Runner games have proliferated on mobile due to their straightforward concept, accessibility, and simple controls on a device without a dedicated controller. However, ZIQ, a runner from Midnight Sea and 3D Realms, has made its home the PC — meaning that it can kick up the difficulty a few notches. This indie title is much more challenging than the usual runner fare — expect to have fun dying, over and over, though your mileage may vary with the longevity of this game due to a lack of a roadmap on how to go forward.
You play as the titular ZIQ, a strange little two-legged machine running through obstacle courses, much like a lab rat in a maze. Typically, games like these lack even a hint of a story, but ZIQ sets itself apart with the inclusion of a voice that heckles you as you run through the game. The voice teaches you and taunts you, mentioning the other machines it is building and other tidbits about the world. This is surprising but greatly appreciated, as even the suggestion of something more does wonders for drawing the player in and differentiates the game from being just another runner. More story information can be found on the game’s promotional site (http://midnightsea.net/ziq/) — the voice is the Swarm, running tests on a nanobot known as ZIQ, whose consciousness is transferred from body to body upon death. And it suffers a lot of deaths.
Die, Die, and Try Again
The challenge of the game is not apparent right away. You are given a clear and simple set of rules to follow by a voice that has not yet begun to mock you. Move left, right, and jump over a few acid pits — it’s all simple enough at first, even with the walls coming at ZIQ at high speed. If you just focus on doing this, the game would be much easier. But ZIQ complicates things and presents its true challenge with the polarity mechanic. There are floating orbs that you are tasked with picking up throughout your run. They come in two different colours, and you must flip ZIQ’s polarity to match either orange or blue to successfully pick up the orbs. Oh, and you have to do this in specific colour combinations as well, or you won’t get any points for your efforts. The walls seem to come much faster at ZIQ when you are frequently taking your eyes off the course for a second to check and double-check the incoming colour sequences you are tasked with completing.
No Windows in this Casino
It is difficult to tell how progress works in the game. If you die, more often than not the course changes — it doesn’t make you redo what you’ve failed and almost seems to randomize or place you somewhere else on the same stage, so the game is not exactly a matter of trying again and again until you’ve passed. After rinse through your three lives, a score is tallied up (earned from your completed sequences) and a smaller number is also shown. I’m not sure how the math works with this smaller number as it is not the total amount of your score, which is shown on ZIQ‘s global leaderboard. This is not explained, but perhaps this score goes towards progressing to a new stage. It sort of feels like you’re watching Olympic figure skating for the first time and you see the judges throwing up random-looking scores — you’re not sure whether you should clap or not. It would also be helpful if there was some sort of map outlining all the different stages. Even if you continually die and don’t make it to the end of the course, you seem to make some progress. You get new procedurally-generated courses to run through, move up the stages. The game stays fresh, even if you’re not told exactly it all works. However, this gives the player little incentive to continue if they cannot see the progress they are or are not making. You start to feel like ZIQ itself — confused and throwing yourself into the obstacle course because you’re told to, and only the Swarm seems to know the purpose of this or where the finish line is.
But despite the many deaths you will face, the game never feels frustrating. It’s mostly because it’s entirely your fault if you die — the controls are simple and the instructions simple, it’s just up to you to execute. The gameplay feels snappy due to the responsive and intuitive controls, and visually, ZIQ is uncomplicated yet stylish with it’s Tron-like black-and-glowing aesthetic. The twelve song soundtrack is some classic video game music: a great beat that melts into the background, allowing the player to focus on the game and staying alive.
Most notably, the voice that’s jeering at you even makes everything more fun. The Swarm is excellently voiced, elevating the game as it provides some personality and lore to an otherwise simple runner. I know the voice is supposed to annoy the player, but actor Mitchell Dostine seems to be having so much fun heckling me that I couldn’t help but grin along with him.
While it largely follows its predecessors in the endless runner genre, ZIQ makes a rewarding effort to differentiate itself with challenging game mechanics and a bold personality. Difficult and fun, the game could use some more attention on UI to give players targets to aim at and a goal to keep on running to.
**PC Key provided by the publisher**
- Excellent voice-acting
- Inclusion of a story
- Challenging but not rage-inducing
- Confusing scoring system
- Lacks a map of the stages