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Ultros review
Jordan Helsley


An over-planted garden that doesn’t produce its potential yield.

Metroidvanias, possibly more than any other genre, need a hook to compete. Ultros has a litany of proverbial hooks. I mean, just look at it. It is dripping with style, absolutely soaked in fluorescent fauna, and positively moist with mystique. It is a game more akin to a peyote-laden trip to Willy Wonka's botanical garden than it is to either of its genre namesakes. Whether the joy and wonder remains once the game sobers up is another consideration entirely.

A Feast For The Eyes

Ultros is visually striking, to the point of detriment. The living and vibrant world you inhabit and traverse, while pleasing to the eyes, and even more so on, say, a Steam Deck OLED, eventually betrays vital information that you need as a player. While foreground elements are coated in black shadow, the main plane and background tend to blend together, forcing you to trial-and-error your way to figuring out that an object or obstacle is something you'll collide with. It's often inconsequential, so it's hard to fault the game too much, but it is something to contend with. That said, they do offer plenty of background elements you can interact with and destroy to cause an even greater explosion of neon in the play space to enhance the vibe at random.

I was fully blown away by its ability to distinguish different areas or biomes while retaining that signature style. Furthermore, the somewhat-unorthodox-yet-natural way it gates areas and guides you down the critical path did a great job of ensuring I didn't get lost and even limited backtracking more than I would have expected. Finding the path to the next objective felt organic (pun absolutely intended) even as the world around me changed greatly. And times when I was forced to backtrack, a story-related element that occurs enough to normally drive me mad, the game gives you a more literal guide. And just when you get comfortable with that element it even subverts it in some cool ways. Traversing this imposingly-large-looking map feels so quick and effortless once you get the feel for it, even as the map resets and you start from square one.

Playing With The Formula

Ultros isn't a roguelike, or light, or anything of the sort, but it does incorporate a time-loop. Without going too deep into the story, each time you complete one of the game's seven main objectives, you awaken at the beginning of the cycle again. Each time the world changes slightly, you have to regain your trusty sword and a robot-like companion that's critical to your success, and your skills are reset. Once again, once you get used to the run from start to equipped, the game throws you a really smart bone and essentially moves your equipment closer to you. It is full of elements like that: intelligently and believably making genre elements more friendly, or subverting them in other ways.

Persistent through cycles, and ultimately a significant part of the gameplay, is this element of planting trees as designated spots. With probably over a dozen different seeds, sprouting a dozen different trees, you're given the ability to do some truly special things to your world. If you're smart, you can plant a tree that creates a platform and can give yourself a small shortcut in subsequent runs. In other instances you can grow a vine-like tree that will block a gap from being gated off when a cycle reset would normally place a block there. All of this, while each plant grows a fruit that you use for health and unlocking skills. It's a really cool idea, but it doesn't quite hit the heights I'd hoped. Through my play-through, I only consciously thought about what and where I was planting a small handful of times. There's something to be said for making this element additive rather than critical, but I was left feeling that it was added as an afterthought, when it should have been the unquestioned star of the show.

Engaging With A Harsh World

While tending to and contending with the flora of this alien world, players will also come up against a more fauna-like set of inhabitants that are the main enemies. Continuing the theme, there's plenty of clever ideas present here, but the actual combat of the game leaves a lot to be desired. You have a standard two-hit combo attack (you can add a third with a skill), a charged heavy, a cool, directional-launch juggle, and a parry-like attack triggered by a timed dodge. Ultros attempts to incentivize the player to keep their attacks as varied as possible, but doesn't necessarily provide the tools to satisfyingly do so. If you defeat an enemy with no repeated attacks they'll explode in a shower of blood and provide a pristine piece of meat that is full of nutrients. Less effective kills provide fewer nutrients, and so on.

It doesn't take too long to run into enemies whose health pool truly outlast your attack options, even with a few other attack skills unlocked. Then there are instances where its subversion of its own mechanics backfires a bit. You're taught early on that a shielded enemy becomes vulnerable via a charged attack, but some shielded enemies cannot be broken. It's a small bit of frustration that piles on top of the fact that I didn't find the combat particularly fun, and it certainly wasn't challenging (near the end of the game I had to let an enemy kill me to verify that this wasn't a full-on roguelike). And ultimately I never consciously considered the nutritional value of my bounty, I never needed to.

Unlocking skills happens with these nutrients: each piece of fruit or meat adds to one or more of a set of four nutritional values. Each skill has nutritional requirements, and once you reach the required values you can cash those in for the skill you want on the web. Critically you can find an item that can be attached to skills to make them persist through cycles, which pulls double duty allowing you to skip advancing the web to the spot you want, and also letting you have a couple new starting points inside that same web, making the next unlock easier to obtain as well. Another cool idea, another clever way to incorporate the game world, namely planting trees and efficient hunting, but I never found the requirements harsh enough to stress over. And it doesn't feel like that's the point.

Sobering Up

Ultros is an easy-going game, but not in an intentional, "cosy" way. There are elements that feel slow, going against the grain of what the gameplay is telling you to do. Combat is snappy, but your character's run feels out of step with the animation - at least until it ramps up to full speed. Boss fights are cinematic and look imposing, but taking your foes down never comes with a sense of urgency. Things eventually grind to a halt when you're stuck in an alien game show-like scenario, and the mechanics become frustrating and overwrought. For a game this stylish, infused with colour and personality from the likes of "El Huervo" (Hotline Miami), the disconnect is more glaring.

I found Ultros stuck between a psilocybin meditation and a frantic world-ending cataclysm. The obtuse story, which is intentionally mysterious, strikes that meditative tone, until you consider your surroundings: a cosmic uterus, the birth of this massive, inexplicable god, black hole-induced time loops. It all seems dire, but everyone is cool with it, it seems. Even the character who seems destined to prevent this unholy birthing does little to prevent you from accomplishing your goals. It takes some effort to decipher the story, and you're probably not meant to understand it completely, but the clues you're given don't quite add up in the main, "regular" storyline.

Ultros takes its shots, and many of them are genuinely pleasing. The audio and visual design is something to behold, and the unique gameplay hooks deserve iteration at the very least. At the same time it is a game at odds with itself. The things you're being asked to do don't quite mesh with the tools, the story being told feels incongruous with the actions of its characters, and its promise feels wasted. It's tempting to consider that in a different year, against a different crop of recent metroidvania standouts, its shortcomings might be easier to ignore, but even in a space-like vacuum, up against only itself, Ultros doesn't bear the fruit it has the potential to.

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fun score


A gorgeous game throughout that offers plenty of smart twists on gameplay and expectations


Feels caught between two identities, ending up neither entirely contemplative or thrilling, while failing to entirely bring its mystery to light.