Thursday, May 23, 2024

Since its reveal in May, I’ve looked at Hadoque’s debutante title, ULTROS, through a misty lens of anticipation. It’s presented as an impressive seeming Metroidvania that looks like it has had its design inspired by the very first Rick & Morty episode (the one with the seeds). What was once a barren genre (Metroidvania), now finds a new entry almost quarterly, and Hadoque has inserted just enough of ULTROS DNA into the genre to create an adventure that makes a serious impression. That impression is a colourful and sharp Metroidvania that deploys Dead Cells-like rogue gameplay in a setting ripped straight from the mind of H.R Giger.

First Impressions Count
The player is tossed into the space-lingering Sarcophagus with a mission that is more shadowed than let on in the beginning. In short, The Sarcophagus houses the Demonic entity known as ULTROS (like the title), and it is a giant space-drifting incubation station for the ancient being. Each screen of the Sarcophagus is bursting with colour and information, like what the audience would see in the background of a Cowboy Bebop episode. The sci-fi landscape is dripping (literally and figuratively) with wildlife and plantation, reminiscent of Niklas Åkerblad’s signature artistic style (seen on the iconic Hotline Miami cover art). The atmosphere is brought to life by the sounds of Oscar Rydelius (AKA Ratvader), a Swedish composer who also previously worked on Hotline Miami, but ULTROS takes his music in an unnerving direction. The increasing crescendos and cadence between the biomes on The Sarcophagus are brought to new levels with the sound design, adding to the immersion of the adventure. Usually, first impressions are important, and it’s safe to say Hadoque knocks it out of the park.

Character is Key
But aside from the solid presentation, Ultros tosses the player in with both feet, behind the POV of a female unnamed protagonist who crash-landed into the Sarcophagus. She never speaks and is never referred to by her name, but she gives off real main character energy seeing as how all characters treat her as such. While adventuring throughout The Sarcophagus, ULTROS will introduce the player to many characters (aside from the local flora and fauna that want to kill you of course).

“Exploration is key in ULTROS, and controlling the main character works precisely as intended.”
There is a helpful character named Gardner who looks like a pixelated version of the Resident Evil 4 merchant, and he helps you understand the world better. There’s even an Alighieri Vergil-like character named Wallet who shepherds you to the ‘right’ path forward, whose face looks like it’s melting. There’s a real mixed bag of characters players will meet in ULTROS, and judging from the ones I’ve met, they too make an impression. Exploration is key in ULTROS, and controlling the main character works precisely as intended. There’s jumping, sliding, upgrades that allow you to hang on walls, etc. The standard tried-and-true Castlevania x Metroid gameplay is here in full force, and it has not lost a step. Gardner, the merchant-seeming fellow from earlier will teach you about seeds and planting them, which adds a whole new mission to ULTROS, the mastery of Botany.

Do it for the Vine!
My limited time with ULTROS allowed me to check out the effects of different seeds. One (described as such by Gardner) ‘will take months to flower,’ while another shot blood out of it and destroyed machinery that lined the walls of a specific biome. This adds another exploratory layer to the madness of the Sarcophagus, each time you plant a seed in a different spot, the effects will vary.

Another key feature in ULTROS, sees the world reset after defeating a boss fight. The main objective is to defeat seven bosses found in the Sarcophagus biomes to stop the incubation of ULTROS. After defeating the first boss fight, it was jarring, to say the least, to find my character without her upgrades, and seemingly back where the story began. My map remained filled in though, but the characters behaved differently the second time around. Like we never met before, which felt like I had developed Groundhog Day Syndrome, but no, ULTROS just added another narrative wing, time travel. That’s the magic at play from Hadoque. The story is incredibly convoluted, and every single character in the cast knows more than the player, but this is by design. The story rides along and drip-feeds the player information, demanding you to continue, and while everything starts to feel way too complicated, Ultros guides the player back to the narrative without overdoing it. Storytelling done properly.

ULTROS also has a few tricks up its sleeve when it comes to combat and character-building. When defeating opponents (monsters too hard to describe) you’re tasked with using different moves each time to dispatch foes. If you defeat monsters without repeating attacks, they drop the best version of ‘sustenance’ they can drop. In ULTROS, our main Quarian-looking protagonist levels up by cannibalizing the carcasses left behind by fallen adversaries.

“ULTROS is a worthy up-and-coming Metroidvania…”
As advertised, the less damaged enemy carcasses provide more nutrition (it’s what they call it!) which in turn allows you to acquire more abilities, which then, in turn, allows you to obtain more perfect carcasses by having a larger move pool to dispatch them with. A weird circle of life that works relatively well. Another excellent design choice is the monsters don’t respawn, therefore forcing the player to carefully think about their character build instead of going with the well-rounded approach. A mixture of action game greatest hits are on display for combat, a basic strike that turns into a combo attack, a jump attack that’s the same thing as MegaMan Zero’s Kuuenzan, a Belmont-like slide to dodge with, and other unlockable techniques like an air downward kick that allows you to pogo off enemies, and much more to unlock and play with. Stringing together abilities and techniques truly feels powerful, and instead of getting higher Style ratings like in Devil May Cry for using a diverse move set, the player gets rewarded with better experience gains. While I was only able to get through two biomes (complete with boss fights that test your mettle), the story of ULTROS really started kicking off, showing that there’s far more to uncover aboard the Sarcophagus. Sadly though, after being rudely thrown to the menu screen by Hadoque after the preview concluded, I’m still left itching for what happens next. ULTROS is a worthy up-and-coming Metroidvania, and I can’t wait to see what’s around the next corner on the Sarcophagus when the title officially launches on February 13, 2024.

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