Ziggurat Review

  • First Released Aug 14, 2014
  • PS4

The final exam.

It's tough being a neophyte wizard in the world of Ziggurat. If spending two decades learning the fundamentals of magic and spellcasting isn't hard enough, you must now put those skills to the test in the infamous, multi-leveled ziggurat, where creatures from myth and fantasy eagerly wait to snuff out your very existence. Ziggurat, a first-person, dungeon-crawling roguelike, won't overwhelm you with its brief length. But as short as your victory run may be, the brisk combat flow and compelling sense of progression will keep you transfixed despite some minor problems.

You will face many challenges as you leap and sprint through the labyrinthine ziggurat. It features procedural level design, which means you get a different adventure every time you play. Like The Binding of Isaac, levels are constructed of a series of linked rooms, and the doors slam shut in the presence of dark minions, sealing you in with your prey…or your hunters. Lurking in the dark passageways you find the usual smattering of fantasy archetypes, such as necromancers, sword-wielding skeletons, and impish goblins--along with some exceptions, such as evil mushrooms and crab-clawed demons. Oh, and killer carrots. Yes, carrots, which are almost too adorable to put back into the ground--but what else are you to do against vegetables that turn evil?

Is there a blob heaven?
Is there a blob heaven?

Some rooms contain traps you must overcome, or modifiers that change how you approach a fight. The latter can include increasing enemy size or quadrupling damage given and received; you can also get something more aesthetic, such as the always-amusing big pixel mode, which gives the game the look of a mid-90s shooter.

Every quest into the ziggurat's recesses has a humble beginning. At first, you are armed with only a simple wand and a slowly regenerating mana pool. But your arsenal steadily increases to include three other magical tools and powers, including spells of ice and poison and staffs that rapidly fire glowing bolts of energy. Weapons and spells are scattered throughout the ziggurat's many rooms and floors, either floating in the air or stored in chests, just waiting to get plucked and added to your hotbar. Each come equipped with an alternate attack that changes their attack speed or potency at a higher cost to your mana pool, which is replenished by picking up colored gems that fallen enemies occasionally drop. It won't be long until you find your favorite tools of the mystical trade. The magma rifle, with its incredible range and powerful explosive slug, is always a top choice. But the one I will always make a mad dash for is the scarab beetle staff, which fires red bugs that ricochet off surfaces. The staff works wonders at medium range, but in smaller rooms, those carrots don’t stand a chance!

Ziggurat is a fight for survival against some nasty foes, but the longer you persevere, the more chances you have at increasing your odds of survival. Gathering knowledge gems that are periodically dropped by your fallen enemies allows you to level up and choose one of several random perks, which come in the form of magical cards. Perks can also be acquired in secret rooms, their hiding places betrayed by cracks in the wall. An element of strategy is involved in picking the right perk, and your decision can have a huge effect on how long you last against the oppressive odds--in Ziggurat, you will find that long-term planning can lead to handsome rewards. Favoring the perk that instantly replenishes any lost health seems like a no-brainer. But you have a choice between said card and Bookworm, which allows you to choose among three cards on the next level instead of the default two, how would you proceed? You can also gamble with your fate in rooms where shrines to ancient deities rest. Sacrificing health or mana give you a chance to earn a divine favor if you're fortuitous or a penalty if you’re not. If you stumble upon the Oracle perk, which removes all divine punishments, fortune will smile upon you.

Wingardium Leviosa! Wait, that isn't right...
Wingardium Leviosa! Wait, that isn't right...

Movement and combat flow at a rapid pace, reminiscent of classic shooters of yore. There is no stamina to speak of, so sprinting from room to room goes unabated. It's actually quite common to fly through an entire floor in under 10 minutes. You're not slowed down by pools of water, and you can fall from precarious heights without taking any damage. You can adjust your position in the air as well, which is necessary for some of the challenge rooms. These rooms award you with a new perk, spell, or weapon after you dodge flying darts or nimbly hop across rocks and floating debris in stretching pools of lava. This degree of energetic locomotion keeps your heart pounding as you explore the ziggurat, often running backwards, Serious-Sam style, from approaching clutches of hungry foes, picking them off with shotgun blasts of arcane ice or blowing them apart with chemical bombs. Ziggurat's sweat-inducing velocity, combined with the satisfying feeling of growth brought about by its perks system, is, well, spellbinding, and it had me returning to its musty halls even late into the night.

But some issues will pull you out of the enchantment. There are graphical glitches and performance issues, such as frame rate drops and flickering shadows. In its defense, however, Ziggurat looks fantastic. The game dazzles with a charming, almost Fable-like quality, with sources of light emanating from burning torches or esoteric crystals sprouting from the floor to cast bright hues of purple, yellow, and green against grungy stone walls and floors. So it's a shame that on rare occasions, black smears damage Ziggurat's attractiveness. These smudges flicker as you look around, and they can be thin and amorphous, stretching across the screen. The worst smear I encountered covered a good third of the upper portion of my view. And let me tell you, when you have hulking foes to fight and projectiles to dodge, missing such a huge chunk of the screen is unacceptable. The blotches, oddly, only exist in a single room at random, and they seem to be triggered by minions. I couldn't make any sense of this phenomenon, which haunted several of my playthroughs.

It's a trap!
It's a trap!

Beyond that, I just can't seem to find any love toward Ziggurat's bosses, who guard the portal you use to ascend to the next floor. Some of the bosses are merely larger versions of existing enemies, but none of them, except the final boss, offer much of a fight. Most go down after a minute or two of circle strafing, while you only have to dodge the occasional flying projectile.

Ziggurat can be completed in just over an hour, but it's unlikely you will stop there. The game is challenging, engaging, and a whole lot of fun, despite its problems. There is an abundance of perks to discover and up to 11 characters to unlock, all of whom have a unique set of strengths and weaknesses. If you believe you have the mystical skills to conquer the mighty Ziggurat, now is your chance to prove your worth.

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The Good

  • Fast, satisfying combat and movement freedom
  • Perks force you to plan ahead when leveling up
  • Killer carrots!

The Bad

  • Graphical glitches are distracting
  • Unimpressive boss battles

About the Author

Cameron Woolsey spent more than 12 hours sprinting through rooms and blasting skeletons in Ziggurat. He completed it multiple times, unlocking seven characters. His favorite so far is Kraz the Novice, a female wizard with exceptional wand mastery.