Ultros is a psychedelic metroidvania where you wake up stranded on The Sarcophagus — a cosmic uterus holding an ancient, demonic being. Trapped in the loop of a black hole, you will have to explore The Sarcophagus and meet its inhabitants to understand the part you play...
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Full Review: https://neoncloudff.wordpress.com/2024/02/29/now-playing-february-2024-edition/
So I saw this game when it was revealed and I was like "oh cool a metroidvania" and that put in on my radar alone. The fact that a Hotline Miami guy made it or whatever didn't register to me. Just was like "yep ok will play that when it launches. Don't get me wrong, the art style and music are both fantastic and work in tandem to bring together the feel of this alien environment, just wasn't particularly what sold me. Maybe what helped me keep it in mind at least? That and being named after a famous FF villain maybe
Anyway, I start this game recently and standard metroidvania things happen. Get weapon, move around and play with all the buttons (can move with D-Pad thank [deity]), pull up a map you fill out as you go, do platforming. Classic stuff. Early on you find an "extractor" which allows you to double jump. I enjoy a good double jump but having it be the first thing you unlock? Something felt off.
There were a few other little differences from the typical metroidvania as well. As you go through and fight enemies you get their remains as food. Different food heals and increases one of four different levels of your nutrition and these levels are used in your "cortex" to unlock certain innate abilities. What was more curious about this is that you get better, more intact meat if you kill a creature using different combat moves which you can unlock more of in the mentioned cortex. Pretty neat.
Then the one that should have been obvious by the surroundings but the flora of the station plays a vital role in the game. There are various types of plants throughout and they all have unique names and properties. They even have their own fruit which has similar functions to the creature remains you can eat. On top of all this though is an ability to plant seeds you find. Very interesting.
All of this gets introduced as you go through the first hour or so. Then you fight your first boss enemy, find the pod behind it that contains something, smash that, and then follow the trail it gives off to the center of the map. Then STUFF happens and the screen goes white. Suddenly you're back where you started.
So this is where I see some people getting upset. I use the word "filtered" which I think is apt but people get upset about it. I dunno. Anyway so yeah, you start over from where you began, no weapon, no items you picked up on the way, no double jump thingy, and no cortex abilities (probably). You set off again. The map is as it was before and still has your progress shown on it but the way you went before isn't a path you can take again for some reason. The game encourages you to go find another way.
I've seen people refer to this as the game having "rougelike" (definitely not) and/or "rougelite" elements. I don't think this really counts as rougelite though. You don't lose everything if you DIE, you just go back to where you saved last. The map is randomly generated, everything is the same layout it was. Certain events initially change where you're able to go but the map is consistent and reliable. The same creatures and plants will be where they were on the last cycle. You lose cortex abilities at first but exploration grants you the means to keep them as you progress. These things and more make me want to label it as a timeloop game before calling it "rouge-anything". It's a metroidvania where you reset after beating bosses. Hell even as you progress its more forgiving than a timeloop game typically is but that is a core mechanic for sure.
With all these in mind, I ventured forth. Encountered different creatures, plants, and new areas. I picked up on some lore stuff as I tried my best to explore. There's seven different bosses to find in a sprawling classic boxy looking metroidvania map. I beat the various bosses and uncovered a good chunk of the map while looping each time. Got myself and my extractor all upgraded nicely. Then I went to the center of the map for the event that sparks the cycle renewing, the typical flash of white happened and some story stuff.
Then I was back where I started for the eighth time. There was a slight different this time. I was offered a way out. The game deliberately places you between getting out of this mess in an escape pod or, to your other side, is your weapon which you can pick up and continue. Curiously, you also suddenly have the ability to manually reset the loop now. This in mind as well as paying attention to the story as much as I had, I knew that leaving wasn't an option. I had a responsibility to finish what I started and fix what I broke.
This is a another point I could see a lot of people checking out. From this point on, your objective shifts. It gave me a similar feel to The Messenger when open the scroll and the true nature of the game is revealed. What you have to accomplish now requires sharp wits, for you to have really paid attention to your surroundings, and to use your tools to the utmost.
There's a brief example of what the game wants you to do in one area of the map for a boss fight that you'll just kinda do without thinking and there are various hints to how it leads up to the true ending but when it fully dawn on you, it can seem quite daunting. Essentially what you need to do is connect each area of the map to the center. You do this by utilizing the 10 different plant species as well as the seven different modes you unlocked for your extractor. Dig up and plant different seeds, cultivate their growth while trimming as needed, use the scanner to see what each plant does and it's health as well as the health of the soil. Hell you even splice plants together to make whatever you need to make connections
There's a lot of options on how to make these connections happen. You need to figure out what plants to use and where to use them. Even that can differ though since there are spots with creatures where, instead of killing them, you feed them and they suddenly like you. This gives the benefit of not being attacked BUT ALSO more importantly when you loop again, there will be a space to plant a seed where you fed the critter where there was no space for seed before. The plant cultivation system is robust and quite vague. I spent A LOT of time in trial and error figuring out what the plants do, how they grow, how they interact with the soil. It got frustrating at times for sure but there were a lot of epiphanies too and I overall feel accomplished and satisfied for having stuck with it.
Completing this game 100% and getting its true ending was a gratifying experience in itself but I don't think it would be for everyone. I think there are good points in the game that clearly telegraph to players what they're in for and if they'd want to stick with it. Hell halfway through the story they give you an out. I think the people that get to that point will find this to be a decent metroidvania experience that looks pretty but has some annoyances they could do without.
However, for those that make it past that part and see what the devs are really going for here, I think those people are truly in for a treat. Its a rewarding game that's bountiful in choosing to do things in a way that feels earned and it's a type of mechanic that ties in strongly with the core narrative of the experience. It definitely a game I won't forget any time soon if at all. I think I recommend it for all metroidvania fans as a blanket hopefulness and then the ones that get through the filters will be the ones to find something truly special.