Have you ever eaten a meal that just… shouldn’t have been? It all made sense on the board; you had your proteins, your veggies, your carbs, maybe a dressing or sauce. A meal you have eaten 1000 times in your life. But there’s something going on – maybe it was the sesame oil drizzled over the wilted kale, maybe it was the gochujang sauce seared onto the rendered fat of the pork belly, maybe it was the hard, chewy, crunchy onion that mixed with the soft, yielding texture of the rice – it has become the best meal you have ever eaten.
Ultros This is what it is: a buffet with sumptuous ingredients, all handled with artisanal care, prepared and organized into a delicious feast – even more tasty and maddening, and therefore so much more than the sum of its parts. Equal parts action, exploration, and philosophical lecture, Ultros is the kind of game you can only play once for the first time. And I’m already mad that I used my first go-up.
Manage cookie settings
Ultros is the best Metroidvania I’ve played since Hollow Knight. But that’s just one aspect of what it is. This trippy labyrinth of interconnected tunnels and tapestries has that special catnip effect that the best in the genre have perfected (Hollow Knight, Axiom Verge, Guacamelee, etc.), while also layering in a combat system that makes its peers look dull and bland shows out. comparison.
And I think it has to do with overstimulation. Some of us masochists like our games to hit us on the head with blunt force; some skill check boss or some asshole from a platforming section to block us until we figure it out. Others prefer obtuse path-setting or skull-crushing puzzles. Ultros’ flavor of sadism is different, however, and relies on overstimulating you, rather than pushing you to your physical limits.
Just take a look at the trailers or screens on this page. Niklas “El Huervo” Akerblad, the eyes and hands behind Hotline Miami’s art, is responsible for this extensive mushroom journey. Everything sweats neon, everything is too bright, even reading what is a background element and what is a threat can be difficult – but it is all so lush. If you’ve ever dosed with psilocybin, you’ll immediately recognize the undulating, throbbing organs of this living spaceship. And if you haven’t already, this is as good a crash course as you can get before the stomachaches start.
You don’t know what El Huervo has presented as a forgettable passing curiosity, and what has been created to portray a threat. You might think that sounds kind of awful, and it is, but it’s like eating kimchi for the first time: you scoff, you hesitate, you shake your head… and then you go back in for another bite. There’s something compelling about it. Something new. Something unusual. We’re a long way from the brown-green palette of the Xbox 360 generation here, and that’s great.
When you parse threats from the theater, you’re drawn into a fluid, elegant battle designed to make you think about absolutely every input you make. More or less everything you kill in Ultros can be eaten, and the more cleanly you slaughter the insectoid machinations that roam the 2D halls, the better the quality of the ingredient you can munch on. That means mindlessly hacking something (using the same combination more than once) degrades the quality of the food. If you want an initial cut of the mantis mandible, you should use all the movements available.
This system appeals to me. I want it in every game. I want it in Monster Hunter, in Devil May Cry, in whatever Final Fantasy 17 looks like. It takes everything great about the roguelite and Metroidvania run and distills it into about 10 seconds of combat; combining your ability to master your player character with a clear understanding of the world and the threats you face.
Since you can only explore and fight so many things before the world resets (and only a few things persist between loops), Ultros makes you think – hard – about what you’re doing, and how you’re doing it . Each loop, your mysterious protagonist (a Samus analogue in her own way) is reborn. You crawl into the world naked, with no skills or levels to follow you out of the sticky, sticky womb you keep finding yourself in.
And to learn (or remember) how to do things, you have to eat. Just like in real life, if you think about it. Better quality food has better nutrition, and if you hone your hunter instincts with each loop, you can level up faster and explore more deeply as you work through the cycle. You can ‘lock’ some skills into place – all welcome to the Wall Jump – but for the most part you have to start thinking about what you need and what you don’t need. As you are reborn, shed your baggage and optimize growth. There’s something very yoga-like about that, right? Something karmic and important.
And that is the atmosphere of Ultros, through and through. Yes, the whole game may look like giving you dilated pupils and a big belly, but the dedication to mind expansion and self-discovery goes beyond parachute pants and a mandala bedspread on the wall. Sometimes the solution to your problems in Ultros is simply to wait. How many games do that? Come back later as a real mechanic? It’s bizarre, it’s nonsense, it’s brilliant. Other times you’ll have to think carefully about the precious seeds you’ve collected from a secret, cultivated garden deep in the bowels of the ship. Which of the plants you have come across will grow in just the right way to digest it. gears or provide you with a shield against some hot, horrible daggers?
So much of Ultros’ appeal lies in how organic it is; how organic its world, how organic its pathfinding, how organic its message. There’s even a thread in this game about anti-violence, suggesting that maybe – just maybe – something good could happen if you don’t kill everything in sight. It’s not the first game by any means to suggest putting down your sword and picking up a trowel, but I think it may be the most successful in explaining why you should do so.
Ultros is available now on PS4, PS5 and PC. There is a free demo available on Steam. This article was written thanks to a PS5 code from the publisher.