Massive Chalice borrows more from the Firaxis version of XCOM than anything else, although the Kickstarter project was envisioned as something between that, Final Fantasy Tactics, and the good parts of Fire Emblem: Awakening, which is to say the eugenics. The formula they landed on makes for a solid strategy game, but I tend to enjoy myself more on the Tactical JRPG side of that fence, where there’s no sinister XCOM calendar and you can set your own pace, obsessing over who your best character’s great-grandma will be so they’ll inherit a completely broken package of stats and have zero chance of low fertility or heart disease later in life.
Whether that’s your goal or not, I think Massive Chalice’s worst enemy is the extent to which the RNG plays a part in the experience. In terms of what I go for–creating overpowered characters across generations of arranged marriages–it unfortunately treats the parents’ traits as nothing more than a passing suggestion, and as often as not the kiddles end up inheriting nothing apart from class and level. There’s no “locking down” a stat like you do with IVs in Pokemon games, nor any cool ability inheritance that makes the characters stand out.
Moreover, as sincerely as I went into the game trying to keep myself from save-scumming my way around my mistakes, I ended up doing so heavily by the end-game. That’s my weakness of character on display, but I still find that it’s way too encouraged by the way the system is set up. The game makes most of its decisions at the last second, so a reload is usually the difference between a sexless decade, a generation of slow, dimwitted babies, or the fabled demi-gods you’re always praying for. The FTL-style multiple-choice events that come up are real cool to see, but the outcomes of those events have killed my primary heroes a number of times, and once even lowered the fertility of my entire army. There’s a sense that this is a game where you’re not always supposed to win, and I did enjoy playing through it, but not nearly so much that I would have continuously restarted my 20+ hour campaign until the good rolls came up on the dice.
If the event outcomes were consistent, then at the very least a player could say “Ah, that was the event that screwed me on my last run,” and get something out of the loss. I think XCOM also decided whether a shot would hit from where your character was standing before you actually fired it, so you couldn’t just reload and take the same shot again. That would’ve been another good idea for Massive.
I also didn’t feel like I had enough control. Randomization is certainly a part of that, but I would have liked to take a Hunter child with the “bear strength” trait and class-change him to Caberjack instead of just reloading to get a trait that wasn’t useless. Classes are locked down, unfortunately.
As are character names, family mottos, and war cries. These were all submitted by high-tier kickstarter backers, which is nice and all, except that they cannot be changed, ostensibly so backers could feel they got their money’s worth. I find it hard to imagine that anyone who backed the game out of a passion to make it as good as possible would take issue with their submissions existing solely as defaults. They’re pretty awkward, and even a backer can’t just play through the whole game with their one personalized family. Being able to start with backer houses and then changing their text seems only natural, and trifling. But as became clear with Pillars of Eternity (and is generally becoming common sense), a need to appease crowdfunders can be just as bad for the health of a game as any blustering publisher.
But they should still consider it, even now. It’s hard to overstress how much simply being able to name your own characters can improve an experience. It was for that very reason that I nearly laughed myself into a coma with another Double Fine game, a little prototype called Dear Leader.
A Civilization V-esque “marathon mode” might’ve been a good way to solve a few issues. The game is long enough as-is, but with three hundred years quickly bleeding away, you generally only got to use a character three or four times at most before it was time to pass the torch to someone forty years younger. If you could slow down time, get a fertile regent to conceive within a matter of weeks, and get to know your heroes better, that’d be great. The game works, but a good eugenics simulator would be less of a race against a clock, and more about good planning, as Fire Emblem had done.
Planning is still a good idea, of course. It’s best played while keeping notes on how long until your vanguards and regents get old, who the promising young replacements are, which hero has what relic, and any ideas you have about your favorite hybrid classes. It took me a while to get a good system going, and my first hundred or so years were pretty tense.
I thought the tactical layer was in pretty good shape, and the depth of mechanics and classes was probably comparable to the Firaxis XCOM, although that was notably a little shallow compared to the control players had in the original UFO Defense (most overtly in dogfighting from the geoscape). As with some of Massive’s choices, the Firaxis team prioritized a more balanced game, but to me this was somewhat unfortunate. Players who preferred the tight challenge of the new XCOM–rather than making their own fun by min-maxing troops for Psionic skill and making a joke of the enemy as one could do in the original–may appreciate Massive Chalice more than I did, although I’d argue that players of both camps should agree that the RNG elements could’ve been handled more carefully.
To sum up, I’d have generally liked the game better with a slowed pace, fewer mechanics rooted entirely in luck, and if it had capitalized more on the opportunities for player control, participation, customization, and so on. That said, the game is pretty fun. It’s a pleasure just listening to the chalice talk to itself. There’s some good UI too, which I didn’t even mention. But I probably wouldn’t be interested in a Massive Chalice 2 unless it forked from XCOM a little more and became the tactical RPG I had wanted Fire Emblem: Awakening to be, and I don’t see that happening with the resources at Double Fine’s command. Keep an eye out for whatever Yasumi Matsuno is doing next instead.