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Platform: PlayStation 5

Ultros Review

A seed of promise that needs time to blossom

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I've played plenty of metroidvanias over the last few years, and one thing I always look for prior to jumping into one is how does it stand out from the crowd. Sometimes a unique art style is strong enough to hook me. Other times, an intriguing gameplay mechanic can lure me in. Ultros, the debut effort from Sweden-based studio Hadoque, is the rare title that offers both fresh visuals and mechanics. For as odd and incomparable as the game is, though, I walked away from the experience more underwhelmed than I was anticipating.

Ultros game

The psychedelic imagery of Ultros is likely what generated the most interest, and it doesn't disappoint the more you dig into the game. Bursting from the mind of eclectic artist El Huervo (who previously worked on Hotline Miami), the world of the game is like if the goopiest creatures and fauna imaginable were layered in a melted coat of neon felt pens. It's a kaleidoscopic blast of colors that is immediately eye-catching. All creatures and beings, from the gruesome moth you encounter early on to becloaked huntress Vasa, manage to leave a lasting impression. For as busy as the visuals are, though, I don't think they hinder getting around either. Unique indicators such as specific forms of plants or gaudy statues serve as landmarks for you to recall when exploring. It would have been easy for players to get lost in all the visual pizzaz, but that is thankfully not the case.

Most of your time in Ultros is spent exploring The Sarcophagus – a sprawling mass that you accidentally crash landed upon. This cosmic uterus you have woken up on is a seemingly living entity that houses assorted creatures and plant life. There are even a few different species capable of communication, such as the friendly Gardner, who provide some knowledge of what you should be doing. To reach different areas of the ship, you'll need to track down several different shamans. These incubated beings hold different extractor tools, which can then be used to reach the next location. What separates this game from others, though, is that if you enter the central hub of the ship after getting a new tool, you'll confront the titular demon on-board. This will trigger a cataclysmic event, and reset a time loop that The Sarcophagus has gotten stuck in. As the latest passenger, you are now stuck in this dire loop as well.

Your goal is to find a way to escape the loop, but you're not given the guide for how to do this. All you know is that a loop can trigger upon cracking open one of those shaman caskets and taking the extractor located within it. As you repeatedly loop, though, you'll begin to see a path forward. It could be through discussions with certain characters or getting access to new areas. The extractor tool helps get you into these areas as you upgrade it. One upgrade lets you chop through pesky plants, while another serves as a thruster through water. It's the tried-and-true metroidvania formula of keeping areas off limits until you have the right toolset to get to it. The other way you can get into new locations, though, is through gardening.

Ultros game

If there are three pillars to Ultros, and two of them are exploration and combat, then the third is gardening. After speaking with the Gardener during one of your early runs, you gain the knowledge of how to plant seeds. These seeds are found all over The Sarcophagus, and there are tons of plots available for you to do your gardening. There are several different plant varieties to use, and each of them have their own unique attributes. For example, one of the early ones you get grows into a tree with a top that you can climb on. The fascinating mechanic here is that the plants do not complete their full growth immediately. To get them to their proper size, you will need to reset the loop. When you return to where you planted your seed during the following loop, it will now be significantly larger. This forces you to think about what plants you want to plant where, so that they will be able to properly assist during a future loop. The process does get streamlined as you unlock additional extractor upgrades, but it's a fascinating piece of the game design regardless.

Less interesting, though, is the combat engine. Early on in each loop, you will stumble across a sword, which serves as your main weapon. Main strikes are mapped to one button, and you can slide under specific attacks to deliver additional damage. You can unlock additional skills by consuming food, which either comes from the plants or the corpses of your fallen foes. Although these skills reset when you trigger a new loop, there are items that can be used to lock them in for all future runs.

Even with the new abilities you get, the combat feels a little too one-note for me. There's not a ton of variety to it, and it's honestly too easy. I don't think there was one boss I found myself even slightly struggling with. Part of that does feel like a conscious choice from Hadoque, as there are ways to avoid combat altogether. You can drop food for enemies to eat that will cause them to refrain from attacking. The title wants you to be a pacificist, which is a fine idea, but until you figure out what to do, you still need to engage with the lacking combat.

Ultros game

Ultimately, for as fascinating as it can be, the loops of Ultros are what ended up causing me to burn out on it. While you can get to new areas upon the start of each loop, you still end up going through the same locations most of the time during each run. And unlike a roguelite, which would typically switch things up, these areas are static throughout, right down to the same enemy placement. By the time I reached one of the endings in the game, which took me a little over 10 hours, I was ready for a break. The thought of beginning another loop and doing what I need to do to get to another ending, left me with a feeling of dread. Maybe it's the type of game I need to put down for a bit and come back to when I'm feeling up to it. But that's still not a feeling I want to have when I wrap something up.

Ultros is more of an interesting game than it is a good one. The driving mechanic of being stuck in this never-ending time loop is a great idea, and I love how it plays into the gardening system. The two work in conjunction with each other in ways that lead to some ingenious moments. Combined with the eye-catching color palette and otherworldly universe designs, this is something I really wanted to love more. The more runs I made with the game, though, the more I became disenchanted with it. The combat is lacking in variety, and the platforming isn't dynamic enough to make up for having to repeat the same sections ad nauseum. As credits rolled, I couldn't help but feel both bummed and burned out by the adventure.

Our ratings for ULTROS on PlayStation 5 out of 100 (Ratings FAQ)
Curated by El Huervo, the visuals of Ultros are arguably the strongest part of the package. With its wild plant-life and goopy creatures, The Sarcophagus is a wonder to take in.
Both the combat and platforming is lacking in variety, and doesn't really iterate upon the core mechanics you begin with. Some of the extractor upgrades you receive add to the arsenal, but not enough to make up for what is an overall underwhelming package.
Single Player
The thread of trying to break the loop you are stuck in is a cool idea, but in practice, it doesn't work as well as you would like. It leads to some cool moments with your gardening, but having to repeat the same sections multiple times gets old.
No major issues with the title while playing on the PlayStation 5.
There are fascinating and fun elements in Ultros, from the splashy visuals, the alien design, and the unexpectedly enticing gardening mechanic. However, most other facets of the gameplay just aren't up to par for a modern metroidvania.
ULTROS box art Platform:
PlayStation 5
Our Review of ULTROS
The Verdict:
Game Ranking
ULTROS is ranked #1607 out of 1971 total reviewed games. It is ranked #17 out of 25 games reviewed in 2024.
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1607. ULTROS
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9 images added 56 days ago
Ultros - Launch Trailer
Posted: 68 days ago
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