While PSN and Steam have been quickly accumulating a substantial number of roguelikes, the Xbox One has certainly been lacking in this area. In fact, we aren’t sure if there’s a single game currently available for purchase in the Games Store that's built around this increasingly-popular design choice. Hope is not lost, however, because Ziggurat is here. Mixing first-person shooting, dungeon crawling, and a roguelike format, Ziggurat has managed to be quite a spell-cial surprise. Imagine if Hexen and Serious Sam had a baby, and you should have a reasonable idea of what to expect here. Repetition and some performance issues might keep it from greatness, but Ziggurat has a whole lot to offer to those warm to its concept.
In Ziggurat you take on the role of a sorcerer that must battle his way through what is essentially a dungeon with many floors. When you initiate a game, you’ll always start on the first floor, and your agenda will be to dungeon crawl through as many rooms as it takes to locate a portal key and the portal that will take you to the next floor. It’s not that simple, though, because between you and the next floor there will be waves of enemies, environmental dangers, and a hulking boss. And if you die? Well, it's back to the beginning for you. The level layouts and enemy placements are procedurally generated, which means no two sessions will be the same. That doesn’t make up for the fact that you’ll pretty much be doing the same thing over and over until you finally complete the top floor of the dungeon, but that’s the nature of a roguelike. You’re either into it or you’re not. As we stated in the opening paragraph, we’re into it — very much so.
This is the kind of game that works for either extended sittings or bite-sized sessions. It can take about an hour to blast your way through all five floors of the ziggurat, but you won’t get that far every time; on average we spent about 30 minutes playing and usually died around the 3rd or 4th floor. Because of these contained and shorter sessions, we found ourselves picking up the controller any time we had a few free minutes. And for that reason, we don’t expect our time with Ziggurat to wrap after this review is finalized, which is something we can’t often say about games we spend so much time playing for analysis.
But why exactly is Ziggurat so good? The easy answer is that it does what it does very well. The shooting mechanics are tight and accurate, there’s consistent action, the art style is a good fit for the gameplay and setting, and the weapons are distinct and stand out from other shooting games. These weapons range from magic wands, scepters, guns and grenades, and they all disperse some form of magical energy. You’ll start with nothing more than the wand, but you'll acquire new weapons when reaching each subsequent floor or by stumbling across treasure rooms. There’s a deal of strategy in using these weapons, too, because they drain your mana reserves, limiting their use in certain scenarios.
At the outset of the game you’ll only have one choice of character; but as you keep playing, various other characters – each with their own pros and cons – will unlock. While you’ll always start out limited in some way, nabbing XP from deceased enemies will eventually grant you an “upgrade.” By pressing X when an upgrade is available, you’ll be presented with a choice of two playing cards that act as perks. For example: one might raise your health limit at the cost of mana, while the other could increase movement speed. As you progress deeper and deeper into the dungeon, these cards will pile up and your character will become much stronger, more agile, and/or better with weapons. It’s an incredibly satisfying feeling, and we appreciate that these brief card-selecting moments are the only time that play is halted during a session. This is a roguelike about gameplay more than it is leveling and dealing with RPG-like systems.
The boss battles that stand between you and the portal that takes you to the next floor range from simple strafing affairs to overwhelming dodge-fests. These large-and-in-charge baddies always appeared to be giant, more powerful forms of standard enemies found throughout the dungeon. Whether they present multiple patterns of attack that require memorization and methodical evasions, or they just constantly spawn an army of minions to stand between you and them, these boss battles are always engaging and intense at the very least. Some are undoubtedly better than others, but the good news is that none of them are poor.
For the record, this is a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously, as it presents killer carrots, dodo bird-like dinosaurs, and magical fungi as obstacles, all with an overwhelming appetite for annihilating you. There are also more typical fantasy monsters — like skeletons, wraiths, and goblins — but the overall tone never feels too heavy thanks to slightly cartoony and colorful character designs. Admittedly, that’s one of our favorite things about Ziggurat.
Mix in the occasional randomized scenario (like invisible enemies or decreased damage output), with secret rooms hiding behind cracked walls, and you'll find that there's a lot here to like. There are even altar rooms that allow you to sacrifice health, mana, or nothing at all for the chance at a helpful perk. We say “chance” because it’s entirely possible to get a curse put upon you that can impede your progress. Maybe you’ll no longer have access to the map, or maybe you’ll be forced to clear a room of enemies that you’ve already cleared; it’s a gamble, and it can totally change your fortunes, for better or worse.
While it’s clear that we’re certainly fans of Ziggurat, we regret to report that the game does have some problems. Mainly, it's common to experience a lowered frame-rate and about a second of freezing when certain enemies are killed. Also, screen-tearing rears its ugly head here and there. It sounds like it might be a bigger deal than it is, but rarely did it affect the gameplay or our good time. It’s an ugly annoyance that needs to be corrected with a patch, but we didn't find it to lessen our enjoyment. And the other complaint that we have is that there’s something missing that keeps Ziggurat from being truly spectacular. It’s hard to say what that is, though. It could be more environmental diversity, or it could be a better sense of connecting the player to their character by allowing customization or leveling between runs. Honestly, we aren’t exactly sure, but we do feel that there was room for another layer of depth to really help things soar. But, as is, this is still a really good game.
When we finally conquered the dungeon for the first time, we felt an immense sense of accomplishment. Seeing our Gametag proudly sitting at the top of the leaderboards — mind you there wasn't much competition at the time — felt like a proper reward. We can't say that about many games these days. Ziggurat is a challenge, that's for sure, but it's also welcoming of all skill levels thanks to multiple difficulty settings, so don't be afraid to get your wizard on.
Ziggurat isn’t the type of game that’s going to appeal to all audiences, but if it sounds like something you’d be into, chances are you’ll really like it. Combining first-person shooting and dungeon crawling with a roguelike framework lends to a vibe that feels distinct, and it’s one that we think fans of fantasy themes and old-school shooters will appreciate very much. There are a couple recurring performance issues to put up with, but they don’t get in the way to the point where enjoyment is diminished. For the past week we’ve been delving through the dungeon on a nightly basis, and we anticipate our interest in monster slaying won’t cease upon completion of this review. That may be a bigger compliment than you realize.