“I wanna really really really wanna zigazig-ha!” the Spice Girls once sang, and it’s that little refrain which zips around in my head every time I load Ziggurat, a brilliant little number released late last year by the Spanish 4-man team known as Milkstone Studios. I wanted to say that the catchy, upbeat tempo of the song also perfectly fits the game, but that’s not quite right – Ziggurat’s pace is more ‘stop moving and die’ than the Spicy ones’ 110 bpm pop hit.
Ziggurat casts you as one of a number of wannabe mages, all eager to join the Daedolon Brothers, the most powerful guild of mages known to man. To enter the hallowed ranks of these hooded Potter-botherers, you must run the gauntlet of the titular Ziggurat, a procedurally generated labyrinth of rooms and floors, armed with nothing but your trusty wand and up to three other magic weapons, all based on different schools of magic. The wand has infinite charges, but the other, better weapons, all rely on magic crystals. These are obtained, of course, by exterminating the residents of the Ziggurat, all of whom want nothing more than to add your bones to a pile overseen by the vaguely Lovecraftian lords of the old ZiggaZiggZiggurat.
A Level 1 Boss, yesterday. Bosses generally have big health bars and one or two special moves, and spawn waves of minions to help them. Pretty standard stuff really, but with permadeath, they should still be respected.
So you shoot stuff and collect weapons, like in an FPS. You run through the gorgeous, randomized levels, levelling up and choosing new abilities by hoovering up XP crystals from dead mobs, like in an RPG. You also collect cards that unlock the possibility of finding different stuff, weapons and magic amulets (which give you a one-off buff for a short time), like in a, uh, other game that does that.
And if this all sounds a bit routine, then I’ve done Ziggurat a huge disservice, because it’s absolutely frantic and exciting, addictive and as good at creating mini narratives each time as any other Rogue-like I’ve ever played. Games typically last from 5 to 20 minutes at first, but the more you play and the better you get, the longer they run. It’s that classic combination of easy-to-play, hard-to-play well, risk versus reward thing that flips so many switches in our brains, and this keeps the proceedings feeling fresh, even after you’ve been on several long runs.
That moreishness is helped by two things – the really seriously good randomization of the rooms and level layouts, essential to any randomized dungeon-runner, and the huge variety of extra things you can unlock, including tons of different characters to choose from, all with unique strengths and weaknesses compared to each other. There are several types of room that you’ll encounter, most of which have fairly consistently recognisable configurations (although even after six hours of play, I’m still getting new traps and new things in standard Level One rooms), so that as the doors open at the end of each short passage, you take a mental breath and prepare yourself for what lies ahead.
These could be Minions rooms, in which the doors lock behind you and you must fight a horde of varied enemies until the meter at the top of the screen is depleted (no Kevins, though, happily), or Treasure rooms that contain new unlocks, Shrine rooms in which you can pray to the gods for a random boon (or even a penalty) in exchange for a little health or mana, or Hazard rooms — deadly trap-filled gauntlets which reward with tons of goodies. Minions and Hazard rooms are the most common kinds of rooms, but there are also secret rooms, revealed by blasting crumbly-looking walls, as well as Lore rooms which contain scrolls that build further on the story of the Brotherhood and the Ziggurat. These sometimes offer cryptic advice, and the rooms often have interesting stained glass windows depicting other entries in Milkstone’s already quite prolific back catalogue. When approached, they trigger a brief zoom-in and a bit of strangely self-deprecating pop-up text describing the team’s feelings about the game presented (“It isn’t that bad for being a game done in three weeks before going on holiday”).
Another boss. I’m not sure why I took so many boss screenshots, but it probably explains my low success rate against them.
Always though, your goal on each level is two-fold: find the portal key, then find the Boss room. With the key, each level’s boss is summoned, and once dispatched, a portal opens to the next level, and so on you go. This is usually where you make one of the big decisions – do you bug out as soon as you find the key and try to defeat the boss with what you’ve got, or do you keep exploring the level, killing as much as possible and hoping to level up and/or find a better weapon and more mana to power it?
Speaking of killing stuff – the enemies. Ziggurat paints its hordes with a healthy sense of humour, somewhere in the neighbourhood of Magicka or Orcs Must Die! Flaming, floating, Doom-like skulls that suddenly charge you; small groups of angry toadstools; strange, pink, hairless… things, that either hop on your head Kangaroo-like, or spit giant green globs of goo at you, and so many more. And then there’s the Carrots. Or Mandrakes, probably. While they do look like carrots, except for their evil, squinting eyes and constantly gnashing teeth, they behave more like the headless, screaming bombers of Serious Sam fame, relentlessly chasing you around the room in a thoroughly un-vegetable-like manner.
Like Croteam’s fantastic Sam games, the general pace of the combat — and so the whole game — is breakneck. You enter a Minions room, and sometimes hear them popping into existence around a corner or behind a bookcase. You then have about 3 or 4 seconds to gather your wits before the dam bursts, and from then until the bloody end you’re constantly moving, dodging, ducking behind bits of furniture and popping out to fire off a shot, and having your hair centre-parted by various Skeleton-propelled axes, globs of plant venom, crossbow bolts and bursts of magic.
