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Centuries of war: Double Fine on Massive Chalice

Massive Chalice is Double Fine's love-letter to XCOM and Final Fantasy Tactics. VG247's Dave Cook speaks with Brad Muir about the game's century-spanning war, and the power of lineage.

Brad Muir wanted to make Massive Chalice for many years, but the game's killer hook didn't come from his experience of strategy games. It came from a trip to the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

While there he realised that the structure took three generations to build, which meant the people who originally planned it were long dead by the time it was completed.

The sense of scale, sacrifice and dedication to make the concept reality still wows Muir to this day, and these key themes form the beating heart of what makes Massive Chalice so potentially ground-breaking in the strategy genre.

It also comes at a time where the fantasy genre runs hot through popular culture, thanks to the success of Skyrim and of course, Game of Thrones. Like George R.R. Martin's series of books, bloodlines and warring houses take center-stage in what Muir is trying to achieve.

Although it's early days and the specifics are subject to change, Muir explained that the game is set during a time of peace between several human houses. It places you as an immortal god who protects a vast city from demonic hordes that may attack every 5-20 years or so.

The city is essentially the same as the home base in XCOM: Enemy Unknown but where XCOM had time progressing in days, each 'fast-forward' of the Epic Timeline in Massive Chalice speeds up the world by months.

Over time weary warriors will put down their swords and rear children, passing down their skills and attributes through blood in the hopes of keeping their houses' legacy alive. Centuries of research into demonic weaponry will cause the city to flourish as frail heroes die of old age, never living long enough to see the fruits of their sacrifice.

Massive Chalice already sounds vast and ambitious, but project lead Brad Muir explained that the team hasn't even finalised all of the features it wants to see in the ultimate build. For one, the Kickstarter campaign is still running, so there's plenty of time to add ideas. He explained how the game's city system will work in practice.

"So the idea of the strategy layer will be a map of the entire realm that you'll be looking at from very high up in the heavens." Muir explained. "You're going to be this immortal ruler who will live through the Epic Timeline and so you're the steward of this realm. There'll be a main capital city, which is where the Massive Chalice actually exists. That's your seat of power, and there's going to be all these minor keeps around the realm.

"When you set the Epic Timeline into motion, months will progress very quickly and your heroes will age, things will happen around the realm, and you'll be interrupted when things happen like when demons attack keeps, when a hero dies of old age, a new hero is born, or when you're demonic technology has finished researching."

While these systems may appear to borrow heavily from XCOM, the bloodline system is a key differentiator, because in the world of Massive Chalice, surnames mean everything, so much so that Double Fine is even letting you design your own house sigil. These names don't just stand for the past glories of a house however, they also carry tactical advantages on the battlefield.

"We haven't decided on exactly what the story details are,"Muir continued, "but there's going to be some really good connection as to exactly why the demons come back. They can only enter the realm every - I don't know - five to 20 years. There's going to be some good reason why they're not constantly battling you. They're going to go away and you'll have years to prepare before you fight them again.

"These keeps I was talking about around the realm; you'll have to choose heroes you want to retire into these keeps so that they can have children. The whole risk-reward here is that when you get attacked, the retired heroes will be unavailable as they're going to be gone for a while. Those children are going to grow up to be your heroes of the next generation.

"We can have mothers and daughters fighting together on the battlefield, or brothers, uncles and grandfathers. There's all sorts of cool emergent stories that come out of families fighting on the battlefield, and I think that part is really exciting too for how it impacts tactical battles."

While perma-death is an inevitable part of the Massive Chalice formula, players can reload whenever a key squad member dies, but for those who relish XCOM's 'Iron Man' mode, Double Fine's gender-inclusive 'Iron Person' setting should provide a thrilling challenge. It's also worth noting that some monster types can cast spells on heroes that age them by ten years, which is a tangible threat in a game where time is your greatest enemy.

The battles themselves are still being conceptualised, but in being true to the genre, each battlefield is shrouded in a fog of war, where line of sight, verticality, movement and balancing skill-sets is the key to victory over the horde. Certain houses can also become bonded over the centuries in a system Double Fine currently refers to as 'Affinity', which may give heroes from friendly clans a stat boost when fighting together

"We want the battlefield to be bigger and have a more realistic, grounded feeling to it," Muir explained. "I really like the fog of war, search and destroy style of XCOM missions, so we're going to see what it's like to have more melee-based fantasy units moving around with line of sight and height. Those are the starting positions we're thinking about when thinking about tactical play.

Muir also explained a working title mechanic currently called 'Perks and Quirks', which feeds back into the game's bloodline concept. "Characters will have random advantages and disadvantages that they have at birth," Muir continued, "or maybe they'll get them as they level up and age. These will set them apart, because we want you to get invested in individual characters.

"So say for example 'Cook House' is made up of all fighters that fight with swords and shields. They might all wear heavy armour and use the same tactics, so how then can we flavour those individuals throughout the years? I think these minor perks and quirks are cool, and we're also talking about this 'nature/nurture' system where half of a potential hero comes from biology.

"Who were your parents, who married into the family? That can maybe determine your raw stats, stat potential, your base class, and things like that. Also; who raised you? Were you raised by those same two people, what abilities did they teach you and what experience did they pass down?

"It's really good that this is a fantasy game because you talk about experience being passed down; RPGs have XP as a prime mechanic, and that's a great thing, thinking about a hero being raised in one of these keeps and having the XP of the parents being passed down to the their child."

It's early days yet, so these features might change between now and the eventual launch of Massive Chalice, but Muir pointed out that both the Kickstarter model and Double Fine's penchant for relatively low cost, high quality production values will make for some potentially wild ideas in the final code.

The notion of a never-ending, century-spanning war that encompasses generations of heroes is vast, and it seems like it will propel the strategy format to a new level of depth. If XCOM is arguably the finest example of emergent story-telling in the grid-based genre, what better way to expand upon that than to have those stories pass down from grandfather to son, to child?

If you'd like to back Massive Chalice on Kickstarter you can do so over on Double Fine's campaign page.

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