Humans are an inherently visual-led species. Sure, we can be enticed by our other senses – the sound of a van pulling up when you’re expecting a delivery, the smell of freshly baked goods, and then their taste – but it’s seeing something that so often overrides the rest. It’s really no surprise, then, that Ultros’s art style and the work of El Huervo leaps off the screen and immediately draws you in.
The bright colours of Ultros and its place in the metroidvania genre absolutely call to mind the similarly bright and colourful Guacamelee, but there’s a totally different and much more psychadelic tone to the visuals that you find here. It effortlessly blends together alien flora and fauna with the cracked and decaying remains of what appears to be a once opulent civilisation, but where that could be rendered in shades of grey, brown and boring, here the screen is flooded with deep blues, purples, and greens. It’s more colourful than a harlequin’s tunic. Contrast this to the sombre, tender feeling soundtrack, and it’s a uniquely absorbing blend.
There’s a thoroughly alien and initially unknowable feel to Ultros as you wake up on The Sarcophagus and start to explore this strange ship. Movement is pretty much as you would expect from a metroidvania, but with a sense of weight as you gradually pick up speed when you set off running, and have to clamber up to reach higher ledges. But there’s also a slick athleticism when you need it in combat. Timing dodges to signalled attacks will lead to slick counter attacks, while jumping allows for a spin attack that will slice through aerial foes. If the core platforming is measured and with relatively slow pace, the combat is similarly measured, but with flashes of speed.
Coming to a corpse and drawing a short sword from its chest, their spirit emerges and becomes one of the first beings to speak to you in this world, passing the mantle over to you to try and save it. There’s further characters that you meet, including an absent minded gardener (who calls you ‘Gärdner’ in return with what reads like a perfect southern drawl, and later on, Qualia, whose entire belief structure is challenged by your presence and ability to connect to Extractors powers within this place – the first of thee grants you a double jump.
Hostile alien creatures will attack you as you explore, whether they’re floating jelly fish, ceiling dwellers that will shoot down from above, or a creature that looks like a deep sea crustacean. As you defeat them, they’ll explode in an artistic splurge of blood, leaving behind entrails and body parts for you to harvest. A basic kill will get you some bloody pulp that can be a quick source of restorative nutrition, but a kill with precision, speed and flair can leave behind a ‘perfect variety’ body part that has greater benefits. Similarly, as demonstrated by the gardener character, you can plant seeds within fertile soil and then harvest from the plants that rapidly grow.
Consuming these parts will give you health, but when at a rest pod, you can also see that they fill up four different meters, combining to let you unlock memories and expand your moves within combat.
Our demo concluded with the first boss battle of the game, facing off against a giant insect monstrosity. There’s a clear weak spot on its back with a pair of glass-looking bulbs that to attack and smash, but reaching them ordinarily requires waiting for it to knock chunks from the ceiling to give you a little extra height and reach. I actually surprised the devs by getting the timing just right with a double jump from right by it to get on the back – to blow my own trumpet on this one. It’s an enjoyable encounter that’s tough-hitting, but far from insurmountable.
Ultros is shaping up to be a rather special game, not for a new and innovative take on the metroidvania genre (though it does have one with a time loop structure), but for how it weaves together a mysterious sci-fi story, vibrantly colourful psychedelic art style, and contemplative soundtrack. Expected to release in 2024 for PS5, PS4 and PC, Ultros is absolutely one to keep an eye on.