Look, every good indie game needs a solid hook. Sometimes it’s neat gameplay, sometimes it’s a cool aesthetic – sometimes it’s a wild-ass story that is hard to forget.
And sometimes it’s all of the above, plus space gardening. There’s also the neon elephant in the room, and it must be addressed before anything else: Ultros is one colourful son of a gun. A game with an aesthetic this stark and striking could easily phone in facets like gameplay or narrative, but the developers at Hadoque clearly weren’t ready to phone anything in.
I am sure there is nothing dark and sinister about this cosmic entity
Under the luminous hood of Ultros is a Metroidvania that hits every essential beat to proudly wear such a label – with a stylish and simplistic combat system that may just fool you into thinking it is basic. I was immediately enamoured with how it handled its evade mechanic, allowing you to dodge an attack and hit a retaliation combo – but soon the depth came knocking. See, defeated enemies will drop body parts that can be picked up and devoured, replenishing your health and pooling a range of experience types across four unique flavours. Then you can trade in these alien resources to unlock abilities in your talent tree – improving your arsenal or providing a passive benefit to your world exploration.
The stickler here is that the quality of the guts you gobble is entirely dependent on how well you take a bad guy down. If you just spam attacks and dodge, you’ll get a gross pile of garbage – still snackable, but obviously only offering a paltry amount. However if you vary your attacks and do retaliation dodges, the goop you get from enemies will be of a much higher quality. This was quick to prevent me flailing about like a dork and brute forcing encounters, if only to avoid the unappealing pulp. Basically, style rewards substance – delicious, edible substance. The game even grades you on the fly, with a little pop up saying PERFECT VARIETY if you manage to execute your foe well – rewarding you with a delectable serving of…prime quality warts. Yum.
The abilities you unlock are then yours to use at your convenience, until you encounter a loop. These come at identifiable times, wiping your inventory and learnt skills and restarting you back at your initial starting location, albeit with your impact on the world still persisting. At first this had me worried I was playing some branch of the roguelite genre, but soon came to realise that these cycles of gameplay are instead carefully done to create engaging play opportunities and narrative beats. Exploration will even reward you with special brain mushrooms that can be allocated in your skill tree to make that particular upgrade persist beyond a loop, so you can keep your favourite toys – and these are plentiful enough to a keen-eyed monster muncher.
Getting some meal prep advice
Of course, guts aren’t the only thing on the menu. The Sarcophagus is seemingly organic – with all manner of fruiting plants to savour, as well as a few that offer a little utility as well. These plots offer you a chance to stay your blade and instead get your hands dirty, as you collect a range of seeds and drop them in fertile soil to grow your own little slice of paradise. By doing this, you can grow a variety of delicious edible goodies to snack on, but the unique flora offerings do a great deal more than fill your belly. A grand portion of the puzzling traversal elements of the game come down to figuring out what plant would work best where – with creative shrubbery doing everything from simply offering a platform to get a little higher, to creating a sticky wheatfield that lets you run on walls.
Like any good Metroidvania, your keystone victories give you a new doodad for the sake of traversing to additional areas. While most titles of this ilk tend to throw weapons and powers up your way, Ultros leans into the richest flavour of its setting by kitting out your garden shed. Your Extractor unit is a multitool that offers a range of functions should you punk a particular dork, turning into everything from a weed-whacker, to a dig-a-ma-bob and even a splicer to create hybrid frankenplants out of your potted vegetation. Once your tool belt of gardening implements is firing on all cylinders the game turns into a greenhouse of chaos. Any unexplored nook turns into an opportunity to unleash your green thumb; perhaps you will splice a dozen plant parts together into a giant walkway to reach a far off ledge? Or maybe you can pitch a seed waaay up into a far off wall to create a feely vine that jams a generator – the soil’s the limit.
Much to my delight, one such occasion of involved exploration actually awarded a previous choice I had made to avoid an area – on account of how downright difficult I was finding it. I had dipped a toe in the fantastically creative section to find its primary gimmick was sensor lights and locking doors, and after failing spectacularly for a while, I chose to instead chase a different objective. A few hours of gameplay and some upgrades later, I managed to squeeze myself into a tiny forgotten gap in a long cleared area, and emerged at the boss fight of the previously skipped section. The hulking creature regarded me with incredulity, and even commented that I had somehow bypassed all of the security measures that were meant to stop me – before I caved his dumb head in and went on my merry way.
