This is already going to be a record year for Metroidvania fans. After the excellent “Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown” made a wonderful start, Ultros now comes from a smaller publisher, albeit with no small amount of hype. With a stunningly unique art style and a mushroom-like, miasmic tone, it certainly looks like nothing else on the market at the moment, with a far more vague and player-led story than you might expect.
In the game, players awaken on a mysterious spaceship that appears to be harboring the birth in space of a giant being called Ultros – a kind of Lovecraftian cosmic horror that instinctively looks like a bad thing for the universe.
The first hour of Ultros is pretty traditional, as you explore a side-scrolling portion of the map, find a short sword to fight with, and meet a few quirky, strange characters who give you some cryptic information to digest. You start designing a skill tree and are told that you can only designate some of those skills for retention between “loops”, without knowing exactly what that means.
Then, after making it past the game’s first squelch boss, this puzzle is solved by severing a sleeping monk’s connection to Ultros’ birth process (you read that right) and getting sucked into a space-time vortex, to awaken back where you started. You only have the skills you marked for protection and the monk remains separated, but from there you have to start over and work your way to a central chamber to collect a power-up again, then head off to find out what new route you can take with this tool to find your next monk.
This is the loop of Ultros, a curious fusion of Metroidvania traditions with the lightest of roguelite elements. It’s a loop that doesn’t really reset you all that hard, but thematically resonates as you start to uncover more details about the ship you’re on (most of these details aren’t quite final yet).
Your two main tools are the short sword for combat and a small floating robot called the Extractor, which houses the navigation upgrades that you gain step by step as you progress through the game. Combat is simple and largely relies on an evasion system that leaves enemies exposed after a well-timed button press. While it’s pretty nice and responsive, you’ll quickly notice that it’s sorely lacking in enemy variety. The game also has little to no difficulty curve; Bosses are consistently very straightforward and enemies easy to overcome, with the only real obstacles we ever encountered far more often being navigational barriers.
As you kill buzzing beasts, you collect body parts from them, which you can use to heal and replenish your supplies with four level-up resources – a system that sounds more confusing than it is in practice. This looting brings a final gameplay twist to the game, one of Ultro’s most original. You can also find and pick up seeds as you move around the ship, planting them in specific locations to germinate different types of plants, some offering an abundance of healing berries, while others offer new opportunities for movement, from climbing spots to build towards momentum -speed increases.
Which types of plants you plant can have a truly personal impact on the expansive map until the final rounds, although the game is obviously carefully designed to ensure that these decisions don’t lock you out of certain areas unless you need to access them , it’s really clearly signposted. Best of all, once you complete a loop, the plants continue to grow and the ship soon becomes much more fertile and full of flora, which resonates with some story beats.
This turgid, pulsating feeling of fertile life is in keeping with Ultros’ magnificent art style, by far its greatest and most distinctive achievement. It’s a neon-drenched, hand-drawn slam-dunk of a visual experiment that’s simple in some ways thanks to its basic 2D design, but really sells its artistic vision through its consistent use of pretty designs and backgrounds. Hollow Knight is a clear touchstone for the game, and the game’s calm, somber tone is reflected here in some ways, but visually Ultros feels like the acid-infused version of that subterranean world in a really memorable way.
But like the disappointing combat, Ultros’ pure platforming isn’t quite at the elite level that has fans racing in anticipation of the long-awaited Silksong. While the movement feels smooth, the jumps are a little imprecise and your range of motion is a little limited, so the prospect of moving from one side of the large map to the other can become a little daunting and tiring.
Likewise, towards the end, the game offers you the chance to take a new approach to the story by connecting the entire ship to a sort of intravenous network – one that requires you to move through its corridors, carefully connecting nodes together .
This process is interesting and fun in small doses, but locking down fast travel behind it is more than a little difficult, and it wasn’t long before we abandoned the idea in favor of a quicker solution. It’s just a bit too edgy to avoid relatively frequent moments of gentle frustration.
Ultros has a visual identity that deserves real recognition, a breathtaking vision of foreign colors with design ideas that stay in the memory for a long time. Unfortunately, the platform and combat can’t quite keep up with this great success. However, if you’re looking for a unique looking Metroidvania game that’s bursting with ideas and offers a modest 10 hour runtime with the option for more if you love it, there are few games that match this style can keep up.