Ultros – a Metroidvania that looks good enough to eat (Picture: Kepler Interactive)
A bizarre art style and plant-based power-ups are amongst the unlikely features of this impressive new indie Metroidvania.
Could a spaceship become a living organism? Is it ever too late for a killer to repent and start nurturing life instead of destroying it? What would a plant-filled alien birthing canal look like if you looked at it through an acid kaleidoscope?
All these questions and more are posed by Ultros, the latest addition to the impressive modern Metroidvania tradition, that’s already seen some excellent recent entries like Prince Of Persia: The Lost Crown and Blasphemous 2.
Ultros is a 2D side-scroller, although if that makes it sound traditional it only takes a short while with the game to see otherwise. You awake as a silent passenger on the aforementioned spaceship, one that seems overrun by crunching and clicking bug life, along with a steadily growing forest of plants. You start to piece together that you’re onboard a sort of space womb, and that it’s about to birth a monstrous new intergalactic pseudo-deity called Ultros.
So far, so weird, but mechanically Ultros’ early hours are fairly grounded, as you explore a traditionally laid-out map and learn its fairly simple combat system, which revolves around a dodge button that opens up attack opportunities.
Sadly, these fights don’t have much depth and don’t really gain any complexity as the game goes on, remaining one of its weakest links. Movement is another mixed bag. At times it’s smooth and responsive but there are enough quirks to it (particularly when controlling your robotic companion and tool, the extractor, is concerned) to elicit frustration.
Still, killing some early enemies opens up one of Ultros’ most intriguing mechanics, where you collect body parts that can be used for healing (the cleaner the kill the better the part) and to purchase character upgrades.
This is a fun enough concept, but in the same inventory wheel you’ll also collect and find plant seeds that you can bed in at certain glowing points in the ship’s layout – and there are many of these planting points.
Some plants will grow platforms you can use to jump higher, others will spawn healing fruits, and others still can give you movement boosts, making these seeds a fun way to get around certain puzzles and access hidden areas.
Best of all, some of these require patience. They’ll only fully regrow between loops, one of the last tricks up Ultros’ sleeve, as it introduces a roguelite element to proceedings.
As you reach certain milestones – mainly vanquished bosses and gaining new movement abilities – you’ll loop back to the start of your journey, stripped of those skills you haven’t been able to preserve with collectable memory tokens.
From there you’ll explore the ship again, newly armed with whatever new tools you earned, ready to uncover the seeds you planted, now that they’re grown into full maturity.
This growth, the seething and pulsing nature of the ship’s living interior, brings us to the single towering strength that makes Ultros worth playing even if it has some rough edges: its unbelievable visual direction.
The game has a neon-soaked hand-drawn art style that seeps through its every pore, each of its rooms and areas resplendent with detailed backgrounds and flowing, organic designs.
Ultros – Metroidvania fans are eating well at the moment (Picture: Kepler Interactive)
You’ll come across rooms with brains suspended from wires, hooked up to bizarre contraptions, breweries full of suspicious yellow malts flowing like rivers into unknown crevices, and dripping gardens glowing with iridescent flowers.
There are temples full of benevolent statues, command centres riddled with wires and control panels, and even an alien spa complex bringing the mundane into sight. Happily, an echoing and melancholic soundtrack is the cherry on top of this excellent presentation.
It’s all so lovely and transporting, and while very little of this design is foregrounded, to the point where it impacts on your decisions, it does a wonderful job of filling in your mental picture of this bizarre floating sarcophagus-come-uterus.
There are other characters on the ship that you’ll occasionally bump into, but in typical Dark Souls style they’re not exactly forthcoming, with Ultros clearly preferring to leave things for the player to figure out.
That extends to more than one possible outcome for the game, a shorter and more violent path being the most immediate but not the only option.
Ultros – weird in a good way (Picture: Kepler Interactive)
Late on in its runtime, you’ll also get the ability to stitch together what it calls a ‘living network’, a lattice of connections between its flowers that lets you manually hook up the save points you’ve discovered to make them available for fast travel.
Thematically it works beautifully, but the reality of an obstacle-filled exercise in backtracking around basically the entire map means that it’s a challenge only those who are absolutely in love with Ultros will likely feel compelled to take on.
Ultros knows it’s weird and revels in it but that does come at the cost of a certain smoothness and accessibility that great titles like Hollow Knight nailed.
That doesn’t by any means discount its most successful elements, but it does mean that Ultros falls just short of classic status, within the pantheon of great Metroidvania games.
Ultros review summary
In Short: Sometimes visuals are enough to carry a game and they certainly take Ultros far, although mediocre combat and some jankiness slightly undermines the unique vision.
Pros: Simple, gorgeous art design that looks unlike anything else out there. An enjoyably enigmatic tone and a clever plant-growing mechanic.
Cons: Combat is too thin and the controls can feel awkward. Some of the mechanics are underexplored. Conveniences are locked behind a fiddly backtracking exercise.
Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), PlayStation 4, and PC
Publisher: Kepler Interactive
Release Date: 13th February 2024
Age Rating: 16
To submit Inbox letters and Reader’s Features more easily, without the need to send an email, just use our Submit Stuff page here.
For more stories like this, check our Gaming page.
Sign up to all the exclusive gaming content, latest releases before they’re seen on the site.