Ultros Review - Toil And Soil

  • First Released Feb 13, 2024
  • PC

Ultros' experimentation with elements from both roguelites and metroidvanias creates an enthralling combination accentuated by a captivating setting.

With an increasing number of them to choose from, it has become even more challenging for new metroidvania games to stand out. Those that have in recent memory all managed to establish either a distinct and enticing look to them, such as Hollow Knight, or refined a set of familiar mechanics that reinvigorates the entire formula again like last month's Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown. Ultros aspires to be spoken about in the company of these games and earns that right through an exciting blend of satisfying platforming and slick, fast combat, but also the ways in which it breaks away from the traditional mold of the metroidvania formula. It's these elements that make it truly stand out, even if some of its experimentation with form and format doesn't stick the landing.

You awake aboard a ship floating in space, unaware of how or why you're aboard, before quickly coming into contact with a variety of other alien species all carving out their own versions of idyllic life aboard the craft. A ghostly apparition that guides you through the opening moments of the game explains that there's a security measure in place to keep an all-powerful deity from escaping its sarcophagus, the very ship you've found yourself aboard, and that you'll need to sever the connection of eight beings to the system to ultimately be free. It's not long after that Ultros establishes itself as a pseudo-roguelite, with a time-looping mechanic underpinning your progression and exploration throughout the entire adventure.

These roguelite elements don't function how you might expect them to based on genre staples, however. For example, when you die, you're sent back to your last save point instead of restarting in a new loop, which firmly reminds you that Ultros is first and foremost a metroidvania at its core. Initially, a new loop is only started after you perform pivotal actions around the world, and only after you return to a central hub where the entire world is reset again. You do still have a significant portion of your progress reset, including all of your upgrades and inventory items, as well as losing your primary weapon and utility robot that stores all your other permanent mechanical upgrades. Having the latter two revoked each new loop is initially jarring as not being able to attack or double jump at the start of a loop feels foreign after a few hours utilizing both, but it does serve a purpose if you want to explore Ultros' world with a more passive approach, opening up alternative avenues to investigate if you manage to figure out how to get around. It quickly becomes trivial to reacquire these vital pieces of gear, too, with each new loop offering shorter routes to them that let you get going again quickly and avoiding a sense of frustration after making important story progress.

Ultros' greatest strength is its setting, with the strange, biomechanical sarcophagus you explore littered with fascinating biomes and small environmental stories to tell. You could be exploring an abandoned space spa built to placate inhabitants of the area of the loop they're trapped in during one run, while moving onto a foreboding labyrinth of hallways strewn with the obsessed workings of an alien hunter during another. These stand in contrast to a neon-lit collection of corridors specifically designed to act as the venue for a twisted game show, while another auburn-lit refinery pumps mysterious orange fluid around at the behest of an obsessed scientist looking for research breakthroughs where there are none.

Each of these areas is brought to life with a striking art style that effortlessly combines the sensibilities of biomechanics and the wildly colorful palette of a vivid acid trip. If you can imagine the artwork for a Tool album and the eye-searing color of Hotline Miami, you'll have an idea of what Ultros looks like consistently throughout its expansive map. Artist El Huervo, who also contributed to Hotline Miami, exhibits their distinctive style across each of Ultros' areas, which should excite you if you're familiar with their work, or make you a new fan shortly afterward. It's not just window dressing either, with this attention to detail extending to animations that move slightly out of step with what you might expect, fitting in perfectly with the oddities around them. There's one particular standout when you arrive at a hibernation pod used for saving your game; seeing the psychedelic liquid inside melt out as you slash open the glass never gets old.

Your sword and the abilities you unlock to expand your repertoire in combat help provide depth to Ultros' satisfying hack-and-slash action. Initially, you're confined to just a short two-hit basic attack and a vital slide dodge, but it doesn't take long to gain access to devastating counter-attacks that are rewarded for timely dodges, or enhanced basic strikes that can stun an enemy and leave them open to a juggle attack that lets you direct them towards another foe for bonus damage. Enemies drop parts of themselves as consumable rewards after fights, and you're encouraged to not repeat any attacks during a fight in order to maximize their healing and nutritional potency, providing optional depth should you want it. There's a particular duel against another agile hunter later in the game that showcases the harmony of all of these mechanics beautifully, given that you're required to respond to a fighter that moves and counters you in the same ways that you've been exploiting on far easier fodder.

Each of these areas is brought to life with a striking art style that effortlessly combines the sensibilities of biomechanics and the wildly colorful palette of a vivid acid trip ... If you can imagine the artwork for a Tool album and the eye-searing color of Hotline Miami, you'll have an idea of what Ultros looks like

New enemy types are consistently introduced throughout your exploration of each of Ultros' distinct hubs, each of which presents a new wrinkle to overcome without ever becoming too difficult that it breaks up the breathless and satisfying pace of each combat encounter. Upgrades accentuate aspects of combat that you engage with most, adding additional hits to certain combos while opening up new moves entirely. There are a handful that I gravitated towards most and settled in with, and by using a scarce resource to make them available at the start of each run, I often forgot about the rest of the tree entirely. Its depth doesn't fundamentally change the core concepts of Ultros' combat, nor do they become required by any difficult encounters, which can make many of them feel slightly wasted.

