Few video games ever grasp the true nature of psychedelia. They typically employ some blend of soft-focus perspective and overexposed lighting, a shortcut to trippy wicked cosmic vibes. But not Ultros, the debut experience from developer Hadoque. The studio understands the joyful exuberance and surreal horror of exposing the mind to a place beyond reckoning. Static textured-surfaces imbued with slow, careful motion, like waves lashing sand; objects rendering in hyper-detail, every scratch and scuff a defiant fixture of focus; environments not exuding color so much as bleeding it, one one thick blob at a time. Ultros is a trip, man.
Not that I'd expect anything less from a project involving El Huervo, the renowned experimental artist who you may recognize as one of the illustrators behind Hotline Miami. His distinctive style is imprinted all over Ultros, a psychedelic metroidvania contained within a sprawling cosmic Sarcophagus. Each screen-frame is distinctive and hypnotic, with the way Hadoque combines audio and artistry making it feel as if you're witnessing a large canvas being hand-painted in real-time. It's quite the effect, and just one of the reasons Ultros is the best thing I played at Gamescom 2023.
You are the master of your trip
There's more to Ultros than its distressingly distinctive sensory assault though. It's the combination of action and gardening that held my attention once my mind settled, a strange mix for sure, but one that works. What's important to understand is that Ultros is destined to be the next great obsession for any Hollow Knight or Metroid fans among us, offering a similarly tight confluence of precision platforming and weighted combat.
Ultros doesn't so much channel its challenge through difficult encounters, but rather this overwhelming need to be respectful of the world you're inhabiting. You can hack and slash your way through battles, but it's only through gracefully-timed strikes and parries that you'll be able to harvest high-quality ingredients from alien corpses – squelchy organics, presented in a vivid hyper-detail that echoes James Stokoe's Orc Stain series of comic books. Consuming these body parts advances your abilities and replenishes health, a contorted connection with the tormented nature of the space.
As you navigate the world by sense alone, Ouji can clamber into resting pods – as much an opportunity to soak in the analog sonics punctuating the soundscape as it is a chance to access a memory Cortex. This is where you'll find the ability tree, advancing your core proficiencies by fulfilling nutrition bars. Consume enough of the relevant guts, and you'll be able to unlock new movements and attack patterns. It's a calming, disgusting cycle of progression.
This combines nicely with one of Ultros' more esoteric ideas, this concept of tending to the ecosystem of the Sarcophagus. Seeds can be acquired, and planting them in gardens offers its own chance at quiet contemplation and character advancement – each plant is equipped with its own characteristics and effects, and collecting their fruit can level your abilities or give you the juice you need to solve a puzzle. Less clear from my time with the game is how the gardening-aspect of Ultros will contort the environment, although I'm told that there is a loop-based mechanic at play which will send you back through previously explored environs as the narrative folds in on itself.
I'm utterly taken by Ultros. By its vivid world and characters, carefully weighted movement and intimate cycles of aggression. There is a rich quality to its execution, one which belies the small team working to bring Ultros to life – a group of nine designers, animators, and programmers, with the seed of development first planted some six years ago by a core contingent of three creatives. The best Metroidvania games can often live or die on their attention to detail, and if 30 minutes with Ultros has taught me anything it's that it has every chance of being the breakout hit of 2024.