One of the advantages of ID@Xbox titles is that they get to take chances and release titles that the larger studios wouldn't release, thus being a little more creative and unique in their offerings. Ziggurat
is a perfect example of such an endeavour, becoming possibly the first game of its kind on the Xbox One platform. A unique hybrid crossing FPS with a roguelike dungeon-crawler featuring gameplay reminiscent of the early Doom
, with a smattering of a few other titles thrown in for good measure. With such an amalgam, you might be forgiven for fearing the worst but you'd be wrong; Milkstone Studios has produced a highly polished and a highly playable game unlike anything else currently on the platform.
This could be a trap ...
Storywise, the premise is extremely simple. The player takes on the role of an apprentice wizard facing one final test in order to join the ranks of the elite sorcerers; a mere matter of making their way through five floors of traps, minions and bosses. Once entered, there are only two ways out, one of which is as an all conquering sorcerer, the other outcome is very much less favourable. And that is it, no plot twists, no complicated dialog, just survive.
Of course, it's clear that survival is never going to be that straightforward even on the easiest setting, the game is deliberately challenging. There may only be five floors, but no dungeon master would want you charging through them too quickly and the hardest setting will prove a tough test for even the best of players. The test is made all the more difficult as the entire world in which the player lands is entirely random, generated procedurally from room to room and from level to level. There is nothing predictable and every playthrough is different, the only strategy to fall back on is to learn the strengths and weaknesses of the various enemies, and shoot and loot as quickly as possible.
This ticket entitles you to a boss fight ... why do I want it again?
On spawning in the first chamber, the player is faced with four walls, a number of exits, and a random weapon, and this is about the only consistency in those dark dungeons. The game is played in first person perspective, although I have to admit that I felt that the perspective was slightly off. I was playing a character not much more than three feet tall. The player is equipped with a magic wand that is powered through a constantly recharging pool of mana, which is offset by the underwhelming strength of the weapon. There are three other types of mana that can power three different types of weapons, giving the player a maximum of four possible weapons, but only being able to carry one of each sort. The mana needed to power these weapons can be found randomly hidden in barrels around the levels, or more often in the form of crystals dropped as loot from vanquished enemies. Health potions can also be dropped as loot which is important as there are few other options to replenishing health. A momentary error of judgment can leave the player low on health with no way of recovering.
Such an error can be easy to make, too. The games presentation is highly stylised using cell-shading and invoking a certain feeling of Borderlands
. It is also slightly cartoonish, and the enemies are either caricatures from more familiar dungeon based games, or plain bizarre. During the initial playthrough it is easy to fall into the trap thinking that the game will be cute and fun, an illusion that is quickly shattered when the first waves of enemies start hurling themselves at you in suicidal charges.
Brighten the place up they said ...
On entering certain dungeons, in a style similar to the Painkiller
games, doors slam shut behind the player and there is no exit until all the foes have been defeated. Each chamber has a certain number of enemies that need to be defeated and they will continue to spawn until the limit is reached. These foes also seem to have an instinctive and almost psychic way of tracking the player, unerringly charging directly towards them at all times. In a style akin to Serious Sam
, the enemies swarm at the player, some on the ground and some, like the banshee or flaming horned skulls float through the air. There are also stationary foes that prefer a ranged attacks with thrown weapons, electricity bolts, or suspicious looking slime.
Manic, munching carrots on the warpath
The enemies range from the standard dungeon foes such as banshees and skeleton warriors all the way to more bizarre and slightly disarming foes, such as evil mushrooms, spitting triffid like plants, or jelly like blobs that resemble the ghosts from Pac-Man
. The most bizarre enemies, however, have to be the evil chuckling carrots hellbent on exercising some form of vegetarian vengeance by taking a bite out of the player. At the end of each level, the player is forced into a boss fight against one of the many bosses within the title, and again, the boss is random. On entering that final room on each level, you cannot guarantee which boss you will face, nor which of the many types of minion that boss might invoke. It really is all down to chance. Only the final boss is consistent, although the invoked minions are not, and defeating this boss will earn you your final rewards based on what you have done through the previous levels.
As foes are defeated, they drop loot in the form of mana, health potions, and most importantly experience crystals. When the player gains enough experience to go up a level, they have the choice of two, or sometimes three, random perks presented in the form of cards. The perks might toughen the player, may increase the damage done by the player, or any number of boosts. These perks are essential if the player wants to make through the tougher floors in the game. Each level also includes a hidden room and, in keeping with the rest of the game, this is randomly placed. Locating the room will present the player with yet another perk.
Choose wisely ... erm?
If the randomness of the game wasn't challenge enough, there is one more point worthy of note; death. It can come quickly and brutally, and permanently. Whilst the player is able to save the game between levels, once dead, the game is over and the player is sent back to the start. Back to floor one, back to XP level one, all cards, perks, XP, and weapons are gone. Effectively a whole new game with procedurally created levels, and a whole new dungeon. This might seem brutal, but each level is relatively short, consisting of a mere handful of chambers, and there are only five floors to the whole game. Because the levels seem to be bite sized, being sent back to square one doesn't induce fits of controller breaking rage that other titles, with more time invested, might well do. You may well curse and mutter, but it doesn't feel quite as soul destroying as it sounds.
In fact, the game is a blast from start to finish. It is pure shoot and loot throughout. There is little strategy needed, just keep moving, keep on shooting, and try not to run out of mana or health points. On the surface its seemingly simple, but you will die a lot, and sometimes a little quicker than you might expect. That being said, Ziggurat
remains a fun game that will entice you to try again, and again. It's one of those games where you'll find yourself saying, "Just one more level."
This will not end well for one of us.
Over the course of the invariably many playthroughs, the cumulative score of the player unlocks new characters and options which offer further challenges; although getting through the game the first time can be difficult enough. Playing through on normal or hard can be brutal.
To be honest, it is hard to find a fault with the game; the weapon sounds are good, not massively outstanding but then again who knows what a wand sounds like when fired. The ambient sound is good, and with surround sound, you hear the dripping of water around you. The music soundtrack is somewhat understated, but you'll be so busy trying to stave off waves of enemies that you won't notice. If there is a small gripe, it is the occasional performance blip at the start and end of the larger battles.
It's worth noting that there is no multiplayer available in the game, which is a shame as couch co-op would have certainly been welcome. However, the single player is so compelling and enjoyable that the game stands up fairly well without it, but for those with a competitive urge, there are global leaderboards.
Spellbooks at the ready.
For the achievement hunters, the randomness and unpredictability of the game can make the achievement list seem a little daunting. Attempting to unlock all the perks, weapons, or characters will be a case of hit and hope, although over a period of time, you would expect to uncover everything; it's just not guaranteed, nor is it certain how long it will take. There are some easier achievements in the list, such as level progression, game progression, and enemies killed. It's the collectibles that may prove difficult.
, like some of the loot drops in the title itself, is a surprising little gem of a game, representing the best of what ID@Xbox titles can offer: simple, stylish, polished, and great fun, and never takes itself too seriously. Dungeons and enemies are, ironically, bright and colorfully brought to life. This is a game that focuses on replayability with unpredictability at every turn and challenges the player to make the most of the hand that they have been dealt. Admittedly, this is not a title that will appeal to everyone, but there is enough here for most to enjoy. The combination of FPS and dungeon looting is interesting, and the randomness makes it all the more intriguing. This is one of those titles that you could easily and quite happily continually dipping in and out of for quite a while to come.
The reviewer spent eleven hours raiding dungeons, fighting dragons, slaying banshees, and running from carrots, unlocking 14 achievements for 395 gamerscore. The review code for the Xbox One was provided by the developer.