Ultros Review – Let’s Try That Again From Scratch

What makes a good metroidvania? For me, it’s all about solid fundamentals in movement and combat, which are built upon as you progress through the game, as well as rewarding exploration that necessitates full use of your expanding moveset. But it’s that constant progression and ever-evolving set of abilities that, more than anything, make the metroidvania genre as far as I’m concerned. So here I am playing Ultros, a new 2D metroidvania from developer Hadoque and publisher Kepler Interactive, built around a time loop gimmick that resets you back to your starting point every hour or so, and I’ll just be very upfront about it; I don’t think it works on the most fundamental level.

It starts pretty basic. You wake up in a cosmic uterus called The Sarcophagus with no concept of where you are or what’s happening. You wander around and find your first couple upgrades: a sword to fight with and a double jump that enable further exploration. Then you fight your first boss, and Ultros‘ twist on the metroidvania genre is revealed. You have to destroy eight pods to complete Ultros, and every time you destroy one of them, you’re reset back to the beginning, with all your abilities gone. And to regain your abilities (including, most crucially, your double jump), you have to travel to the center of the map before you can then continue on your quest to destroy all eight pods. Rinse and repeat.

Get sucked into the vortex and start from the beginning

This just doesn’t make sense to me within the framework of a metroidvania. First of all, it’s incredibly tedious. Every time you make progress, you then have to spend a bunch of time without making any, getting back to the point before you got reset, so you can then continue doing things that are actually worthwhile again. And what makes that trip back so much worse is that you don’t have your abilities during it. This is a metroidvania where, for almost half the game, you don’t have access to anything more than your basic set of actions. And what this does is that you never really get used to your mobility. Because for half an hour you’ll be running around with a double jump (and more), and then for the next twenty minutes you’ll be stuck with nothing but a simple jump, before then going back to having a bunch more options again. You never really get in tune with what you can and can’t do.

Towards the end of Ultros, it’s asked of you to make use of all your skills to navigate the map perfectly, but even by that point, I kept forgetting that I could do certain things because I was so used to getting around with the bare minimum. And quite frankly, some of the abilities have some real niche uses, to the point that by the end of the game, I had used them for maybe 30 minutes max. This decision to take everything from you every time you reach a milestone in the story makes the whole game feel so clunky and tedious more than anything. On top of that, the fast travel that you only unlock very late into Ultros requires a bunch of work to be used, at which point just accepting your fate of having to run around the map over and over actually takes less work than going the extra mile to enable fast travel for every beacon on the map.

Ultros is undeniably very beautiful to look at

This could all be forgiven if Ultros felt good to play, but both movement and combat are not as clean as they should be. Movement isn’t precise enough, the distance of your jump is extremely hard to gauge properly, and combat is such a chore that I avoided enemies where possible. Ultros is not the worst-feeling game I’ve ever played, but it doesn’t feel good enough to justify the already monotonous gameplay loop. A literal loop with which the game also doesn’t play in meaningful ways. The route back to the core changes slightly, but not massively, and while the gardening, food, and skill systems are sort of tied to the loop, they’re not meaningful enough to make much of an impact.

So throughout Ultros, you will gather seeds that you can plant at specific spots to grow a plethora of different plants. Some of them can help you traverse the map, but quite frankly, most of the time, the extent of usage you get out of them is the fruit they bear every loop. Fruits, along with meat you get from killed enemies, can be eaten to restore health, as well as increase four very colorful bars, which you need to unlock skills at save points. Of course, just like everything else, these skills reset every time, BUT there are collectibles you can find on the map that let you lock certain skills in place, making them permanent. The problem is that most of them don’t really impact your gameplay all that much, so after experimenting a bit, I found the few I wanted and locked them, and that was that.

Your tree won’t be this big and beautiful but you can try I suppose

The narrative alongside all of this, the justification for the loop design, is also nothing special. You wake up in a mysterious place, have to destroy some things to save everyone, meet some lost souls along the way, and there’s a twist at the end that’s in equal measures obvious and stupid, so you can only roll your eyes at it and move on. There’s tons of lore here if you care enough, but nothing I found out about the world got me invested enough to go out of my way for all the optional lore you can find, and I certainly didn’t want to spend more time with Ultros than I already had.

But then there are the visuals, the obvious highlight of Ultros. And sadly, even here, I can’t be entirely positive. Don’t get me wrong, Ultros is unbelievably striking, with an extremely unique art style that’s endlessly colorful and creates an environment that’s so weird and out there that it does a lot of heavy lifting to keep you at least a little invested through sheer curiousity for this wonderful world. The problem is that while it does absolutely look beautiful, it’s not as fun to play through. It’s not always clear what’s interactable and what’s just set dressing; background and foreground can merge together sometimes, and as unrecognizable as the created environments are, it’s as hard to navigate through them, which is almost impossible without a constant look at the minimap because it’s borderline impossible to remember any clear marks within the many rooms.

These are some cool looking dudes though

The soundtrack by Oscar “Ratvader” Rydelius, however, is unbelievably the true highlight of Ultros. It’s a mystical journey to a different world far away from logic and grounded realism, with sounds that are indefinite and yet so reminiscent. Like remembering a world you’ve only visited in your dreams before.

I want to make it clear that I was on Ultros‘ side. I wanted to love this game; the world and visuals are intriguing, and I would love a great game that looks and sounds like this. Until the very last moments, I was hoping for something big to happen that would get me to appreciate what it did. But the sad reality is that some fundamental design decisions have been made with Ultros that do not work for me, and everything else is fighting to somehow hold it up from completely crumbling. But none of it is good enough to save this flawed premise.

Nairon played Ultros on PC with a review copy.

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