Ziggurat Review: A Sorcerers Dream

As yet another rogue-like, you might have some inkling on what to expect from Ziggurat. Procedurally generated dungeons coupled with a myriad of variables in the form of weapons, perks and enemies effectively modify your experience as you progress. If this is a format you find appealing, then you’ll find yourself quite at home within Ziggurat’s labyrinth.

Of course, that’s isn’t to say the games without something of it’s own. Ziggurat takes a rather typical thematic where a lone hero must pit their might their might against the usual band of mythical rabble, yet by giving the player merely a wand, and a first person perspective offers something quite distinct. Although functionally rather similar to a first person shooter – instead of a melee or bullets you blast the arcane at your foes – and these mechanics sit neatly with the games desire to throw an astoundingly varied set of spells at the player.

As you progress through Ziggurat’s labrenthine level designs, slaying mushrooms, goblins, and whatever else chooses to plague your path, you’ll find yourself granted a reward from time to time. These rewards can come in three forms – weapons, perks or usable items – with each of which brining something to the game, and the manner in which it is played. For instance your first staff may be either rapidly fire green orbs, or fire a wider, yet slower dispersion of icicles. Each of these have different utility and this serves as a basic example of the manner in which Ziggurats roguelike elements continually influence and adapt the manner in which the game is played within each individual run through the dungeon.

Of course, like other roguelike’s the objective is merely to progress through the dungeon, and beat the final boss. Die before doing so and you’re forced to start all over again. Although typical for the genre, this design adds appropriate risk or reward to your decisions in the game. More so than can be said for similar titles with player choice having a larger influence in Ziggurat as you’re able to choose which perk you select, for each time you level up. This crucial distinction from the alternative where you merely take what’s distributed to you, allows success or failure to feel more player influenced than merely the result of a random number generator. It makes the wins more rewarding, and losses a greater reflection of your own ability. This grants the game an arguably greater replayability as you can intentionally sway the game towards certain character builds as you play.

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Progressing to the end of a floor of the dungeon is in itself is a relatively simple task, requiring you to find a key on each floor then merely beat the boss. While simple on paper you’re chances of success in Ziggurat are more the result of cascading choice than anything else. Poor decisions in selecting perks or making inappropriate sacrifices (for more perks) can result in a rather prompt demise. Enemies themselves can be challenging too, presenting almost all forms of melee and ranged archetypes across both smaller enemies and bosses. Bosses themselves are better considered than one would expect, with diverse and changing attack patterns, although perhaps some can be beaten a little too easily.

Much of Ziggurat’s charm comes from it’s gameplay, which is akin to the likes of Serious Sam, or the more recent Shadow Warrior. The pacing can be quite frantic, as you switch spells and manage their manna pools like you would ammunition for a set of firearms. Bouncing around the map, weaving in and out of bullets while raining your arcane destruction on your foes is fast paced and fun, and individual rooms can place variance on this experience with a range of modifiers. These modifications can alter the experience fairly drastically too, for instance one such instance caused the game to become pixelated like classic Doom or Wolfenstein, while another caused enemies to spawn as giants. They offer enjoyable tweaks on the games mechanics, yet none of these alterations feel significant enough to be the cause of your death unfairly, with each feeling well considered in respect to the games design.

Both death and success are crucial elements of the games design, as at the end of each attempt – win or lose – you’re rewarded with a variety of new perks, items and spells to be thrown into the dungeon for your next playthrough. These add new variance to the experience and the amount of which develops further and further the more you play. It’s a brilliant system as it keeps the game interesting in the long term, opening up new styles of play as you progress, yet ensures the experience is more controlled during your first few playthrough’s, enabling newer players to get to grips to the games core mechanics without any odd modifiers intervening. There are also a variety of characters to unlock, each with a number of base abilities that shift the style in which they need to play in order to succeed. For instance there’s a character with greater movement speed and a more powerful staff, yet reduced attack rates with other types of spells. It shifts your focus and in turn, your playstyle as you find yourself making decisions to prioritise these characters specialisations.

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Ziggurat does of course present some form of story for that contextualises this whole experience, with the dungeon serving as a sorcerers final trial, a sort of right of passage into some form of order. However, this serves very little other than to add this context. Everything is told via text on a mere couple handfuls of scrolls, with many of which making an effort to be amusing than to tell a coherent plot. It could be argued that the purpose of the Ziggurat itself is somewhat intriguing, but the payoff from the runs of the game that we completed successfully was relatively insignificant, and failed to hint at any worthwhile exposition if the feat were repeated. This is somewhat disappointing, but ultimately conveying a narrative isn’t the games intent and it’s lack thereof doesn’t detract from how enjoyable the core gameplay is.

Visually the game has a pleasant if not especially noteworthy artstyle. Like a mashup of Borderlands and Harry Potter you’ll be slinging your visually contrasting arcane attacks with a remarkably diverse colour pallet. Enemies and dungeons are equally varied presenting a simple but appealing artstyle throughout. It’s ¬†also clear that from a design perspective everything has been well considered, with emphasis placed on being able to discriminate enemies and their projectiles from the environment, this was appreciated as it helps make the game feel fair, and deaths feel the result of poor decisions or player controlled input.

Unfortunately, there are some technical issues that have to be noted. The framerate is poor at times, dropping when the game becomes more hectic, motion blur is hideously over-applied (I would consider near unplayable if this effect could not have been turned off within it’s menus), and for whatever reason some obscure, graphical glitches where black lines would seemingly protrude from my head would occur during almost ever playthrough I experienced of the game. None of these issues prevented the game from being enjoyed but they do certainly mediate quite how enjoyable it is at times.

Ultimately, Ziggurat is a remarkably refined roguelike that will find itself enjoyed by fans of the genre, and perhaps too, fans of challengingly old-school first person shooters. The influence of player choice goes a long way to keeping the experience engaging offering a sense of a fairness that other titles that share the genre often neglect. Visually and technically the game is no masterpiece, however these failings do not go too far to detract from what is in general, an entertaining and well considered experience.

 

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Author: Jozef Kulik

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