Wot I Think: Ziggurat

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.

31 Comments

  1. rustybroomhandle says:

    Adam did not mention the secret areas… probably because they’re secret!

  2. Neurotic says:

    Wow, this looks aces!

  3. Premium User Badge

    Mungrul says:

    Whenever I see the word “Ziggurat”, my brain automatically assigns the correct suffix, “Vertigo”.

    Thanks Quake.

  4. eggy toast says:

    The game is pretty cool I’ve been enjoying it since Early Access

  5. BTAxis says:

    I associate this kind of gameplay more with Heretic than Hexen. Maybe I’m remembering wrong, but while I enjoyed playing Hexen I seem to recall it was mostly about hunting down switches.

    • jrodman says:

      That, and hunting down What Changed, after you found a switch.

    • Razumen says:

      Heretic definitely was faster and more action focused, but I love Hexen because it’s a much more well balanced game; between the puzzles, exploration, atmosphere, classes, and the combat-which still got hectic at times, while still feeling more tactical and significant than in Heretic.

  6. deadly.by.design says:

    I want to like the idea of this game, but the trailer makes me think I’ll get tired of constantly running backward. That kind of annoyed me in SS:BFE, too. Maybe I’ll pick it up late on a sale.

    • Martin Carpenter says:

      Often quite small rooms so more like round and round :) Actually, although mobility does matter, quite a bit of subtle micro dodging too. Not that I’m at all good though…..

  7. Orix says:

    Does it have perma death akin to the Binding of Isaac? That was the one thing about TBOI that I just can’t deal with… I’m just not instilled with the patience for roguelikes. I like progress too much.

    • Martin Carpenter says:

      Yes. Just too short a game to work otherwise really.

    • Dominare says:

      In this type of game the progress is in your knowledge and ability, not that of your disposable avatar. That is what makes them great.

  8. MasodikTiasma says:

    This game is great! A friend gifted it to me for Christmas and I’m really enjoying it, but man, is it hard…
    One remark about the article: you write :”Sometimes a run through the ziggurat will begin in a safe room”. It’s not “sometimes”, it’s all the time. By design, the first room of each level is always safe, and you find a new weapon there.
    You could also have mentioned that the “modifiers” that you unlock are actually perks to select when your character levels up (there is an xp system, but with permadeath of course you start each run with a lvl 1 character).

  9. death_au says:

    This sounds really cool, and I’m liking the idea of procedural FPS games. If I had the time and skill to be developing games, I’d be building a procedural DOOM-like. Procedurally generated sprawling levels in a sci-fi setting, with locked doors and colour-coded keycards; health packs and armour shards (because who cares about realism); denizens of Hell to gun down around every corner; secret passages with better weapons; and at the end of each level a giant exit button which tallies up the time you took, the baddies you killed and the secrets you found.

    • epeternally says:

      I like procedurally generated games in their place, but for me what really worked about Doom and made it timeless is how great the level design is. And randomized games just fail to capture that. No matter how good your procedural generation is, ultimately the player is just going to be seeing the same basic elements combined in slightly different ways over and over again without ever really reaching the level of cleverness and craft that requires a human hand. Ziggurat is fun, but my strongest reaction to it is wishing that it had a level editor so that this great Heretic-esque gameplay could be had in great Heretic-esque levels rather than in randomly combined boxes.

  10. Shardz says:

    The textures look really amazing in the 3D environments. However, I don’t like the repetitive cheap trick of locking you in a single room to fight off scores of enemies ad nauseum. We did that with Doom wads for years and I always thought that was just lazy game design.

  11. AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

    Sounds like a slightly better Tower of Guns, which is a thing I’d really like.

  12. vecordae says:

    I quite like Ziggurat. It’s a nice, fast-paced shooty-shooty die-die thing that can be played in short sessions (you can save between floors).

    My only gripe is that the point of view of the character makes it seem that their head is roughly 1.5 American Nonsense Feet (or 9.7 hectares for you Metric types) off the ground. I suspect that the player character is actually a particularly sorcerous serpent, rather than a human wizard.

    • AngoraFish says:

      So, somewhere between half a metre and 97000 square metres then?

      • physys says:

        No, it’s more like somewhere between a quart and 2 kilograms.

      • vecordae says:

        Yes. For certain lengths of “meter”. Obviously.

        • AngoraFish says:

          Well, it’s only “meter” in ‘murica, which as you imply, isn’t all that big on the whole metric system of units in the first place. The American spelling of the term is therefore effectively redundant.

        • Geebs says:

          Pentameter or hexameter?

          • vecordae says:

            As one who hails from far and ‘Ambic shores
            I find Pentameter is much preferred.
            But to the line of letters found before
            To Anglic expertise one must defer.

  13. the_old_pk says:

    This is a great game and is easy to pick up. I have played it a lot over the past few weeks but still have yet to beat it on normal. I played through on casual to get a lot of the unlocks.

    Turtle Shell and Thick Skin are great if you find them together.

  14. mukuste says:

    This sounds rather fun. A BoI-like where the actual gameplay mechanics are not clunky and dull? Yes, please!

  15. Wowbagger says:

    Jack skellington, ruining the spelling of skeleton for everyone since 1999 (maybe).

  16. manitoo says:

    I think the Binding of Isaac comparison is way off with this game. Whereas in BoI every item has the potential to vastly change your build, weapons and perks in Ziggurat seem mostly interchangeable.

    For the weapons, your spellbook might freeze or do burning damage, but the projectile type and reload speed is exactly the same. Even between weapons there doesn’t seem to be much variety–they’re all pretty much straight-ahead rapid fire.

    The perks are even worse. Mostly they’re just percentage modifiers to your health or mana pool, or minor effects like “gain health at the start of combat.” I’ve unlocked a couple perks that seem a bit more interesting, but my “deck” is still predominantly boring.

    I really want to like this game because I love roguelites and Doom-era FPS-s. But every time I boot up Ziggurat I end up regretting that I didn’t just play Tower of Guns instead.

  17. Christo4 says:

    Am i the only one who thinks of warcraft 3 undead “need moar ziggurats!”

  18. MojaveMusic says:

    I maintain that roguelikes and Doom-inspired FPSes are not genres that play well together.

    The best of the lot was Paranautical Activity, which is only OK in my opinion.