I’m a couple of hours into Ultros and I’m facing my biggest challenge yet. This won’t be easy, but let me try to illustrate the scene. I’m trapped somewhere in the bowels of the Metroidvania’s colorful labyrinthian sprawl, a setting named The Sarcophagus that’s described as a “cosmic uterus holding an ancient, demonic being”. I’m staring down a hulking lump of a beast – a bruised and battered oversized fly who’s equipped with impenetrable armor and is tearing stalactites from the roof to be used as projectile weapons. Its punctured wings, glowing bright neon green, struggle to lift its body from the ground; and its eyes, beady and fiery orange, shoot devastating purple laser balls that chase me around the battle arena.
Pint-sized in comparison, I use the floating ‘Extractor’ that’s tethered to my cherry red duster like a pet on a leash to activate a genre-staple double-jump. I hoist myself onto the boss’ back, hammer the attack button, and drain the insect’s health by slashing at the pink power source fused to its spine. Filling the high-top sneakers of protagonist Ouji, I think I might be a bug myself – I have elongated features hidden inside a green mask from which antenna protrude – and in order to restore vitality, I munch on things like Pompom Larvae, a resource harvested from enemies felled elsewhere in the wild. Sound weird? Of course it does. But even stranger still, even in the throes of such unhinged and inexplicable chaos, Ultros is always, somehow, super chill.
Coming in hot
Ultros is such a vibe. If you take one thing away from this review, let it be that. I can’t remember the last time I played a game that so perfectly understands what it is, while simultaneously appearing to not care about how it’s perceived. Hotline Miami is one classic that springs to mind to this end, and not just because Ultros’ striking visuals are the work of Niklas Åkerblad, a.k.a. El Huervo, who created the cover art for Dennaton’s brutal top-down shooter series. Ultros and Hotline couldn’t be more different in genre and conceptual terms, granted, but they both show unwavering commitment to their core gameplay loops from start to finish; they drop players into their worlds with predetermined rules, give them the tools to succeed, and then step back and watch everything unfold.