I ate a bug. Then I ate another one, and followed it with the brain of something that I have no idea what it was before I crushed its psychedelic body into neon-colored paste. Contented with my meal, I took a nap and woke up with new powers and a drive to keep exploring.
That sounds like a trippy dream, which isn’t far off the mark. Ultros from developer Hadoque looks and plays like a trippy dream, and while its unique visual style might be the first thing that catches your attention, there’s a lot more going on under the kaleidoscope of textures and colors. Ultros is a fresh and clever - and much-needed - twist on two genres at risk of over-iterating themselves into blandness.
A living graveyard
Ultros follows a hunter in a green visor as she fights to peel back layers of mystery aboard a strange vessel floating in space. A mysterious warrior shows up and drops hints about the vessel’s past and your future, and she may or may not be an ally to you. While those Metroid and Hollow Knight similarities might seem a little on the nose, that’s pretty much where they end. The space vessel in question is a giant sarcophagus with ecosystems, secrets, and a tattered civilization all its own, and your arrival – and subsequent kickstarting of an ancient ritual – may or may not be a terrible thing.
The central story is a strong one, and while Ultros does lean a little too hard into spinning new mysteries in every conversation to keep you guessing about what’s going on, it’s done so well in most cases that I can easily forgive the slightly tired storytelling method. It helps that Ultros eventually balances all its mysteries quite well. The lore feels slightly impenetrable even at the end, like perhaps Hadoque kept some back for future projects or an expansion, though in a world built on secrets, a hint of lingering mystery feels appropriate anyway.
Part of what I like best about Ultros’ story is how it builds little narrative themes into the sarcophagus itself – ruined devotional statues, for example, or chambers of worship sat alongside high-tech scientific equipment that’s built into the vessel’s organic body. It’s suggestive and evocative, and it keeps the broader narrative in front of you even when the next story segment is waiting to unfold. Sure, we call that “environmental storytelling” in most games, but it’s rare to see in Metroidvanias, a genre with areas themed for gameplay and not narrative.
The other fresh twist on the established formula comes from Ultros’ roguelike structure. Your mission culminates in battles with gigantic, trippy bosses that I’m convinced surrealists from the mid-20th century probably saw in their dreams after a particularly raucous evening. Then, you kill a shaman. Is it a good thing? That’s what you’ll have to find out. But once it’s done, Ultros’ ritual progresses a little further, and you start back at the beginning with barely a hint of any skills you learned before.
Blending Metroidvania adventuring with roguelikes’ structure is a brilliant move, and it suited my tastes perfectly. I usually tackle the likes of Metroid Dread and Hades in small chunks and burn out quickly if I try playing through for longer. Ultros was different. The cleverly-placed story segments and the drive to see what a new cycle brought pushed me to keep going, and the changes include more than just your skills vanishing again.
You usually get access to a new part of the sarcophagus after killing a shaman, but the old areas have new secrets as well. You can plant and tend seeds in special garden areas, and while some of them sprout just the once and give you handy items, others don’t grow until the next cycle and help you access previously blocked-off areas. The feature sounds simple in writing, but it makes the genre’s backtracking feel more rewarding than usual.
Also rewarding is how Ultros handles upgrades, with one of the more inventive upgrade systems in Metroidvanias and roguelikes. Your hunter gains proficiency in four areas when she eats all the bits and bobs her enemies drop, which is gross, but also a smart way to make customization deeper.
Enemy pieces vary in quality depending on how you defeat them. Using one or two attacks repeatedly means they leave behind mush or battered materials, but varied attack patterns and special abilities – lobbing a foe in midair, for example – gives you the space bug equivalent of a butcher’s prime cut. No, it makes no sense, but it does make every battle feel fresh and exciting and encourages careful planning when you unlock new skills.
Each piece of bug-thing viscera corresponds to one or more of the hunter’s attributes. You might want to bump up blue and orange for a high-jump skill, and the spine of a flying whatever you just squished can do that. However, it’s the only item with enough blue power, and you might need it later for a different skill that unlocks. Each phase has limited enemies that, unlike Hollow Knight, don’t respawn when you rest, so you likely won’t unlock the entire skill tree in a single run.
One clever touch is the memory lock, which lets you use limited items to staple a skill in place, so it stays with you in the next cycle. Keeping a handful of skills you like removes the tedium of respawning with nothing several times and lends a greater sense of importance to the skills you pick each time.
Recovering some skills is tedious, though. You have to physically regain abilities that don’t come from your mind skill tree, which means going out of your way to find the right spot again before moving on.
Ultros’ actual battles are a little less impressive. The hunter’s skills are flashy and downright cool sometimes, and bringing down a giant nightmare creature is always immensely satisfying. However, it all feels just a little loose. Your movement, combos, and sometimes even jumping feel a bit floaty and lack the sense of solidity you get from Samus or Hollow Knight’s hero.
It doesn’t help that, when using a controller, accidentally inputting the wrong directional command is a little too easy. I sometimes found myself performing a neutral or down attack by mistake just from trying to push the control stick up.
Writing them out makes these issues sound more dramatic than they feel while playing. Ultros still controls well, and battles feel good. It all just takes a bit of getting used to.
Ultros is a kaleidoscope game. It takes a handful of ordinary things, shakes them up and sticks the pieces together, and then spins it all around. It's just a different version of what we've seen dozens of times before, sure. But it feels special, and it sure does look good.
The publisher provided the Steam copy of Ultros used for this review. Ultros launches for PS4, PS5, and PC via Steam on February 13, 2024.
- Inventive progression system
- Clever improvements on the Metroidvania and roguelike formulas
- Brilliant visual direction
- Strong, if slightly overdone, story
- Movement feels loose
- Recovering lost abilities feels unnecessarily tedious