Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Holy Hell, Ziggurat is Pretty Cool

  1. (noun) a temple of Sumerian origin in the form of a pyramidal tower, consisting of a number of stories and having about the outside a broad ascent winding round the structure, presenting the appearance of a series of terraces. (source)
  2. (noun) a rogue-lite first-person shooter video game in which the player, armed with an arsenal of magical wands, staves, spellbooks, and alchemical weapons, attempts to survive and advance through the floors of a randomly-generated ziggurat, battling roomfuls of enemies while leveling up and acquiring new perks, items, and spells. 
I tend to prefer games with a finely-crafted campaign, that include a definite beginning and end; these "go until you die, then start over" games often seem like a waste of time to me. As such, I've never been much of a fan of procedural death labyrinths. Ziggurat is one of the few exceptions. It does all the things you'd expect of a rogue-lite, but what really sold me were the gameplay videos demonstrating its fast-paced, old-school action. I have a fondness for shooters like Painkiller -- games in which you frantically run about killing hordes of exotic enemies in exotic locations with exotic weapons -- and Ziggurat scratches that itch in colorful, magic spades.

The titular ziggurat in Ziggurat is where a powerful mage's guild has imprisoned all the evil of the realm, in order to bring about an era of peace and prosperity. It now serves as a rite of passage for aspiring wizards; those who wish to join the Daedolon Brotherhood must brave the five floors of the ziggurat and best its final challenge. The souls of those who perish serve as an offering to keep the evil contained. The ziggurat takes a different form and offers different challenges and rewards for everyone who enters it. Few ever survive the ziggurat. That's the thematic premise the game wants you to go along with, but all you really need to know is that you're here to go through five levels of a dungeon shooting tons of baddies with cool magic weapons.

Words don't do it justice; you really need to see it in action.

When you start a new runthrough, you spawn in a room equipped with only your starter wand, which does basic damage in exchange for having infinite ammunition. You acquire other weapons at the start of each level, but these use from three different mana pools, which you fill by collecting item drops off defeated enemies. In the starter room, you'll always find one of more than 30 randomized weapons -- either a spellbook, a staff, or an alchemical weapon. From here, your goal is to navigate the randomized layout of rooms in search of the one containing the portal key, which you take to the boss chamber to summon that level's boss, randomly selected from a handful of options. Defeat the boss, and you advance to the next level to face harder enemies. Do this five times, and you beat the game.

The ziggurat is randomly generated every time you run through it, in terms of how each level's map is laid out, what type of rooms you encounter, what enemies you battle, what weapons you find, what perks you can choose from when you level up, and what random events you'll be subjected to. Most rooms seal you inside until you survive their waves of random enemy combinations, but you also discover treasure rooms that give you a random reward, shrine rooms that let you sacrifice health or mana in exchange for a random reward (or sometimes, punishment), trap rooms that offer some kind of platforming challenge to earn a random reward, and scroll rooms that let you read up on some of the game's lore and backstory. You can even find secret rooms, indicated by a subtle crack in the wall that you can destroy to earn a free perk and see one of the developer's various Easter eggs. 

Even though you're doing basically the same thing in every runthrough, there are enough of these variables to make each attempt feel fresh and interesting. A lot of roguelikes tend to feel kind of samey in the early stages, but Ziggurat ensures an interesting change from the very beginning, since the randomized starting weapon will change how you have to aim your shots and engage enemies. By the final level, you'll almost assuredly have a different combination of weapons and perks than you've ever had before. As part of the game's vast amount of unlockable content, you can even choose to play as different characters, choosing from 12 different options, all of whom have unique starting wands and special characteristics that change the way each of them plays.

Sometimes, Ziggurat is a veritable bull hell game as well. 

Corvus the vampire can heal himself with experience gems dropped by enemies, but slowly loses health over time; Osuna the bard has larger mana pools and uses magic more efficiently, but she's incredibly fragile; Jules the harlequin moves faster, has a higher drop rate from enemies, and encounters treasure rooms more often; Cid has low initial stats but gains experience at a much faster rate. Each time you level-up, you get to choose one of two randomized perks, from a list of nearly 100; is it better to take reduced damage from enemies, or to have a higher attack rate with staves? Would you rather lose half your current health to increase your maximum health by that amount, or would you rather have a chance to shoot freezing rays each time you pick up an experience gem? Temporarily boost your speed when you get hit, or have a chance to return damage when you get hit?

