Ultros, which launches this week on PC and exclusively on PlayStation, is an impressive indie game that I’ve had my eye on since the first trailer was released last May. Developed and published by newly discovered Swedish studio Hadoque, the game has a distinctive psychedelic sci-fi aesthetic attributed to acclaimed Swedish artist and composer Niklas “The Huervo” Åkerblad, perhaps best known for his work on the Hotline Miami series is known.
Your journey begins after your ship crashes on a strange alien world called Sarcophagus, where an ancient demonic being called Ultros lives. Then you find yourself in a seemingly endless loop, with many unanswered questions plaguing you as you explore. Because I’m here? Why am I stuck in a loop? What is my purpose? The main story is full of mystery and covers topics such as mental illness, life and death, and karmic cycles.
If you’ve played games like Ori and the Blind Forest and the Metroid series, you’ll feel right at home with Ultros. You move through an extensive map divided into different zones and must find certain power-ups before you can explore new areas. There are many secrets hidden along the way for the most curious explorers and challenging bosses that you must defeat using the game’s clever combat system.
Speaking of combat, the action in Ultros is fast-paced and you have to react quickly to the enemy’s telegraphed attacks to win the game. You can use a heavy attack to break through his guard, chain together standard attacks to deal damage, or dodge at the right moment to launch a powerful counterattack. Combat is easy to understand and incredibly fluid, meaning it felt like all the damage I took was my fault.
The game’s skill tree called “The Cortex” adds an additional tactical layer to combat. Here you unlock new abilities to help you in combat and movement, such as a devastating third combo hit and the ability to jump off walls. To unlock these abilities, you must eat food, which you can grow, sow seeds, or harvest by slashing enemies. To get the best quality drops from enemies, you need to mix up your attack combinations, which gives you extra incentive to not just press the square button and hope for the best.
However, unlike traditional Metroidvania games, Ultros contains roguelike elements. Every time you unlock a new ability that allows you to traverse the map in new ways, you are sent to an early grave and must regain your weapon and all of your powers. Although it’s annoying to have to back out, Ultros will save you a lot of hassle. You can commit some of the skills you’ve unlocked in your skill tree to memory with special items, and you can also plant seeds to change the world around you and create shortcuts for future runs.
The wild psychedelic imagery makes a bold impression at first glance, but I think it’s a double-edged sword. As for the positives, they manage to give Ultros its own identity and it feels like you’re playing in an Adult Swim cartoon. However, the explosion of color can be a headache, and I couldn’t play through the entire game without diving into the options menu and lowering the intensity of the palette.
Another aspect that seemed controversial to me is exploration. As I mentioned before, the game has a very extensive map and I found each location to be visually unique and have its own charm and character. However, I wish there was an on-screen mini-map as I often got lost and had to pause the game to figure out where to go. Luckily the map is well designed and the path you follow is clear based on your skills, but I felt out of sync every time I had to open the menu.
With its vibrant graphics and repetitive roguelike elements, Ultros is a Metroidvania that dares to be different and deserves my respect for that alone. It may not hit the nail on the head in everything it sets out to do, but I still found it an attractive game in a time of drought of new and exciting releases. If you’re a fan of titles like Metroid Fusion and Ori and the Blind Forest, I recommend you give it a try, but be sure to tone down the intense colors before you start.