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.