Mas­sive Chal­ice

EDGE - - PLAY - PC, Xbox One Out now Dou­ble Fine

Mod­ern medicine may have slapped a stick­ing plas­ter on the fleet­ing­ness of life, but the great­est the­matic tri­umph and most irk­some man­age­ment cri­sis pre­sented by Dou­ble Fine’s homage to XCOM: En­emy Un­known is that it con­fronts you with hu­man im­per­ma­nence. Not yours – your essence is undy­ing, bound to the tit­u­lar Chal­ice – but you sit on the throne of a king­dom be­ing as­saulted by a colour­fully lethal threat called the Ca­dence. Your peo­ple’s only hope is for he­roes of blessed blood to fend the beasts off for long enough to al­low the Chal­ice to charge up a mon­ster-oblit­er­at­ing wave. The catch? It’s a 300-year process, so gen­er­a­tions will pass be­fore you’re done.

Those in-game cen­turies will be spent build­ing up your be­sieged is­land king­dom, which floats in a sea of tan­ger­ine Ca­dence yuck. It’s a stop-start process of fast-for­ward­ing through mor­tal life­times, the ad­vance of years auto-paused when key de­ci­sions arise. Some are al­most al­ways grip­ping, such as text events with no ob­vi­ous an­swers, or what to re­search next. Oth­ers are vari­able, such as who to man­age your Keeps, where you es­tab­lish blood­lines and twisted ge­nealo­gies. While the lat­ter will de­fine your game at first (see ‘Class war’), find­ing re­place­ments for cus­to­di­ans with mayfly-like You’ll win many bat­tles with­out loss of life, but there are tense patches. Early on, Rup­tures are hard to get rid of, grow­ing ar­mour af­ter their first hit each round. By game end, you can one-shot them and ev­ery­thing else life­spans does grow weary­ing once you’ve es­tab­lished enough houses that he­roes aren’t in short sup­ply.

The big­ger por­tion of a playthrough, how­ever, is ded­i­cated to guid­ing five he­roes in turn-based bat­tle. The two-phase moves and abil­ity-heavy com­bat are fa­mil­iar, but slightly less sub­stan­tial than their clear an­ces­tor, only ir­reg­u­larly gen­er­at­ing the same grip­ping sense of peril and of gam­ing the odds. Still, in the Ca­dence, Dou­ble Fine finds cheeky new ways to vary the rules. Twitchers can tele­port, but do so by swap­ping places with a hero, scat­ter­ing for­ma­tions; Wrin­klers age their tar­gets five years with ev­ery hit. It doesn’t mat­ter how thick your ar­mour is if your heart just stops.

Not that you’ll get too at­tached to in­di­vid­u­als – nat­u­ral age­ing means even your best he­roes can’t dodge the Reaper for long – but where Mas­sive Chal­ice breaks away from its in­spi­ra­tion is in the things that do last. Raise a high-level hero and they might leave be­hind a Relic, a weapon be­queathed to their house. These level in­de­pen­dently and, when com­bined with the trickle down of XP through gen­er­a­tions, cre­ate the sense of your grand houses grow­ing in might, even if zoom­ing out that far does de­tach you from their mem­bers.

Beau­ti­ful and var­ied, Mas­sive Chal­ice has the bear­ing of a great house it­self. Its es­ca­la­tion to a meaty endgame is novel, but pes­ter­ing rel­a­tives and a paucity of hard­ships in com­bat hold it back from great­ness.

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