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  • Writer's pictureOle Gamer Joe

Ultros Review - A Psychedelic Metroidvania Game Like No Other!

While it is true that there is no shortage of compelling Metroidvania titles to choose from, or that you likely already have a massive backlog of this genre to play your way through, I assure you none of them are quite like Ultros. This trippy title features a gorgeous artistic style that gives off the illusion of staring into a stained-glass window after dropping 3 tabs of acid. Well, I’ve never taken acid myself, but I imagine that would be enough to get the job done. It’s unsurprising how visually abstract and compelling Ultros looks given the fact that the art team for this project was led by El Huervo of Hotline Miami fame. 

Mix up some mushrooms and maybe you’ll begin to comprehend the game’s plot. Alright, I don’t condone drug use but it’s hard to imagine hallucinogens weren’t involved with this production. Kidding aside, Ultros is chalk full of creativity which expands well beyond its stunning art style. Our story takes place on the Sarcophagus, an alien-like planet that the developers quite literally describe as a floating uterus. Here lies the cosmic being known as Ultros, and it’s your job as the game’s seemingly nameless female protagonist to try to make sense of why you are where you are and what you need to do to leave. 

This title explores deeper themes such as love and loss through abstract storytelling methods. At times your experience will feel like trying to fit wrongly shaped pieces into a predefined 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. Ultros doesn’t always make sense, and strangely for as critical as I can be when it comes to video game narratives, I am not sure I would want this particular game to feature any sort of cohesive plot. There is a beauty in its cryptic messages, a sense of intrigue throughout the 15-hour campaign, only heightened further with the addition of multiple endings and outcomes. Whether you will feel a sense of satisfaction or confusion may come down to your individual personality. Are you the type of person that likes trying to extract deeper lore out of art? Or do you prefer a more cut and dry narrative? If you are the latter, then Ultros may fall on deaf ears. 

For as divisive as Ultros may be in its storytelling, the core gameplay loop only serves to divide audiences further. Initially you may feel as though you are experiencing a fairly traditional Metroidvania gameplay loop. A massive map of the Sarcophagus lies before you, rich with bountiful secrets, optional paths, and a frustrating number of dead-ends…At least on your first cycle (but more on that later). Alien-like creatures are strewn about, though not as many as you would hope, staring you down with beady green eyes and fluttering wings. Many of these monstrosities wouldn’t feel out of place in horror films like The Fly or even Alien. And yet for as inviting as this world is artistically, it often feels empty and soulless to explore and engage with.

Combat starts out relatively basic, having you bash away at foes with your sword, smashing them into pieces which results in a crescendo of blood. The end result looks more like a bucket of red paint being tossed across a white sheet. When enemies light up red in preparation of attack, your best option is to quickly slide underneath them and initiate a 3 hit counter combo. It’s not the smoothest combat engine in town, nor the fastest, but gets the job done. You’ll gain more abilities as you progress including stealthy stabs and vicious dropkicks. Some foes will be equipped with a shield for added protection, in which case a charged-up attack can break down their extra level of security and expose them once more. 

Your reward for slaying your opponent? Their meat! Collect meat and consume it to gain the game’s equivalent of experience. But be careful, the more you decimate your enemies the more damaged their carcasses become, devaluing the meat and resulting in less overall experience gained. I told you there was nothing quite like Ultros on the market.  Looks like meat's back on the menu, boys!

After feasting you are free to enter the upgrade menu where you’ll unlock new skills. Sounds simple enough right? Stay with me here, things are about to get really weird. Outside of combat you’ll be doing plenty of exploring just like in any other Metroidvania, with the map being fairly well detailed, full of various icons that give you an idea of which direction you should be heading next. Even still, I came across a dizzying array of dead-ends throughout my playthrough that sometimes had me wandering lost for a good hour or more at a time. This is life without a walkthrough available folks, are you jealous?

Alright, I said things would get weird, and I wasn’t lying. Your main objective in Ultros is to free encapsulated bodies trapped within tanks of water, which seem to power the core of the Sarcophagus. This often means taking down bosses, which honestly aren’t the most difficult encounters I've faced in a Metroidvania game before, but are certainly beautiful to watch in motion. Bosses will typically have a designated weak spot to attack and while they, like most of Ultros, are manageable in difficulty, accessibility options exist for players to tweak the amount of damage they take should the going get tough. 

Ultros also features a gardening mechanic, though it's far from a cozy game. Designated spots across the map allow you to plant seeds which grow plants that can alter the map and even unlock new pathways. It’s an interesting idea and something I haven’t really seen before in a Metroidvania game. 

Where Ultros may begin to lose many players, and unfortunately where it lost me, is its time looping mechanic. Generally speaking, each time you make significant progress in the game by defeating a shaman, you’ll be looped back to the beginning of the  game. This means many of your upgrades are lost including your sword, and you’ll need to recollect them all again. While the loops can feel a bit different and often place items in new locations, you’ll ultimately be doing a great deal of backtracking, and even fighting the same enemies and bosses repeatedly. The looping mechanic featured in Ultros feels frustrating, as every time I began to feel powerful the game just laughed in my face and stole away much of my progression in the blink of an eye.

In fairness, there are items available that help you to lock in certain upgrades so that you don’t need to earn them again, but losing abilities such as a double jump, flying, and even special attacks that unlock pathways was downright soul-crushing. It’s as if the developers felt pressured into adding rogue-lite elements within a structure that had no business having them. This design choice stole much of my joy, turning Ultros into a tiring and tedious slog. Being constantly lost, bumbling through the same areas, and trying to regain my lost abilities may have been forgivable once, but when it happened again and again my enthusiasm quickly faded. Narrative reasons for the looping mechanic exist, but I can’t help but feel like part of the reasoning was to extend gameplay time. Yes, regaining abilities each loop will be a bit quicker but personally I like feeling as if I am making progress in a game, not having it taken away. Ultros made me feel like I was both progressing and stuck in time all at once for better or worse. 

However you end up feeling about Ultros, its soundtrack is undeniably impressive. A bit abstract like much of this experience, the musical pieces featured are certainly a bit trippy. Composed by Oscar Rydelius, slow moody synths will accompany you much of the time, sometimes building into more powerful orchestrated pieces backed by soaring strings and melodies. Boss encounters in particular feature rousing musical works that build as the battle progresses. All told, I really enjoyed the soundscape Ultros presents, and it fits the vibe of the game perfectly. 

In terms of performance, I was able to run Ultros at 120fps on my PC and a mostly solid 60fps on the Steam Deck. Oddly, the game only featured 3 resolution options at the time of this review, maxing out at 1080p. This decision honestly shocked me a bit given how beautiful the art is. I would have loved playing at a native 4k resolution but instead I was forced into 1080p on my Oled display which honestly felt a little ridiculous in 2024. I’ll hope this issue is ironed out in time for release and that you’ll be able to experience the game at least at the 2k resolution if not 4K. Despite this, Ultros looks nice on the Steam Deck so handheld users can take comfort knowing that. I did encounter one major glitch where my screen basically disappeared for a while, but other than that Ultros ran without any issues. 

Much like the narrative of Ultros, I am having a hard time formulating a final opinion on this game. On one hand its visuals and sound design are a grand achievement. On the other hand, underneath the psychedelic surface it is merely an average playing Metroidvania game with a bizarre story that won’t be for everyone, and a disappointing time loop mechanic. It is as frustrating as it is beautiful, stuck in an endless maddening loop of tedium, boredom and mediocrity.

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