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Wot I Think: Ziggurat

Smash TV meets Hexen

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Along with the shattering of New Year’s Resolutions, each January contains the solidification of Previous Year’s Regrets. My regrets are mostly about money and beer, but a few gaming-related horrors have arisen over the last couple of weeks. The Talos Principle was the first – a game I should have played as soon as it was available rather than waiting until Christmas. Now I’m adding Ziggurat to the list of regrets. I spotted it before release but didn’t get round to playing until now.

It’s the closest thing to a first-person Binding of Isaac I’ve ever played.

First of all, the facts. Ziggurat is a first-person shooter, in which each level is made up of a bunch of connected rooms, randomly placed. Some have hordes of enemies in them, all of which must be eliminated before you can leave, others have traps, treasure or shrines that you can offer mana or health at in order to received (sometimes dubious) buffs and bonuses. The actual shooting is decent, although don’t expect much in the way of boomsticks because Ziggurat is mostly about wands and staffs that go pew-pew and shazam. There are four tiers of weapons, one of which is taken up by the pistol-equivalent infinite ammo wand, and the Alchemy group does contain some guns – my favourite being a tiny blunderbuss that fires balls of explosive magma – but everything is powered by magic.

In keeping with the tradition passed down from the earliest conjurers to Dynamo: Magician Impossible, a spellcaster’s magical abilities can be recharged by destroying enemies and grabbing the glowing detritus that pops out of their corpses. Depending on the specific colour of sparkling innard you collect, the charge will flow into one of three ammo counters and at the beginning of each game, you’ll only have a weapon to fill one of those slots, as well as your trusty wand.

Sometimes a run through/toward/around (I’m not clear on the narrative significance of the title and nor should you be) the ziggurat will begin in a safe room. A weapon will sit in that room, waiting to be seized. It might be a necromantic staff or a fiery book of spells. Whatever the case, it’ll have one standard firing option and an alternate attack, bound to the left and right mouse buttons respectively. From there, you’ll explore, killing daft enemies like crowds of carrots (or are they mandrakes?) and fungus wizards, and more typical fantasy foes in the form of skellingtons, animated spectral armour and sentient slime.

Clearing a room might involve lots of strafe-circling around tough but predictable enemies, or bouts of dodging, leaping and fleeing if kamikaze-style melee creatures are present. Often, you’ll need a mixture of skills and the ability to cycle between them depending on which particular mass of monsters is closest, or proving the greatest threat. Flicking between weapons as a fight develops is a necessary survival skill and as you can only carry four at a time, precision-switching is easy enough whether you’re nudging a mouse wheel or stabbing at number keys. The limit of four is tied to the weapon categories – if you find a new weapon in category you’ve already filled, you must discard your current equipment if you want to keep the new piece.

Combat is satisfying and the increase in difficulty from one level to the next is rapid enough to make each run short enough to fit into a short break while also ensuring that the early stages aren’t dull. I’ve rarely felt frustrated by the idea of starting from scratch, even after an extended jaunt with lots of levelling and looting. The difficulty curve is also smooth enough to ensure you won’t suffer sharp and sudden losses.

Sure, you’ll occasionally die surrounded by carrots before killing a single boss but your own impetuousness will most likely be to blame. You know how you get sometimes. You rush things because you think you’ve got them down to a fine art. It’s OK – just remember that in a world of randomised threats, it’s best to tread with caution even if you have unlocked some really cool gear.

And you will unlock gear. Not just gear, in fact, but all kinds of modifiers that might crop up in future attempts. The process of unlocking every item, scrap of story and character trait is the heart of the game, and it’s where the design hews most closely to Isaac. You can see a full list of unlockables, with the majority marked as question marks when you first install the game, and it’s an enormous bank of excitement. Because unlocking a feature doesn’t mean that it’s selectable from the start of each playthrough, you’ll need to keep playing to see the fruits of your labour. You’re not unlocking choices, you’re unlocking possibilities.

In short, that’s the beauty of Ziggurat. Its foundation is an attractively designed shooter, similar in style to a randomised Serious Sam or a first-person Smash TV with linked arenas, but it’s a game that becomes greater – in almost every sense of that word – as you play it. Even if you fail, the game over screen will almost certainly be followed by a couple of unlocks so you don’t feel too bad.

If I have to complain about anything, it’d be the bosses. They’re not as tedious as many of their kind can be but they tend to be large spongey things that can take a whole lot of damage while spawning regular monsters around them. As a climax to a level, they work just fine, and there’s usually a decision to be made as to whether they should be challenged as soon as they’re discovered, or whether further risky reward-y exploration should take place first. Fighting them isn’t a particular change of pace to taking on a room of regular baddies though. Since the majority of the game is about shooting things in rooms, some variation in the boss rooms, perhaps through stronger utilisation of the environment, would be the icing on the cake.

But it’s a delicious cake nonetheless and my favourite of the recent randomised FPS trend. Call them roguelike shooters if you so desire. Tower of Guns mixes up its shooting with platforming and freedom of movement, but Ziggurat battles its way to the top of the pile by scratching my Isaac and Serious Sam itches simultaneously.

Ziggurat is out now.

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Adam Smith

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