Besides just making it to the final boss, you also need to make sure you're strong enough to defeat him when (and if) you reach him, which is where the game implements an immensely satisfying "risk vs reward" mechanism. You might also call this a "press your luck" mechanism. You're never required to complete each and every level; as long as you find the portal key and the boss chamber, you can ignore unexplored rooms and advance to the next level. But, you kind of need to explore as much as possible to earn more experience and rewards, but doing so also puts you at greater risk of dying before reaching the boss. Consider: you're good on health and mana and can face the boss NOW if you wish, or you can keep exploring to gain more perks and loot. Do you take the safe (but less rewarding) route, or do you gamble and roll the dice?

The "risk vs reward" element shows itself most prominently in each of the non-enemy rooms. On most floors, you can discover a shrine room, which will let you sacrifice health and mana to get a potential reward -- you never know what the reward will be, and there's even a slight chance you'll receive a punishment instead. Sometimes, the reward is worth the cost; other times, the net result balances out; and on rare chances, you just get screwed. Likewise, you sometimes encounter treasure rooms that will either spawn a new weapon, perk, or amulet (usable items that grant some effect, and recharge by defeating enemies), but sometimes they'll spawn an ambush instead. Some rooms allow you to complete an optional platforming challenge to reach a treasure chest at the end; do you trust your abilities enough to make it to the end safely, or do you back out and play it safe?

An example of the perk screen on level-up.

All of this allows for classically fun rogue-like gameplay, but what really seals the deal for me is the intense, fast-paced action. Ziggurat is all about moving fast, dodging countless barrages of attacks, and mowing down waves of enemies. There are 38 different enemy types in the game, including bosses, each with its own attack pattern: some shoot projectiles in a radius around them; some do AOE ground pounds; some drop three forking fire blasts that run along the ground; some lead their shots along your current trajectory; some fire slow-moving homing attacks; some create fields of acid on the ground. The variety of attacks get you moving a lot more than you would in most other shooters, while also creating a satisfying learning curve, because you get better at the game as you become more familiar with each enemy type and learn how to counter their attacks.

Ziggurat's weapons also help set it apart from most other shooters. In loose shooter terminology, your starter wand is like a pistol (basic damage and functionality in exchange for infinite, recharging ammo), spells are like shotguns (often close-range, AOE attacks), staves are like assault rifles (high rate of fire, low damage per shot, quick velocity), and alchemy weapons are like explosives (hand grenades, rocket launchers, etc), with ten or more different types of each weapon. With spellbooks, you can call down lightning bolts on fields of enemies (or a single powerful bolt on a single target), summon a floating eye that automatically shoots enemies, fire an explosive skull, or shoot butterflies that home in on targets. Each weapon also comes with a secondary firing option -- usually, these do more damage in exchange for consuming more mana, but they can also change the projectile pattern or do something completely different.

So, there's a lot of great variety and ton of unlockable content -- you unlock the extra characters, perks, weapons, amulets, and harder difficulty mode by playing the game and completing certain challenges. I didn't unlock all the weapons or defeat all the enemy types until about 15 hours in, and now at the 18 hour mark I still haven't unlocked all of the possible perks. It's not a very deep game, all things considered, since it consists of basically just an hour-long gameplay premise (with infinite variations thereof), but it works as a nice filler game for when you want to kill a little bit of time with some satisfying, mindless action. And frankly, the action is fun enough that, if you enjoyed Painkiller and are looking to scratch that itch again, you can get more than enough enjoyment out of Ziggurat to justify its $15 price tag.

A random event makes the graphics pixelated. 

