Ultros: A Psychedelic Horticultural Adventure

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hello world!
Iain McParland
| March 10, 2024
hello world!

Ultros. I have never played a game like it before. 

It has Metroidvania elements, but it’s not a classic Metroidvania. It has Rogue-like elements, but it is definitely not a Rogue-like. It has gardening sim elements, but it’s not really gardening sim. Ultros is a truly singular game. 

And I’ve been having a blast. 

Ultros, developed by Hadoque and published by Kepler Interactive, was released on February 13th on PC, Mac, and PlayStation 4 and 5. You play as a sojourner, an alien who wakes on the Sarcophagus, a spaceship which imprisons the demon Ultros. Your task is to prevent the demon from awakening by gaining control over your environment and ending the mysterious time loop you find yourself in.

But all is not as it seems…

Story

So, imagine you’re snoozing and, when you wake up, you’re surrounded in squishy neon crap. No, you’ve not had one of those nights like the one when you found fifty new numbers in your phone, all with names like “Fat Lip Guy” and “Cooooooool Greg”. You’re in space, and, after a bit of exploration, you discover you’re charged with the care of a freaking demon called Ultros. Worst hangover ever. On your walk of shame, you find a strange tether device with the potential to mold the world around you, even allowing you to reset the day and wake anew. Groundhog Day style. 

It’s this tether that is the narrative device for the game’s Metroidvania and Rogue-like elements. As you explore the Sarcophagus, you find tether upgrades, allowing you to double jump or slice back trees. Once you find an upgrade to the tether, it’s permanent. However, character upgrades are not. Once the sojourner awakes anew; all of his character upgrades are gone, as are the items picked up along the way. It can be very frustrating to start from scratch and run back to a useful place on the map, but it makes sense within the narrative. Later on, you are able to lock abilities for future runs with special items, so all may not be lost.

The resets don’t happen that often and only occur after a story beat has been hit (unless you’re in the endgame). I won’t spoil why they happen, but they’re cool moments

Gameplay

Higher jump? Don’t mind if I do!

So, why wouldn’t I call this a classic Metroidvania? Simple. This game does not focus on combat. In fact, the combat elements are kinda meh, with limited combos and moves. It actively wants you to strive for peace, teaching you to make friends rather than fighting. It’s not always possible on the first playthrough, but it is after you’re fully upgraded. Hell, there’s even a pacifist ending!

The only way to achieve that ending is to grow your garden to a size and spectacle that allows the inhabitants of the Sarcophagus to communicate and find tranquility, calming the demon to slumber once more in the process. 

It’s not a classic Metroidvania, but it is a Gardenvania! One of your only tools to help you traverse the world is seeds to grow different varieties of plant life. These could help you gain height for another platform, help you run quicker or vertically, or even provide swing ropes from the ceiling. The sweet thing is, the garden doesn’t reset when you do. It GROWS! Garden Sim for life!

I’ve already mentioned character upgrades, but I didn’t say how they work. It’s all based on nutrients gained by eating meat “dropped” by enemies or by eating fruit picked from various plants. But be careful; food is also the equivalent to health packs. Will you eat everything for an upgrade, or will you save it for a rainy day? I say eat it; food is in plentiful supply, so go God-mode!

Visuals and Sound

Why can’t weee be friends, why can’t wee be friends, why can’t weee be friends…?

Ultros is visually striking. It’s unique in its color palette, incorporating neon greens, oranges and reds. It’s like a ’90s rave threw up on screen, in a good way. The artist behind the environments was also the artist for Hotline Miami. You can see the similarities in its excellent art style. There can be moments when objects or enemies on the screen are difficult to see because of the mix of colors in the background, but it doesn’t take away from the beautiful scenery.

El Huervo (Niklas Åkerblad), the artist, was inspired by H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, so it would come as no surprise the character and enemy designs feel tremendously squishy. Limbs, tentacles, strange demon visages, the lot. But, you know, dressed like they’re in an 80s Olivia Newton John music video.

Oscar Rydelius composed the soundtrack to Ultros, and it matches the vibe perfectly. Mostly, it’s meditative and peaceful, yet strangely alien. However, during combat, the tempo increases, and the melody gets even more sci-fi. I always find that a soundtrack has done its job well if I have an earworm after I stop playing, and this certainly checks that box.

Summary

You could say I have a green thumb. And a green face. I’m just green.

There’s so much more I want to say about this game, but I’ve got to think about my word count. 

Ultros is a unique experience. It blends a mixture of Metroidvania, Rogue-lite, and garden/farming simulation elements into a package that should not work. But it does. More than that, it excels, specifically in its puzzle elements and exploration. The imagery is really cool, bright and colorful.

If you want to finish after the first ending, then this is an 8-10 hour experience, but in doing so, you’ll experience only a fraction of the content. Howlongtobeat.com says a completionist will need 32 hours to reach a satisfying conclusion. I’m about 23 hours in, and I can say, with what I have remaining, that’s probably about right. 

I’ve used the word “vibe” in this review, and it’s just a perfect descriptor. It’s a vibe. The combat is not the point, and it’s telling in its fighting mechanics. If you’re looking for tough combat and punishing enemies, then you’re in the wrong place. 

However, if you want a vibrant, chill, Lovecraftian adventure where you can cultivate plants and explore a weird spaceship, then what are you waiting for? Ultros is available right now on Mac, PC and PlayStation 4 and 5 for around $25.

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