In the midst of my epic quest to slay a grotesque demon, something unexpected happens—I find myself engrossed in intergalactic gardening. Armed with a mysterious tool, I unleash a puff of mesmerizing blue gas onto a hanging vine. To my surprise, all it does is slightly alter its growth direction. Perplexed, I accidentally guide it into a pool of golden liquid, and in an instant, the vines explode in every direction, resembling a newly formed nervous system. Astonished by the wonders of nature, I plant my trusty digger drone into the wall, uprooting my creation and reverting it back to a simple seed.
Birth. Death. Rebirth.
This simple cycle is the driving force behind Ultros, a stylish new Metroidvania game by the brilliant developers at Hadoque. Amidst its dense sci-fi lore and complex gameplay systems, I discover a more digestible spiritual journey—pondering the unknowable cycle of life and death. However, reaching this profound destination is no easy task, as Ultros proves to be a bewildering labyrinth of ideas that still has me scratching my head.
In Ultros, I assume the role of an astronaut clad in a slick red coat, crash-landing on the colossal vessel known as The Sarcophagus. Here, I learn that the ship is not only teeming with vibrant plant life but also harbors a demonic entity called Ultros. To defeat this malevolent force, I must locate and confront seven powerful Shaman, each possessing a unique technological power that unlocks new biomes on the ship. And to add to the complexity, all of this unfolds within the confines of a black hole, where the entire cycle starts anew at key points in the story. I find myself trapped in an endless loop of rebirth.
It's as if I'm delving into the intricate workings of a living organism.
The narrative of Ultros delves deep into hard sci-fi territory, immersing players in an alien world so intricately built that it feels like deciphering an entirely new language. However, the game manages to communicate more effectively through its stunning art design and gameplay mechanics, even though its creative leaps sometimes lead to further confusion.
One cannot help but be awestruck by Ultros' breathtaking art style, heavily influenced by the renowned French artist Moebius. The Sarcophagus becomes a psychedelic journey of colors and details, where gnarly insects with razor-sharp teeth coexist with vibrant plants intertwining with alien architecture. It's a mesmerizing blend of organic and otherworldly elements, akin to exploring the inner workings of a human body that shuts down at the end of each cycle.
This visual spectacle is complemented by El Huervo's hypnotic score, a rich tapestry of textures that transforms traditional orchestral instruments into ethereal sounds beaming from another planet. Everything in Ultros feels unfamiliar and disorienting at first, but as I delve deeper, I uncover familiar themes that ground me in the midst of this cosmic odyssey. It evokes a sense of drifting through space, aligning with the game's humanistic undertones.
Yet, the game's bold creative choices have unintended consequences, particularly when it comes to exploration. The abundance of detail on the screen often makes it challenging to discern interactive elements or navigate through the environment. I find myself spending an excessive amount of time in menus, struggling to decipher a convoluted map that offers little in terms of guidance. I am lost, but not in the way that adds to the game's intended mystique.
Regrettably, this core issue impedes the Metroidvania genre, which relies on freeform exploration. Ultros' intricate design twists often disrupt the elegant formula of a 2D action-adventure. This is especially evident in its time-loop mechanic, where each cycle necessitates retracing my steps to regain weapons and powers, including the double jump. Additionally, all unlocked powers on my skill "cortex" are lost. Although I can find hidden items that permanently upgrade my abilities, every new cycle involves backtracking. While thematically fitting, as it visualizes the circular nature of the game, it amplifies the genre's most tedious aspect.
Furthermore, Hadoque struggles to establish the fundamental aspects of the Metroidvania genre before deconstructing them. While I encounter creative power-ups, like a buzzsaw drone capable of cutting through dangerous foliage, I often find myself unsure of their practical uses. My digging drone rarely finds practical application in puzzles or exploration. When I do attempt to uproot plants, I struggle to grasp the precise positioning required to extract a seed.
The lack of clarity in visual design compounds the frustration of exploration, a cardinal sin for this genre. When I encounter a dead end, I'm often uncertain about the obstacle preventing progress. The joy of mentally noting an impediment and experiencing a eureka moment upon discovering the tool needed to overcome it isstripped away by the game's obfuscation.
Despite these frustrations, there's an undeniable allure to Ultros that keeps me engaged. Its world, though confounding, is a captivating tapestry of imagination. I find solace in deciphering its cryptic lore, piecing together the fragments of a story that hints at profound philosophical questions. The gameplay, when it flows smoothly, offers moments of genuine excitement and discovery.
Ultros is a game that demands patience and a willingness to embrace its enigmatic nature. It's a testament to the developers' ambition and artistic vision, even if it occasionally stumbles in execution. For those seeking a psychedelic journey through a twisted universe, where life and death intertwine, Ultros offers a unique and thought-provoking experience. Just be prepared to get lost in the labyrinthine depths of its intricate design.