That strange feeling of being unsure what you are looking at, but acknowledging that it is definitely cool
The story and setting on offer are both firmly established, but barely explained. Every character that meets you greets you as an outsider – a pilgrim, a warrior, a lost soul – but none of them take the time to formally welcome you or explain the situation. The closest you get is a caretaker that at first is quite concerned at your appearance in their domain, then later gets quite frazzled at the way you seem to be messing shit up. Hell, the very first experience you have seems to be with a ghost – or whatever passes for a ghost in this lost corner of the universe.
One could find it frustrating that there isn’t more in the way of giant, protracted lore dumps, given modern standards of VIDYA GAEM storytelling – but the way Ultros handles it makes it feel more like being a tourist in a place that doesn’t focus on tourism. The world is happening around you, and of course you are welcome – but the world and its denizens aren’t pausing their goings-on to accommodate you specifically. You scrape together every morsel of information you can by way of exploration and the lost art of simply paying attention, piecing together a patchy tapestry of understanding.
I may never fully understand the entire lore of Ultros, but ultimately I don’t need to. These gaps are not gaping holes, but instead fun sources of speculation that players of all kinds will probably revel in watercooler-esque chats online for ages to come. I know that I personally stepped away from my 12 hours of gameplay desperately considering which of my mates would be a suitable candidate to play it for themselves, if only so I could ensnare a discussion partner.
Rudest dude at the day spa
Beyond its colour, the actual art of Ultros leaps off the screen. It’s a very visually dense game, packed full of exquisite detail and quite often running the risk of almost being too intense to a viewer. Profane and obscene figures gaze at you from the background, nursing young or silently musing, ancient machinery whirrs and channels energy, desiccated foliage obscures ruins – it’s a feast for the eyes in even the most mundane of locales. Symbolism is also rife, leaning deep into themes of simultaneous decay and rebirth and the recurring visual of being sucked into a demonic womb never ceased to both wow and ick me.
The developers are keenly aware that what they have crafted may well be ‘psychedelic neon’ cranked up to 11, and they are not too proud to admit it, going so far as to even offer a range of accessibility options to scale back the intensity. An option to toggle the games far-out font is pretty standard, but they also include sliders to both blur the detailed backgrounds into a more simplistic backdrop, which pairs nicely with the control to add a player halo to your avatar, ensuring they are not lost amongst the visual chaos that can manifest screen. You can then dip into a manner of post processing options to simplify things further, ensuring all are welcome to enjoy.
Ultros also has one of the most sincerely simple implementations of a difficulty system I have ever seen – a damage slider. It seems so obvious, a player can simply amend the amount of incoming damage they wish to receive, even going so far as to zero out incoming damage entirely. Curiously, I was a little disappointed that the slider didn’t account for a higher challenge by offering a value above 100% for those seeking mastery of the game, but I will be keenly watching to see if this system gets adopted elsewhere in our modern age of dial-a-difficulty settings.
If you thought he looked like a fleshy croissant, then we have something in common
Really the only grumble I came away from Ultros with was how its vagaries extended a little too far. I had no issue with brute forcing a solution to a problem, if only for how generous the game was with handing me the tools to do so – but the implementation of those tools could be a tad frustrating at times. All the wondrous seeds handed to you have funky and fun alien names, but no description on what they are capable of once they are in your pocket. Once you plant one of those suckers in soil, you’ll of course learn what they do – but initially the game offered me no way to remove a seed once planted, so if I dropped the wrong guy at the wrong place, he would persist there and halt that particular expedition. It was never critically progress halting, and once I got the right Extractor gubbin to retrieve an errant seed I felt a whole lot more relieved – but having to note down on pen and paper what a OGU MUMIN seed or UBARBA seed does felt a tad goofy, when the tooltip could say, “Grows a mighty trunk” rather than, “A seed that can be planted” across all nine varieties of plantables.
This also extended to the Extractor itself, with some of its functionality given a paragraph of in-universe lore as to explain what the function does – only with none of the words actually saying “Can make you fly after touching liquid.” This at least was a great deal easier to work around, given that there was no risk of losing access to something for the foreseeable future if you employed trial and error. All quality of life stuff, and things that I can’t help but feel will see attention with player feedback.
My gardening guide
Ultros is a title with nothing to prove, but still somehow proves plenty. It’s old school without feeling old, and unhelpful without feeling frustrating. Your victories are yours alone, and that’s a cool thing to experience nowadays. There are a lot of games that like to pretend they are offering something unique, but really I have never seen a package quite like Ultros – crushing it on everything that matters. This is a title that deserves a spot on anyone’s watchlist.
Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher
- Kepler Interactive
- PS5 / PS4 / PC
- February 13, 2024