I only wish that Ziggurat offered a greater feeling of long-term progression. The end-goal is to beat the final boss, and that can be accomplished in roughly 3-5 hours between failed attempts. After that, there's nothing to strive for except to unlock everything while hunting achievements. Unlocking each of the characters is satisfying, since they have specific requirements you can commit yourself towards, but perks and weapons seem randomly handed out after failing or completing a run. They don't feel very rewarding to unlock, especially since they simply give you a random chance of maybe encountering them in a subsequent run. I've unlocked perks and weapons hours ago that I still haven't actually gotten to use. Unless you're really adamant about unlocking everything, or you feel the need to beat the game with every character, possibly on every difficulty, then it soon feels like you're just doing the same thing over and over again for no real effect.

It would be nice if, for instance, the game had been designed a bit like Spelunky. Both games have the same end-goal -- beat the final boss -- but Spelunky features a much longer "campaign," consisting of 15 levels, broken into four thematic areas, each with its own unique enemies, traps, and gameplay mechanisms, plus the boss level, as opposed to Ziggurat's grand total of five functionally identical levels. It's much, much harder to get through all of Spelunky in one go, since you can only take four hits before dying, health is much harder to replenish, and most levels feature traps that can kill you in one hit. But, you can pay an NPC to create shortcuts to later areas; each time you reach a transition between areas, you could pay part of the fee, which makes it feel like you're always making steady progress through a much larger game, which makes beating the final boss feel like a real accomplishment. I don't get that feeling of progress in Ziggurat, and beating the final boss doesn't feel like that much of an accomplishment, in comparison.

Ziggurat is pretty challenging, mind you. I've run through the game 40+ times on normal mode, and I've only beaten the final boss four times. Hard mode is even harder, obviously. The difficulty certainly adds a lot to the game's appeal, but random luck seems to play a little too much of a role in this game. When I die, it's usually because I was unlucky; when I succeed, it's usually because I got really lucky. Random luck is an integral component in any rogue-lite, however -- after all, you're supposed to feel like you're gambling, rolling the dice and taking your chances -- but you can have a great run get screwed in an instant by some fluky event beyond your control, which can make an entire 45-minute run feel like an un-fun waste of time. Some runs are almost doomed from the start if you get terrible weapons or a bunch of useless perks; some people find it thrilling to try to make it as far as they can on a bad draw, but I sometimes find it more annoying than anything else.

An optional platforming room with spike traps on the floor.

The game places an almost necessary demand on taking perks that boost your survivability; if, through random luck, you never get any perks that boost your max health, reduce incoming damage, or give you a more consistent way to heal yourself, then you can find yourself dying in an instant in the later levels. In fact, the game almost becomes harder as you unlock more stuff, because some perks and weapons are naturally more useful than others, while others are almost completely worthless; by unlocking all the superfluous extras, you dilute your "deck" of options and end up drawing duds more often than you did originally. Meanwhile, some bosses are much harder than others and can spell game-over for you if you don't have good weapons to counter their moves. Some enemies are naturally harder than others, and become many times more difficult when combined with random events that spawn every enemy in pairs (thereby doubling the number of tough enemies in a room), or that make all combatants deal lethal damage (a death sentence when you find yourself in a bullet hell scenario dodging hundreds of projectiles).

Certainly, bad runs are a part of any rogue-lite and should be expected -- one might even argue that experiencing moments of bad luck is necessary to enjoy those rare moments of good luck -- but I feel that Ziggurat places too much emphasis on random luck. Still, the action is solid fun, and there's enough variety that I find myself consistently coming back for more. That, I suppose, is reason enough to consider checking it out.


  1. Cool rundown. Another game I'm adding to my mile-long list of games I need to play. At least I know what I'll be doing in my golden years if I keep adding stuff to that list.

    Which reminds me, are you going to play Pillars of Eternity? It seems we're both great admirers of Fallout: New Vegas and Obsidian, and I'm ravening to try out Pillars, but I always want impressions from other games before throwing down money and buying the blasted game.

    1. I'm playing it now, actually. I'm not very far in (just made it past the first town), so it'll be quite a while before I can write a review for it.

  2. So far, would you recommend it?

    1. I like it a lot so far. Doesn't seem like it's redefining the genre or anything, but it has a solid old-school charm, and everything is sleek and well-designed.

  3. LOL I played it sometimes back and really liked it. Though my computer ran it like crap and the shooting aspect was not that enjoyable for me.