Sometimes it’s the music or the gameplay, but mostly it’s the art and visual design – that’s what I, and every other player see first.
In the case of Ultros, it was the stunning art that caught my eye, but right behind that was a score to pull me in deeper. Once I actually got my hands on the game, I had succumbed to being fully entrapped by the Sarcophagus.
By the time I rolled credits on Ultros, I’d experienced a game so thoughtful in its storytelling, its artwork, its gameplay. Despite some frustrations that held my enjoyment back somewhat, I’m walking away from it unsure if it’ll ever really leave my brain.
It almost feels like I’m now a part of the Sarcophagus, unable to wake from the demon’s dream – and I don’t think I want to wake up.
Ultros Review (PS5) – Tend To Your Garden
Floating Through The Colours Of The Cosmos
Like most Metroidvania’s you start with a lot of questions, things like: how big is the map going to end up being, what’s going to be the reason my playable character loses all their abilities at the start, how long until I’ll be able to double jump/wall jump/high jump/have any basic platforming movement beyond a likely disappointingly low main jump?
You get answers to all these questions – Ultros keeps to these tropes of the genre, and gracefully doesn’t frustrate you with its answers. Where you’ll probably still find yourself with questions, even by the time you’ve rolled credits, will be the narrative.
Ultros is an excellent example of good storytelling in video games because it takes full advantage of the medium. The narrative is layered through all its parts.
Through the gameplay, the soundtrack, the art, and of course the characters, Ultros feels like peeling back layers until your left with a mysterious, beautiful and colourful décollage.
I don’t want to dig into the narrative details, you should really experience it all for yourself. What I will say is that I loved how the deeper into Ultros I got, the more I saw the ways in which the narrative was woven into every aspect of it. I never went too long without discovering something new, and it was always a great feeling.
A huge part of that comes from the art and the overall design of Ultros. The platforms you stand on and walls you jump off are black silhouettes while the rest of the world is brighter and more colourful than most games available to play.
Its closest comparison in my experience is playing something like Tetris Effect Connected in how colourful it is, but what’s unique to Ultros is just how almost every single room you enter, from one part of the map to the next, looks like it could be its own separate painting.
I loved everything about the art in this game, particularly the designs for each new plant. Whenever I found a seed I didn’t recognize, planting it was always exciting because I loved to see how it would grow and how it would effect the rest of the garden around it.
Ultros still has its flaws, it’s definitely not a perfect game. Those flaws are non-existent however when it comes to the wonderful art and storytelling on display, saying it is a feast for your eyes and senses is an understatement.
More like jumping into a giant colourful-cosmic dream, and everywhere you look the colours around you keep expanding, growing brighter and more complex.
Genre Frustrations Exacerbated
Speaking of those flaws, they unfortunately come from the gameplay and its pacing, which did lead to certain points of frustration all too common with Metroidvania titles.
The rougelike elements of Ultros however exacerbate these issues until you get deep into the late-game objectives, when you’ve unlocked abilities that finally help you alleviate some of those frustrations.
To break it down, when you first start playing Ultros, the story makes it clear that your goal is to break these seven seals. This is how you unlock the whole map, and it’s how you’ll likely roll credits the first time.
With every seal broken, a new cycle begins and you lose all the fruits, seeds, and equipment you had, which means with each new cycle you need to return to specific places to get your gear, and they’re not all just lined up for you at the start.
Deeper into the story it becomes clear there’s a way to unlock a different ending, and it requires you to revisit all seven seals while keeping this “Living Network” connected by daisy-chaining it from one specific type of flower to the next.
You plant different seeds for different plants to not only open up more of the map, with certain plants giving you access to new areas, but to increase the amount of available flowers to daisy chain the network. A critical point is that you can’t just grow the flower for the “Living Network,” it grows as an offshoot of other plants.
On one hand, I think this is really cool as it effectively makes the whole map a giant puzzle, where you’re swapping out plants to try and find the exact perfect route through the garden to reconnect this Living Network of tiny bugs.
On the other, the amount of backtracking you have to do is just frustrating by the time you’re done. Especially because up until late-game stages you don’t have all the tools you need to make this Living Network work.
An aspect that greatly adds to the frustration is that you can’t pick and choose where the living network flower you need will grow. You simply have to get lucky it grows somewhere convenient for you.
So after all the backtracking, and getting through most of the game just so you can have all the tools you need to manipulate the things you plant to properly connect this Living Network, you still have to go through trial and error until the exact flower you need grows in the right spot.
This trial and error involves you going through multiple cycles, losing the seeds you had collected and crucially making you feel like you’re spending more of your time trying to grind through to the end of a story you desperately want to see.
On top of all of that, the huge map is unfortunately difficult to follow. It’s not clear on what paths are blocked off, which can be unlocked, and which are clear, which results in a lot of unnecessary exploration.
I know backtracking and unlocking new paths is a staple of the genre but it doesn’t need to feel this frustrating, time-consuming and tedious. It’s a shame this pulls down what’s otherwise an excellent experience.
It’s Not All Bad
Some parts of the gameplay are really great. Like I said, I do think it’s cool that the whole map is a giant puzzle, and it’s cool to continually grow the garden over multiple runs.
I also do appreciate that you don’t start a new cycle after you die, but after you break a seal. By the end of the game you can reset the cycle on cue.
The combat overall is quite simple but bland, though thankfully it’s really not the focus of Ultros, so situations that call for it are few and far between. The boss fights that do are all excellent, because each of them are unique.
Even when I was feeling frustrated trying to study the map and figure out how to further connect the Living Network, I never felt like it was a chore or a bother to simply exist in the world of Ultros. It’s a game that can keep you playing just through its design, its music, and how it feels to explore its environment.
I also feel like I should say that the second ending is optional, you don’t need the Living Network to hit credits, and it’s perfectly reasonable if you feel like you’ve had your fill the first time you get there. I just think it is upsetting as to how frustrating that optional ending can be compared to the rest of the experience, for all the reasons I’ve already mentioned.
There’s a lot to love about Ultros, and realistically if you don’t mind some extra time spent running around the map looking over the same rooms again and again then you’ll only fall deeper for it.
Ultros is a stunning work of art, flaws and all, and for fans of the Metroidvania genre I’d call this a must-play game.
Ultros is available on PS5 and PS4 on February 13, 2024.
Review code generously provided by publisher.