Each upgrade requires a certain level of nutrition be unlocked, with each of the four nutrition levels affected by fruits and monster parts you consume to restore health. The concept of increasing specific nutritional attributes to unlock physical improvements is a novel one, even if its implementation didn't create a sense of resource-management tension as I recklessly consumed any and all resources to unlock an upgrade without worrying about my ability to heal during a fight. These upgrades also get reset with each loop, unless you lock certain ones in with rare collectibles found around the map, but with each loop, it becomes easier and easier to accrue enough resources to max out the upgrade tree. Once I could lock enough upgrades in, I often ignored the rest of the tree entirely, although that changed when I had to focus on alternative ways to complete objectives that didn't just require killing everything in front of me.

There are permanent upgrades unlocked as you progress through the story, each of which is accessed through your companion robot. These persist through each loop (although you have to reacquire your companion each time) and allow you to access new areas of the map. One upgrade lets you carve through plants that would otherwise hurt you, while another lets you dig up planted seeds for reuse later. Some, like the ability to repurpose parts of one plant and splice them onto another, serve little purpose outside Ultros' most challenging puzzles, many of which are reserved for loops after you've already seen credits for the first time. It makes the limited pool feel somewhat underwhelming, as you'll likely use a combination of three out of the eight total to interact with Ultros' world as you navigate it.

Horticulture is a big part of Ultros, and perhaps one of its more confusing elements at first. One of the only friendly alien species you interact with grows lush, sprawling gardens of all kinds around the map, with each variety offering some sort of benefit. Some grow valuable fruits that can be used for healing and upgrading your abilities, while others have special abilities that let you reach new areas, similar to how character abilities tend to do the same in classic metroidvanias. Some can even alter the state of the world, growing out platforms on ledge corners so that you can access new areas or sprawling outwards and destroying an obstacle blocking access to a shortcut or new area. It's easy to think of these seeds and their respectives abilities as replacements for otherwise standard character abilities that you'd find in similar metroidvania titles, working in conjunction with the ones that you do obtain to open up new areas of the map and continue exploring. It makes the lack of clear descriptions for each a little more frustrating as a result, as it can be deflating to plant a seed and not see it reach in the way that you expect it to and, additionally, not know why. This is alleviated somewhat by an ability you obtain early on allowing you to extract and replant seeds, but it still takes longer than it should to eventually understand the intricacies of how each works in a way that makes you feel like you're properly utilizing them to get around.

Certain plants require time to properly cultivate, tying further into the loop mechanics and encouraging you to think beyond the one you're currently on. This is most evident when trying to open up shortcuts, some of which will require the full might of a robust tree trunk to split open and utilize later. What's not explicitly conveyed through level design is that some paths are entirely optional and frequently meant for later gameplay after you've acquired the ability to reset a loop at will. This can make some aspects of exploration tedious as you attempt to solve what seems like a progress-blocking puzzle with a variety of seeds, before succumbing to defeat and eventually finding a way around it later. This anecdote would likely apply to other metroidvania games and perhaps to their intrinsic design philosophies, but the best out there generally do a good job at steering a player through the world naturally while making progression feel organic and earned. Ultros does achieve that a lot of the time, but additional context to different seed abilities, ideal planting environments, and the effects of limited-use compost would have gone a long way to alleviating numerous irritating roadblocks.

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Ultros ends when you've accomplished the goal it presents to you at the start, but it's evident that this is only a fraction of what its world has to offer. Core objective sites can be revisited under different circumstances to trigger new interactions, which open up whole new arrays of objectives that tie into different endings. While it's rewarding to explore Ultros throughout the core story, its thoughtful map design is specifically pronounced as you explore these additional objectives. A standout is connecting each of the biomes together with what is referred to as the "living network"--a strand of biological consciousness that originates at one point in the map and can be tethered to compatible existing structures and plants. These open up new shortcuts and tie into different endings should you extend the network to the right places, but figuring out how to spread it is its own reward. This singular goal exposes different ways of thinking around how and where you plant seeds, while also challenging you to deeply understand the fundamental construction of the map in a way that helps you appreciate the thoughtfulness of its design.

Ultros is a collection of novel ideas such as these that elevate it beyond its metroidvania underpinnings and help it stand out in the genre as something distinct. While it borrows elements from other genres to do so, it uses them thoughtfully within the context of its core design, never straying from the fundamentals of engaging exploration and rewarding progression that keep fans of this genre returning for new adventures. Its complexity can veer into frustrating territory by keeping some crucial mechanical aspects a little too vague, but it's never so detrimental that it hampers what is an otherwise engrossing adventure set within a visually memorable world--one with secrets and stories that invite you to stay well beyond your first escape, and reward you well for doing so.

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The Good

  • An engrossing setting with a variety of interesting biomes accentuated by a distinct and eye-catching visual style
  • Fast, flashy combat combines quick combos with satisfying air juggling to great effect
  • Novel use of a time loop in a metroidvania setting challenges you to think beyond standard exploration
  • Horticulture is both a surprising and engaging central mechanic that eschews traditional ability upgrades

The Bad

  • Seed descriptions and intricacies are frustratingly vague and take more experimentation to figure out than is fun
  • Some permanent upgrades are only really useful when tackling optional ending challenges after credits have rolled

About the Author

Alessandro escaped the time loop but chose violence to do it across 15 hours with Ultros. He spent a few additional hours chasing alternative endings afterwards and is still exploring the sarcophagus. Review code was provided by the publisher.