Ultros Review

Enter the psychedelic loop

By Paul Hunter

With so many Metroidvania and roguelite games out there, it seems daunting for developers to come up with something truly unique and fresh. So how did the Swedish-based team at Hadoque overcome this challenge? By seamlessly fusing both genres in the ultra strange yet utterly fascinating Ultros on PS5, PS4 and PC.

This action-platformer is much more a Metroidvania experience than anything else, but it also incorporates a novel roguelite loop system where your abilities get stripped at specific intervals that are weaved into the game's narrative core.

With each loop the world will change in certain ways: some of which you directly influence, while others revolve around story progression. Repeatedly losing your skills can be frustrating, but Ultros masterfully makes re-acquiring them easier in subsequent loops by lowering the requirements and through clever map shortcuts. The result is an absorbing, highly replayable experience that's unlike any I've ever experienced before.

Before I expand more on Ultros' unique gameplay, let's back up to appreciate the stunning art direction by El Huervo, the renowned artist behind Hotline Miami. The game is set in a giant alien spaceship known as The Sarcophagus, described as a space-drifting cosmic uterus holding an ancient being known as ULTROS. Lush, dream-like psychedelic visuals bring this ship to life with a vibrancy unlike any game I've ever played.

Looking at the screenshots it may seem overwhelming, especially figuring out what is interactable and what is not, but in practice, I got the hang of it rather quickly. The gorgeous, evocative graphics also extend to the cast of characters, including your playable character Ouji, along with NPCs like Gärdner, ULTROS's servant Qualia and others, who blend sci-fi and fantasy elements to unique effect. One thing is certain, the acid aesthetics alone make Ultros a standout title that I'll long remember even after rolling the credits.

As you explore the spaceship's large map, expect to encounter a montage of highly detailed flora and fauna that gives the entire experience a mushy, organic feel to it. Adding to this are a lot of smashable background objects that explode into a gooey mess of colourful greens, reds and yellows, reinforcing that this labyrinthine spacefaring setting is very much alive.

Combat in Ultros focuses on methodical, close encounters given the short range of your sword. Doding is also critical to your success with some enemies telegraphing moves you can roll through and then counterattack from behind for heavy damage.

Killing enemies will make them explode into edible organs and body parts, and interestingly, striking enemies with a variety of offensive moves results in higher-quality food than if you merely swing your sword with little regard. This more potent food can not only heal more HP but will also reward you with more of four available nutrients, which you use to unlock abilities in your skill tree.

The skill tree might seem a little obtuse to start, but soon enough you'll learn there is a core set of valuable skills to seek out. These include strategic skills that let you see all the plants and enemy locations on your map, traversal skills like high jump and wall jump, along with essential combat skills like one that gives you a dive kick attack or one that extends your regular combo to three strikes.

While it may be disappointing to lose all of your unlocked skills when you start a new cycle, the good news is the nutrient requirements are lowered in subsequent runs. In my first run, I was only able to unlock about half of the skill tree, but after several runs, it's possible to unlock all the skills you need in just a few minutes. Thankfully, starting in your second loop you'll also discover Mnemonic Mycelium, a mushy brain item that allows you to lock skills in for future cycles.

Beyond the beautiful alien art and Metroidvania-roguelite gameplay fusion, another area that makes Ultros stand apart is its innovative gardening system. This is a major mechanic that involves planting seeds and waiting for them to sprout. For your first couple of runs, it's safe to plant seeds willy-nilly as you experiment to see what each plant produces and how it may possibly benefit you. Over time, you'll naturally learn that certain trees are great for reaching new heights, others are good for swinging across vines, and others still are useful for breaking barriers that block your path.

Why it's fine to initially not worry about where you're planting seeds is because part-way through the adventure you'll acquire a digger extractor tool that'll allow you to root into the ground and pluck out any seeds you wish, with the intent of replanting them elsewhere. This extractor tool also gives a double jump, and over time will acquire new skills that allow you to advance deeper into the gargantuan map. Tool upgrades bestow standard Metroidvania skills like giving you limited flight, cutting through organic material blocking your path, or outright opening up paths that were previously sealed shut.

My first runthrough of the game took about 10 hours, although that's just one of the multiple endings you can discover depending on your playstyle and the decisions made. After the credits roll there's an end-game component that involves linking up plants all across the entire spaceship, which is not only challenging and requires out-of-the-box thinking, but also reframes how I perceived the entire map. Not only do you need to put the right plants in the right spot, but you'll need to leverage the game's composting system to promote plant growth between each cycle. The gardening system is impressively deep, and while it's also a bit obtuse, you have to respect the developers for going all-in on this mechanic.

The Verdict

Ultros is a gorgeous hallucinatory escapade that dazzles visually as much as it impresses gameplay-wise. From the mesmerizing alien ship backdrop to the methodical combat to the taxing-yet-rewarding gardening mechanic, this game is full of surprises. If you're looking for a wholly original Metroidvania game with innovative new roguelite elements, Ultros is quite the trip.

Final Score: 8/10 - Great

Ultros details

Platform: PS5, PS4, PC
Developer: Hadoque
Publisher: Kepler Interactive
Genre: Platformer, Adventure, Metroidvania
Modes: Single-player
ESRB Rating: T (Teen)

A key was provided by the publisher.