I’m a few hours into Ultros and I’m facing my biggest challenge yet. This won’t be easy, but let me do it attempt to illustrate the scene. I’m stuck somewhere in the bowels of the colorful labyrinthine sprawl of the Metroidvania, a setting called The Sarcophagus that’s described as a “cosmic womb holding an ancient, demonic creature.” I’m staring at a colossal beast – a bruised and battered, oversized fly equipped with impenetrable armor and ripping stalactites from the roof to use as projectile weapons. Its perforated wings, glowing bright neon green, struggle to lift its body off the ground; and its eyes, beady and fiery orange, shoot devastating purple laser balls that chase me across the battle arena.
Date of publication: February 13, 2024
Platform(s): PC, PS5, PS4
Publisher: Kepler interactive
In comparison, I use the floating ‘Extractor’ attached to my cherry red duster like a pet on a leash to trigger a genre double jump. I hoist myself onto the boss’s back, press the attack button, and deplete the insect’s health by slashing at the pink power source attached to its spine. As I fill protagonist Ouji’s high-top sneakers, I think I might be an insect myself—I have elongated facial features hidden in a green mask with the antenna sticking out—and to restore vitality, I chew on things like Pompom Larvae, a resource harvested from enemies felled elsewhere in the wild. Sound weird? Of course it does. But stranger still, even in the grip of such unhinged and inexplicable chaos, Ultros always is: in one way or anothersuper chill.
Comes in warm
Ultros is such an atmosphere. If you can take one thing away from this review, let it be that. I can’t remember the last time I played a game that so perfectly understands what it is, while at the same time seeming like it doesn’t matter how it’s perceived. Hotline Miami is a classic that comes to mind in this context, and not just because Ultros’ striking visuals are the work of Niklas Åkerblad, aka El Huervo, who created the cover art for Dennaton’s brutal top-down shooter series. Ultros and Hotline couldn’t be more different genre-wise and conceptually, but they both show an unwavering commitment to their core gameplay loops from start to finish; they drop players into their world with predetermined rules, give them the tools to succeed, and then step back and watch everything unfold.
Ultros is a Metroidvania game in that the interconnected map is locked at specific intersections, where incrementally built skills allow you to reach once-inaccessible areas. Bosses, such as those mentioned above, protect the rulers of this world, who are called Shaman. Boss battles, on the other hand, are rhythmic affairs that require deciphering attack patterns that often rely on these skills; while agile platforming connects each shaman-guarding boss in turn.
But where Ultros sets itself apart from other similar genres is in the finer details. It does all the right things well – the skills are neat, it has tight controls, solid level design and rewarding combat – but there’s an ebb and flow to everything that’s as satisfying as it is wonderful. The psychedelic aesthetic and fantastical setting help perpetuate this, but there’s an ease to Ultros that’s more atmospheric, moody and, where my job gets a little harder, a little harder to put into words. Ultros feels good even in the most frustrating and frantic moments, something I have rarely felt in a video game, and certainly never in the Metroidvania space.
As such, Ultros offers unexpected shades of Journey, Flow and The Unfinished Swan – games that are frontal in their expression and exploration, and so confident and uncompromising in what they want to achieve. Games set in overgrown sarcophagi in space should probably be all of the above, but Ultros extends its quirky approach to the genre with battles that reward good timing. Once killed, enemy creatures drop body parts and organs that can be consumed to increase nutrition levels. Dead enemies will always fall something, but only by performing varied executions, dodging and striking at the perfect moments (indicated by on-screen prompts) can you harvest the most nutritious parts. For example, “battered” Pompom larvae are advertised as “limp and lifeless”, while those obtained through well-executed killings are described as “firm and still wriggling”.
Consuming enemy body parts is the main means of replenishing health in Ultros, but this also extends to the game’s skill tree. New skills can be unlocked via the pod-shaped ‘Cortex’ save points based on your power levels. Different organs amplify at different levels, making finesse in battle even more important as you shape and grow Ouji’s character. Once an ability is unlocked, a new one will appear on Cortex’s spider chart-like screen. Early doors and simple skills like Sneaking can be activated, while maneuvers like Drop Kicks, Wall Jumps, Air Tesseracts and many more can be discovered over time.
Just when you thought Ultros couldn’t get any more bizarre, it has its own garden system. Early in your quest you cross paths with a nice guy with the original name Gärdner, who teaches Ouji the values of cosmic womb-based horticulture. Gardens are scattered throughout the Sarcophagus, and using seeds also scattered across the map, you can grow special fruits that provide a variety of nutritional boosts. The deeper you wade into the game, the smarter you become about which seeds grow which fruits, giving you the fastest and most efficient ways to obtain nutrition and then gain the Cortex’s best abilities. If it makes you feel any better, I’ve read and reread that last sentence several times myself and can’t quite believe it applies to everything else above – but that’s another example of Ultros’ irregular spin on the Metroidvania- formula.
Even the way your core Metroidvania power-ups collect in Ultros is unconventional. It is said that the Extractor – the aforementioned floating rope thingamajig that allowed me to jump against the giant flying villain – was a tool once used by the shaman in ritual ceremonies. In practice, it’s this device that allows you to double jump and fly and perform the wealth of familiar skills that underpin the Metroidvania genre; a shopping list of powers that will ultimately allow you to explore all parts of the map and overcome the guards that stand in your way.
Towards this final goal, once you’ve defeated each boss, you’ll execute a shaman and then be teleported to a familiar pocket of The Sarcophagus – after which you’ll have to travel back to the scene of the crime. Why? You learn that time repeats itself in this world (one of Ultros’ few concessions to video game conformity), and only by defeating these overlords one by one and then awakening the Ultros demon itself can you hope that to do. Break the cycle and earn your freedom from the confines of this strange and wonderful space womb.
All of this means that one of Ultros’ core features is allowing you to retread old ground over and over again. And yet, while this would almost certainly be a negative aspect in a lesser game, here it forces you to get to know the landscape and you can spend more time being engulfed by the beautiful moment-to-moment, never-not-nothing exploration . -impeccable atmosphere. Moving back and forth is, of course, a core tenet of Metroidvania games the world over, but by folding the process into its highly abstract narrative, Ultros is able to double down on its strangeness, its hazy appeal, and its incongruous yet engaging pace.
Ultimately, Ultros is a deceptively deep and mechanical Metroidvania, powered by its dazzling psychedelic vibrations. It’s not easy to do something that feels unique and fresh in video games, especially within a genre that’s currently flourishing. With this in mind, I don’t think I’ve ever played a game like Ultros, and for that reason alone it’s worth recommending. I certainly didn’t write the words “cosmic womb-based horticulture” in anything I’ve published before, and, Certainlywill never do this again.
Ultros was reviewed on PC, with code provided by the publisher