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Patience may be one of real life’s great virtues, but that’s not generally the case in the high-octane world of video games. Since its arcade heyday in the 1980s, the medium has mostly eschewed slower pleasures for dopamine-inducing thrills. But now we have Ultros, a daring and subversive 2D action-platformer developed by Hadoque that forces you to take a beat and wait. Sometimes the only way to make it through the game’s teeming, overgrown space station is to sit back and let its vibrant alien plant life grow. Roots, shoots and bushy foliage are the key — and a novel one at that — to unlocking this cosmic labyrinth.
Cast as the crash-landed lone ranger Ouji, you have a simple task: escape. But this isn’t your typical eerie abandoned spaceship. Alongside winding corridors reclaimed by nature (whose lushness is reflected in a beautifully orchestrated score), time has ceased to flow in a straight line. Ouji grapples with a black hole that keeps her trapped in an eternal loop, often thrusting her back in space and forward in time. Abilities are lost and eventually regained, but you, the player, are always learning about this place and its curious, Lovecraftian wildlife.
Ultros is a game of three major acts: exploration (less pinpoint or demanding than in peers such as Hollow Knight); combat (of a delightful viscera-slicing variety); and gardening (you must become au fait with an entire enclosed ecosystem). There’s an in-game codex that offers cryptic guidance on how seeds might germinate if given a suitable patch of soil, but the key is experimentation: get Ouji’s hands dirty and see what takes.
The emphasis on promiscuous biology and stomach-churning gore (Ouji replenishes her health by feasting on the body parts of fallen foes) evokes the “new weird” fiction of Jeff Vandermeer and Brian Catling. At times the writing feels as if it strays into pastiche: “Let our quiet mycelium lament the unrest” looms ominously on the screen as each temporal loop ends. Ultros’s visuals, however, are entirely its own: sticky, fleshy and grotesque — a Technicolor fantasia that only elevates the strangeness found elsewhere.
Not everything works: some tools (such as the digger that lets you burrow into the ship’s soil) are underutilised, and the game ends just as its many mechanics feel as if they’re beginning to cohere. But like the virtual plants, which you’re able to cultivate and splice together, Ultros is a hybrid, and all the better for it. In one section, Ouji, having stumbled on an onboard game show set, shoots hoops in a round of alien basketball before playing a deadly version of Connect 4.
As it reaches its climax, Ultros forgoes a thumb-punishing final boss for a subtler finish, one whose pay-off lies less in the triumph of battle than in a garden fully bloomed. The sense of satisfaction isn’t diminished. On the contrary, when the ship lights up like a bioluminescent Christmas tree, you may feel a sense of peace. Bask in its glow for a moment.
‘Ultros’ is available from February 13 for PC and PlayStation 4/5