Tab expands your map, which you can drag about for convenience, although the levels so far are not usually more than about ten rooms. The different mana pools are shown on the right, and the main mana crystal changes colour as you change weapon.
The combat also benefits from the game’s excellent randomization mechanics, as some Minions rooms have special conditions imposed on them, such as “Prohibition – No health potions dropped”, or “Barracks – Stronger enemies”. Conversely, you could get “Resting room – Weaker enemies”, or my favourite so far “Fireworks – Enemies explode when killed”. This not only helps keep things fresh, but is also hugely entertaining and another reason for warped smiles to appear on your face as you turn to face the waves of implacable skeletons, haughty witches and vomiting plant-monsters.
As far as the XP and levelling go, it’s refreshingly straightforward, even for a first-person Rogue-like. Once you’ve earned enough XP, and you can usually level up twice just on Level One, you get offered a choice of one of two buff cards – increase a particular mana pool, gain a little health at the start of each battle, stuff like that. Sometimes these combine in interesting ways – once, I chose one that gave me 250% more health from health potions, at the expense of having 50% less total health. The next time I levelled, I chose one that increased my total health limit again. So, swings and roundabouts, but it’s more often than not an important tactical decision.
One hugely useful thing, which I don’t recall ever seeing before, is that your tiny plus-shaped crosshair shades from green to red when it’s on an enemy, indicating their health status. And wow, is this game ever colourful! The lighting effects are ‘D&D Disco’, and even the weapons and their corresponding mana crystals are colour-coded; there are clumps of colourful crystals and mushrooms sprouting out of the walls and floors everywhere, every magical bolt and blob and spark is a different colour, and when the action’s going full-tilt, it’s like fighting an army of exploding traffic lights inside a kaleidoscope. The graphics generally put me in mind of the first-person ‘Possession’ view in the Dungeon Keeper games, and more recently of World of Warcraft or the previously mentioned Orcs Must Die!, with environments being large, colourful, slightly low-res-looking textures draped over stylised-models of wonky bookcases and large flagstone floors. In fact, the floor spike traps are very much like OMD!’s, but other than that specific detail, Ziggurat maintains its own visual identity. The card art is particularly nice, as you can see below.
The cards are an excellent part of the game – even if you die horribly early on, whatever cards or things you’ve found in a Treasure room are then available as Perks the next time you play. It’s a rare run that’s truly ‘wasted’, as even the extra characters are unlocked through an achievement system of hitting various goals and milestones.
So, it’s all roses so far. We’re heading towards a good score for this game, but there are a few tiny flies in this giant, magical ointment. Whilst there are destructible elements in the room furniture, including abundant barrels, the destructible bits are only really worth destructing if you get the Perk that gives you a little health or mana for doing so, and while the barrels do sometimes contain useful mana or XP items, they feel too few and far between. Also, with such a strong emphasis on colours and colour-coordination, I find it a bit misleading/disappointing that the regular patches of colourful crystals and plants growing in the walls and floors are only for decoration (that I know of so far, but that could change with another card I guess). The only real functional problem I have with the game is that the damage indicators – large red crescents that flash up with a nice impact effect when you’re hit – are a bit inaccurate. For example, when hit in the face but slightly off-centre, the crescent flashes up wholly to the side, making me think I’m being flanked when I’m not. This then causes me to spin and check for flankers, and then take a shot in the side from the mobs that were in front of me. So it would be nice if the damage indicators used quarters instead of halves, but depsite being annoying, it’s not a game-breaker.
Anyway, that’s pretty much all I have against the thing so far. At the time of writing, I’ve played Ziggurat for almost 9 hours, unlocked one extra character and reached Level 2 several times. And while that’s a pretty pitiful performance, it’s eminently clear that there is so much more to see and discover the further into the Ziggurat you get. Each of my visits to Level Two alone are showing me not only new mobs and weapons, but whole new traps, room penalties and systems for clearing Minions rooms.
So let’s see you do better than me– Ziggurat’s usually EUR 14.99 on Steam and is often discounted too. I’ll recommend it any day of the week, and once you’ve gone further than I have, or have unlocked some more characters, hit the comments below and let me know what wonders you’ve seen!
Did you know that Serious Sam developers Croteam recently made a pretty damn good puzzler? Click here to find out more! Or if you’re a fan of the excellent first-person TD game Orcs Must Die!, click here to find out what we thought of it. Finally, get ready for the imminent arrival of WoW’s Veteran Edition, here.
- Visuals – 75
- Sound – 75
- Playability – 90
Frantic first-person action in a randomised Rogue-like romp; easy to play, not so easy to put down. Cheap and friendly, it’s ideal for both quick lunchtime bursts and extended beer and pretzel parties in the evening.