- Ultros offers a unique twist on the metroidvania genre, emphasizing landscaping and nurturing plants within a celestial spacecraft.
- The game features stunning visuals and music from renowned artists, creating a coherent and immersive experience.
- While the combat and platforming may have some issues, Ultros shines in its focus on growth, renewal, and collaboration with nature, offering a refreshing take on the genre.
The Sarcophagus drifts through space, a thrumming celestial ark with a mysterious deity at its thunderous center. Fighting the creatures in Hadoque’s gorgeous debut Ultros feels recognizable in generalized metroidvania genre terms, but this eventually takes a backseat to a most unusual gameplay core: landscaping and nurturing the curious flora within the massive spacecraft. It’s a sizable twist in a genre which often prioritizes combat, but it’s a compelling and encompassing experiment; once the game’s intricate narrative and expectations become apparent, players may find that they don’t even need a sword to succeed.
Immediately recognizable on starting up the game is the work of Niklas Åkerblad, popularly known as “El Huervo,” a visual artist and musician who rose to considerable fame following his iconic contributions to the Hotline Miami series, though he’s also featured in various other releases over the past decade. So has Oscar Rydelius a/k/a Ratvader, Ultros‘ lead composer, whose evocative and intimate orchestral work infuses every corridor of the ship with eerie majesty.
Ultros is way more than meets the eye.
- An incredible journey that challenges its genre
- Sound and visual designs are memorable and stunning
- The actual gameplay is not as remarkable as its presentation
It’s hard not to explore and describe each member of the development team, primarily because their finished work has the feel of a highly coherent collaborative endeavor. From the quasi-transcendentalist text and dialogue to the bizarrely beautiful, sometimes unpredictable overgrowth of its plant life, Ultros is a haunting interactive experience which also feels warmly personal at the same time.
A Ronin Roams The Garden
Ultros casts players as Ouji, a mute interstellar samurai who manifests unarmed on The Sarcophagus. Initial explorations reveal the size and scale of the ship, whose halls extend into different biomes throbbing with squishy neon-colored forests and dangerous creatures. Ouji can jump, slash, and slide through small spaces, with additional abilities available to unlock after resting in spherical chamber checkpoints dotted throughout each area. Instead of XP, the game’s modest skill tree is satisfied by consuming four varieties of nutrition, represented as bars which fill by eating the fruits and flesh of Ultros‘ flora and fauna.
Early hours of the game find Ouji slashing beasts bloody and squaring off against bosses, observing the psychedelic hues, illegible background text, and other curious sights and sounds of each zone. It’s an overwhelmingly alien environment, to the point where it’s hard to intuit hot spots and key elements right off the bat, but the ship quickly grows more familiar, readable, and even welcoming as each finished cycle returns Ouji back to the start.
It might not be accurate to describe Ultros as a roguelite, though loops of rebirth are integral to progress. After silencing a shaman – an incubated and protected entity which serves as a sort of intelligent power source, typically situated behind a boss encounter – Ouji obtains a new “extractor” tool, an equippable drone which injects new functionality and potential into the basic gameplay.
She’s then drawn back to the central spoke of the Sarcophagus and absorbed into the demon Ultros, triggering a destructive event which prompts the cycle to begin anew. Certain changes do persist, like plants blossoming and growing larger, but any shamans cut by her blade remain cut… That is, until the player discovers alternate methods to contend with the demon.
Gärdner’s Helpful Gardening Tips
There are several different NPCs to meet, befriend, and confront in Ultros, though Gärdner remains a standout. This gentle alien horticulturalist is often the first face Ouji encounters at the start of each loop, and they’ll patiently educate her on the real magic potential of the game’s systems: the cultivation of plant life throughout the Sarcophagus.
With a few additional extractors, Ouji learns how to sow the many strange seeds of Ultros, dig up and replant them, nurture their expansion with compost, and even splice together different species to create higher-reaching platforms and connect large areas. Previously locked barriers can be breached with connective plant energy, and even once-menacing creatures can be swayed with the right snacks.
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It’s at this point that Ultros reveals its wider objectives. Suddenly, those glowing soil beds players have run past countless times are understood to be parts of an organic nexus, and the creatures once thought to be automatically hostile are seen as potentially helpful elements of the Sarcophagus’ ecosystem. None of this really occurs in scripted fashion outright, but is slowly communicated via the mysterious rhythms of the game, encouraging the player to pursue more interesting goals than simply slashing at whatever moves.
The Trowel Is Mightier Than The Sword
Admittedly, there are a few issues with Ultros’ peculiar movement and combat systems. Ouji can feel stiff and unpredictable in the air, with new abilities supporting trick jumps that are not immediately intuitive, and fighting often feels imprecise and jagged. Mixing up attacks are required to render the best meat from the game’s creatures, an idea which doesn’t always feel elegant in practice, and knocking into a damage source ricochets Ouji clumsily to the floor. The reduced emphasis on straight-up action tempers these qualities, though, with platforming and gardening systems the more crucial concerns.
The ability to warp around the map is eventually unlocked, but it functions much differently here than in any other metroidvania. In Ultros, players will need to carefully connect tendrils of power between budding flowers to enable warp access and trigger a few other systems, which ultimately transforms the Sarcophagus into a satisfyingly daunting world-sized puzzle.
Distances between blooms have to be measured and planned in advance, so it’s helpful that Ultros features an excellent map. Players can use it to track creature spawns, plant growth, connected areas, and other elements at a glance, and every plant structure cultivated in soil beds over successive loops is visible with fine detail, which becomes a critically important asset in the latter stretch of the game. Lengthy portions of our time during this review were spent scrutinizing the map and panning back and forth to plot out these designs.
Final Thoughts & Review Score
Allowing players to follow the philosophical route from sword to soil manifests as one of Ultros’ most arresting and unusual manuevers. Its overpowering themes of growth, renewal, and repair are illustrated with subtle poetry and raw game mechanics in lieu of a verbose script, and the narrative inches more and more toward the spotlight as the characters are explored and the purpose of the ship is divined over time.
However, images and video of the game might appear misleading. The action, while serviceable, hits a mechanic ceiling early on, and those looking for a scrappy metroidvania may be disappointed with how the combat is generally downplayed or, when given center stage, essentially easy and underwhelming. Even the platforming can feel quite rubbery, imprecise, almost input-delayed at times, and it’s not uncommon for a plant to grow in an unpredictable direction or directly trap Ouji between a branch and a wall.
But worry not, as these situations can always be resolved by cutting a branch or digging up a seed and replanting it wholesale. Further and further in, Ultros’ world seems one of creative, chaotic malleability instead of precision, opening up to sequence-breaking and weird shortcuts through experimentation. It’s a game about amassing the tools and time to carve a connective path with nature, learning the layout of the land, and collaborating with it to continue on. Ultros takes the common ingredients of the modern metroidvania, then transplants them into an utterly original DMT-infused Metroid fever dream, in the very best way.
A digital PC code was provided to
for the purpose of this review.
Ultros is an action-adventure Metroidvania-style game from developer Hadoque. Set in a psychedelically-stylized world, Ultros follows the unnamed protagonist after they crash-land on a giant cosmic rock known as The Sarcophagus. Players will attempt to uncover the truth behind the demonic being that inhabits The Sarcophagus and explore themes of death and rebirth as they interact with their fellow inhabitants.