2024’s already been a big year for Metroidvania fans. Hardly a month in, we’ve already seen Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown launch and infuse the genre with killer momentum as we careen towards more surefire bangers like Animal Well, Tales of Kezera: Zau, Earthblade, and – yes – Hollow Knight: Silksong. Each one seems to have a distinct hook; Prince of Persia marries the precision platforming of Celeste with stylish combat, Animal Well is all about nonviolent puzzle-solving, and Tales of Kenzera: Zau promises a heartfelt story.
Ultros, the second stop on 2024’s Metroidvania hype train, is one of the coolest-looking games I’ve ever played. Dripping in trippy, arcane sci-fi style, its stunning environments and characters are worth the price of admission alone. But this trip down the rabbit hole doesn’t always have the tight pacing you’d expect from the genre’s best. Instead, Ultros is on its own trip.
By adding roguelike game and even survival-farming mechanics to the formula, Ultros’ critical path becomes more esoteric than you’d expect. While these deviations necessitate greater backtracking, they allow developer Hadoque to get creative with progression. I’ve only seen around a quarter of what Ultros has to offer so far, but the seeds it plants early on are sure to blossom and impress in time.
Fascinatingly, Ultros’ greatest point of friction is intrinsically linked to its most creative design ideas. While it does feature a lot of genre-standard abilities and power-based progression, you’ll need to plant seeds that then grow and eventually force open many of Ultors’ locked doors. But seeds don’t just grow at a moment’s notice. Instead, you have to complete a specific task or reach a certain point in the game, which then triggers a sequence that causes months to pass in-world.
You lose your powers and start right back where you were at the beginning of the game in a very Metroid-esque turn of events – only it happens multiple times here. Ultros makes it increasingly easy to get your powers back and start off where you left off the more you begin the cycle anew, but this doesn’t erase the handful of times you spend retreading the same worn path from zero.
But you’re always rewarded for your efforts. That seed you planted might have grown tall enough to reach a new door, or maybe it’s shattered something blocking your path. It’s a creative system that forces you to take things slow and explore every inch of the map before giving up your powers to grow your space garden. While its movement and combat make backtracking through even the most rote parts of Ultros’ map more bearable, its art direction is the star of the show.
Art that leans into Electric Kool-Aid levels of psychedelia tends to be a coin toss. For every Sgt. Pepper’s or Fantastic Planet, there’s a bin full of posters with Rick and Morty washed in sludgy Day-Glo at your nearest edgy novelty shop or tourist trap. To each their own, but so much art that wants to cater to that taste is little more than heavy-handed pandering that lacks thematic depth. And while Ultros’ pacing and sense of direction can occasionally frustrate, it more than makes up for it in raw texture; every creature and item you pick up has dense lore that takes its cues from weird, old-school sci-fi novels. Creature parts, which you eat to heal yourself, offer different types of nutritional benefits, and the game even describes how they taste.
While some of its key design choices can be tricky to come to terms with, Ultros boasts best-in-class environmental design backed by some spectacular tracks from composer El Huervo. If Prince of Persia is this year’s Metroidvania blockbuster banger, then Ultros will be the cult-classic arthouse sci-fi flick that deserves just as much praise for the leaps it takes. I can’t wait to finish Ultros so I can see which of its big swings pay off.