In the middle of a disappointing PlayStation Showcase in May of this year, one indie game instantly caught my attention. That game was ultros from Hadoque and Kepler Interactive, the trailer for which featured trippy visuals from the artist behind Hotline Miamiall with eerie sci-fi undertones. Described as a “psychedelic sci-fi adventure” by its developers, I was eager to learn more about ultros during a hands-off preview event held by Kepler Interactive.
It turns out the game isn’t just a Metroidvania; it has a compelling narrative and even some farming game elements too. Even though I have a better idea of the game’s main mechanics, I still haven’t been able to fully wrap my head around its weird world or how it plays. And for a game that clearly wants to be odd and mysterious, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.
A Metroidvania rebirth
My hands-off demo began with the amnesiac player character waking up in a space sarcophagus — it’s as charmingly weird and confusing as it sounds — with odd plant life that reacts to her. From the moment the game begins, it’s vibrancy pops from the screen as it subtly seems to reinforce themes like motherhood and the weird beauty of life.
There wasn’t much time to just sit around and stare, though. The developer playing the demo started to explore to the left of where they looked up. ultros’ Metroidvania design does give this otherwise unfamiliar game some sense of familiarity, and the developer gained a surprising amount of speed as they dashed, slid, climbed, and crawled through room after room. After falling through the floor in one room, they came upon a space insect. It was nonviolent and they had no weapon, though, so the developer didn’t engage in combat just yet.
Moving on from there, they discovered a sword in the next room called the Unrest Tanto. Before they could leave that room, a mysterious person appeared and asked us to meet them deeper in the area. The developer kept exploring, using the sword to destroy some walls and open new paths in classic Metroidvania style. More aggressive enemies were eventually encountered, so the developer fought them, took their guts, and ate them to gain some more health and nutrition.
Combat looks like it’ll be just as smooth and satisfying as movement, with abilities like a sliding counter giving players many options in a fight. After fighting some enemies, the developer entered the game’s first large area to explore, the Temple of Motherhood. They quickly came upon another new character named Gardner, who aptly introduced the game’s gardening element, at least a little bit.
Players can plant seeds in the ground, which bear fruit for them to eat. In turn, the nutritional value of some of these fruits will unlock new abilities. Unfortunately, I didn’t see much of that in this demo, adding another surprising and mysterious layer to this Metroidvania adventure. It doesn’t seem like ultros is coming for Stardew Valley’s crown, but the fact that there’s a whole farming system I still don’t quite understand yet leaves me intrigued.
After that, the developer stumbled upon a resting pod, which they could use to unlock abilities like a third hit for their combo attack. Then, we met up with the mysterious figure from earlier, who tasked us with killing a Shaman who is preventing anyone from leaving. Heading toward the Shaman, the developer unlocked ultros’ first major power-up, an Extractor that gave the developer playing the demo a double jump.
Unfortunately, another character named Qualia appeared and became jealous that we got the Extractor. Chasing Qualia after this, we came upon the first boss of the game, a giant insect that she seemed to possess. It was a big hulking foe that would charge at the player, and to defeat it, the developer had to double jump on top of the insect as it rushed toward them and hit a weak point that was up there. After doing this a few times, the boss was slain.
The developer continued and found the Shaman inside an incubator. They killed them, powering up the Extractor, and unleashed a dark energy. This began a “birthing,” according to Qualia, which sent that dark energy to a “Humidicrib” holding Ultros, the game’s namesake. After a stunning animated sequence where Ultros awakened, the developer was sent back to the pod they started at, and the hands-off demo ended.
I don’t understand much of the lore or meaning behind what happened with that ending to the demo, but it made me eager to dive deeper into the beautifully creepy world this hands-off demo highlighted. While ultros’ Metroidvania elements are familiar and comparable to other games I’ve played, its peculiar sci-fi narrative and gardening mechanics don’t have as many apparent comparisons within the genre.
Although I’ve seen more ultros gameplay than most, I’m not sure what to make of the game yet. Still, what I did see held a lot of promise, and if the more mysterious elements all coalesce into something beautiful in the final game, then we could have the next Hollow Knight on our hands.
ultros will launch for PC, PlayStation 4, and PS5 in 2024.