This is already turning into a bumper year for Metroidvania fans. With the excellent Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown having kicked things off beautifully, Ultros now arrives from a smaller publisher but with no small hype of its own. With a gob-smackingly unique art style and a fungal, miasmic tone, it certainly looks like nothing else out there right now, with a far more vague and player-led story than you might expect.
The game sees players awake on a mysterious spaceship, which seems to be playing host to the space-birth of a massive being called Ultros — a sort of Lovecraftian cosmic horror that instinctively looks like a bad thing for the universe.
The first hour or so of Ultros is pretty traditional, as you explore a side-scrolling chunk of map, find a short sword to fight with, and meet a couple of quirky, odd characters who give you some enigmatic information to digest. You start to figure out a skill tree, and are told you’ll only be able to earmark a few of these skills for retention between “loops”, without knowing quite what that means.
Then, after making it past the game’s first squelching boss, you’ll have that mystery solved as you sever the connection of a sleeping monk from Ultros’ birth process (you read that right) and get sucked into a space-time vortex to awake back where you started. You’ll only have whatever skills you managed to mark for protection, and that monk will stay severed, but from there you’ll have to start over, making your way through to a central chamber to collect a power-up again and heading off to find whatever new route you can make it through with said tool to find your next monk.
This is Ultros’ loop, a curious fusing of Metroidvania traditions with the lightest of roguelite trappings. It’s a loop that doesn’t actually reset you too harshly, but thematically resonates as you start to uncover more details about the ship you’re on (most of those details aren’t exactly definitive, still).
Your two main tools are that short sword for combat and a little floating robot called an Extractor, which houses the navigation upgrades you’ll gain step by step as you progress through the game. Combat is simple, largely centred around a dodge system that leaves opponents open after a well-timed button press, and while it’s fairly nice and responsive, you’ll soon realise that enemy variety is sorely lacking. The game also has little to no difficulty curve; bosses are consistently really straightforward and enemies easily overcome, with the only real barriers we ever encountered proving far more often to be navigational ones.
As you kill buzzing beasties, you’ll pick up body parts from them that can be used for healing and to stock up your stores of four levelling-up resources, a system that sounds more confusing than it is in practice. This looting brings into play one final gameplay twist, one of Ultros’ most original. You can also find and pick up seeds as you move around the ship, and plant these at designated spots to sprout a variety of plant types, some of which offer up bounties of healing berries while others offer new movement options, from climbing spots to momentum-building speed boosts.
Where you choose to plant which types of plant can have a really personalising effect on the sprawling map by the time you’re on your last couple of loops, although the game has clearly been carefully designed to not make these choices lock you out of areas you need to access unless really clearly signposted. Best of all, the plants grow further after a completed loop, and the ship soon starts to become far more fertile and full of flora, resonating with some story beats.
This bulging, pulsating sense of fecund life is in lockstep with Ultros’ gorgeous art style, by far its biggest and most distinctive success. It’s a neon-soaked, hand-drawn slam-dunk of a visual experiment, in some ways simple thanks to its basic 2D design but consistently throwing lovely designs and backgrounds your way to really sell its artistic vision. Hollow Knight is a clear touchstone for the game, and that game’s quiet, sombre tone is in some ways echoed here, but visually Ultros feels like the acid-spiked version of that subterranean world, in a really memorable way.
Still, in the same vein as the underwhelming combat, the pure platforming of Ultros is also not quite at the elite level that has fans slavering in anticipation of the long-awaited Silksong. While moving around feels smooth enough, jumps are just the slightest bit imprecise, and your movement set is just the tiniest bit limited in a way that can make the prospect of moving from one side of the large map to the other a little daunting and draining.
Similarly, near its ending the game offers you the chance to take a new approach story-wise by hooking up the whole ship to a sort of intravenous network — one that requires you to move through its corridors carefully linking up nodes to each other.
This process is interesting and fun in small doses, but locking fast-travel behind it is more than a little harsh, and it didn’t take us long to give up on the idea in favour of a speedier resolution. It’s just a little too janky to avoid relatively frequent moments of gentle frustration.
Ultros boasts a visual identity that deserves real recognition, a stunning vision of alien colour with design ideas that live long in the memory. Its platforming and combat can’t quite match that vigorous success, sadly. Still, if you’re on the hunt for a unique-looking Metroidvania game that comes bursting with ideas and a modest 10-hour runtime with the option of more if you love it, few games can match it for style.