Hadoque's Metroidvania indie title combines psychedelic art with fast-paced, fluid combat.
Releasing this week on PC and as a console exclusive on PlayStation, Ultros is a striking indie that I've had my eye on since its first trailer dropped last May. Developed and published by newfound Swedish studio Hadoque, the game has a distinctive psychedelic sci-fi aesthetic, which is credited to acclaimed Swedish artist and composer Niklas "El Huervo" Åkerblad, who is perhaps best known for his work on the Hotline Miami series.
Your journey starts after your ship crashes into a strange alien world known as The Sarcophagus, which is home to an ancient demonic being named Ultros. You then find yourself stuck in a seemingly never-ending loop, with many unanswered questions plaguing you as you explore. Why am I here? Why am I stuck in a loop? What is my purpose? The main story is shrouded in mystery and encompasses several relatable themes 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. Here you'll platform your way across a sprawling map split into several different zones, and you'll need to find certain power-ups before opening up new areas. Along the way, there are many secrets tucked away for inquisitive explorers and challenging bosses you'll need to overcome using the game's slick combat system.
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Speaking of combat, the action within Ultros is fast-paced and you need to react swiftly to your enemy's telegraphed attacks to gain the upper hand. You can use a heavy attack to break their guard, chain together standard attacks to carve out damage, or dodge at the right time to deliver a punishing counter. The combat is simple to grasp and it feels incredibly fluid, meaning that every bit of damage I absorbed felt like it was my fault.
Adding an extra tactical layer to combat is the game's skill tree which is called The Cortex. Here you unlock new abilities to aid combat and traversal, such as a third devastating combo hit and the power to jump off walls. To unlock these abilities you need to consume food that can either be grown by sowing seeds or harvested from slashing enemies apart. For the best quality drops from enemies, you need to mix up your attack combos, which gives you extra incentive to not just spam the square button and hope for the best.
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Unlike traditional Metroidvanias though, Ultros features roguelike elements. Each time you unlock a new ability that allows you to traverse the map in new ways, you're sent to an early grave and must recover your weapon and all your powers. Whilst it is annoying to have to backtrack, Ultros does spare some of the pain. You can memory lock some of the skills you've unlocked on its skill tree using special items and you can also plant seeds to alter the world around you and make for shortcuts for future runs.
The wild psychedelic visuals make for a bold first impression, but I feel they are somewhat of a double-edged sword. Looking at the positives, they do succeed in giving Ultros its own sense of identity and it feels like you're playing within an Adult Swim cartoon. However, the explosion of colour can feel headache-inducing, and I couldn't endure my full playthrough without diving into the options menu and cranking the intensity of its palette down.
Another aspect that I found divisive is exploration. As I touched on before, the game features a sprawling map, and each location I found to be visually distinctive, with its own sense of charm and character. I do wish though that there was a minimap on screen, as I frequently got lost and had to pause my game to find out where to head next. The map is fortunately well designed with your intended path being clear to follow based on the abilities you have, but I felt taken out the moment each time I had to pull up the menu.
With its vibrant visuals and looping roguelike elements, Ultros is a Metroidvania that dares to be different and for that alone, it earns my respect. It might not stick the landing in everything that it tries to accomplish, but I still found it to be an engaging highlight in what's otherwise a dry patch for fresh-feeling and exciting releases. If you're a fan of titles like Metroid Fusion and Ori and the Blind Forest, I would encourage you to check this one out, just make sure you dial back its intense colours before getting started.
7 / 10
Its combat is fluid and fast-paced. Its environments are varied and engaging to explore. It dares to be different with its visuals and roguelike elements.
The lack of a mini-map makes traversal tedious. Backtracking can feel exhausting. Its vibrant colour palette is headache-inducing.