squad. I should note that in 300 years I only got a single defense mission.

This lack of variety on the tactical level is a major problem, since this is the core gameplay element and it gets repetitive in a hurry. XCOM breaks up the gameplay with variants that force the player to change their playstyle. For the most part, Massive Chalice does not. This means that by the time you're on your tenth or twentieth mission, there's very little that gives you pause and it's a paint-by-numbers experience (but not in the zen way that paint-by-numbers can be good).

The overall tactical gameplay is a bit shallow, but there's enough variety in the classes (three normal, six hybrid) and the equipment loadouts to keep the feeling of newness going. The enemies are varied in their attacks and effects, but I felt like the strategic-level resource hits (enemies that reduce XP, age up characters) were more cute and quirky than tactically interesting. There wasn't too much interesting emergent gameplay that came from it, in part because getting hit for five years only really means that you miss out on half a battle from that unit's expected utility, which isn't much.

Final Thoughts

The two big things that Massive Chalice is missing are weight and depth. This leaves it feeling unfinished, which it might be. I know enough about the software development world to know that sometimes you don't get all the nifty features that you were planning for, so it might be that this came down to budget. With that said, I think the fact that XCOM already laid so much of the groundwork (and was so heavily cribbed from) makes the lack of weight and depth a little puzzling and disappointing. Firaxis had a much larger budget for XCOM than Double Fine had for Massive Chalice, but Double Fine already went for a low polygon art style and skimped quite a bit on the graphics. So if they knew that they weren't going to sell anyone on graphics, why was the gameplay not at least on par with the game they were copying?

I found this game frustrating because it had good ideas that didn't go far enough and an interesting premise that they didn't execute as well as they could have. I was ready to like it, but while it was a decent enough game, it never grabbed me and I don't think that I'll ever return to it.

1 comment:

Kieran M said...

I find this problem with a lot of Double Fine games. Costume Quest has a similar lack of gameplay depth, and it was extremely frustrating, because the ideas were evocative and fun, but the execution was so cursory, and really felt like someone saying "that'll do".