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Peeling Back The Layers Of The Trippiest Metroidvania Ever

Highlights

  • ULTROS stands out in the oversaturated Metroidvania genre with its vibrant art style and captivating soundtrack.
  • The game explores the concept of birth and rebirth, with the player simultaneously engaging in flashy combat and nurturing the plant life and ecosystem.
  • The game draws inspiration from titles like Another World, Flashback, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and Studio Ghibli films.

The Metroidvania is quite possible one of the most oversaturated genres today. Because of this, it is incredibly easy for a great game to get lost in a sea of releases, but although the year is still young, one particular title seemed to have no trouble piquing my interest.

With its vibrant, psychedelic art style and masterfully crafted soundtrack, ULTROS quickly wormed its way into my brain, as well as our Managing Editor Sam Woods’, becoming one of DualShockers’ most anticipated games of 2024. Executing flashy combos on enemy fauna with one hand while lovingly tending to the plant life and ecosystem with the other is an intriguing duality. But beyond the surface, ULTROS also hints at a deeper story, a mystery bent around the never-ending loop of rebirth where your actions have consequences that unfold over time.

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How does it all come together, and how might ULTROS make a lasting mark and rise above other Metroidvania competitors? I sat down with none other than Mårten Brüggemann, the Game Design Director behind ULTROS, to find out.

This is the debut game for the studio. Congrats! Where did the inspiration for ULTROS come from? How did you arrive at a space womb and the looping birth/rebirth cycle the story is built around?

Thank you! In the beginning it was only Niklas ‘El Huervo’ Åkerblad, ULTROS’ Creative Director and Art Director, and I who worked on the concept. I managed to approach him about working together at a time when we were both between projects.

Another World and Flashback inspired the world-building in ULTROS, and Symphony of the Night with its quirky take on the genre.

Niklas had some sketches of an abandoned spaceship and some characters which we both liked. I was just about to have my first child and I think the thoughts that I was having about parenthood and nurturing made their way in, as we pretty early on started experimenting with ideas about birth and rebirth in the project. The gardening aspect was something I suggested to balance out the action parts of the game, to better help explore the ideas we had. I had just left work at Toca Boca, making a children’s app about plants, so I think I had a lot of gardening design ideas left from that process in my head.

As Hugo Bille, our Game Designer and Programmer, started on the project, he helped expand the gardening aspect and tie it in tighter with the world as a whole, making it feel more like a living thing, through his work with climate and eco issues.

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It seems like ULTROS has a very unique and distinct take on the Metroidvania genre. I’m curious – what are some games that inspired the team on ULTROS?

I would say, game design-wise, Another World and Flashback have inspired the world building in ULTROS, and Castlevania – Symphony of the Night has inspired with its quirky and open take on the genre. For the combat I referred to the intimacy and intensity of the Street Fighter games, mixed with the comboing and crunchiness of 2D beat’em ups like Viewtiful Joe and Guacamelee. The works of Studio Ghibli and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind in general have inspired the take on the nature aspect of the game, with their sense of reverence and almost presenting nature as its own living being.

I’m also very fond of movies based around closed time loop concepts, such as Groundhog Day and Primer. There’s usually a stage of acceptance and overcoming the hurdle of living in a timeloop, and instead using it to achieve a larger goal, which has inspired the game design decisions related to ULTROS’ loop structure.

Ultros Combat

Reflecting on Metroidvanias that came before, what are some of the gameplay elements you were hoping to continue forward in ULTROS? And what are some things you were consciously avoiding?

Castlevania – Symphony of the Night has definitely been an inspiration for ULTROS. The thing I love about it is that it has all these quirks left in, for example secret movements or just small details that can be missed, which can give so much personality to the game when players find them. The overlapping traversal abilities in that game allow you to explore Dracula’s castle in your own way and in your own order. It has a rare openness to how you can approach it that is rarely seen in the genre. That aspect is something we have strived for in ULTROS as well.

Metroid Dread was kind of a letdown for me in that aspect, never allowing the player to feel lost and just teleporting the player forward in a linear progression.

The genre itself is almost oversaturated with great games nowadays. The conventions of movement in platformers like these have been so defined and streamlined over the years, so I feel like we’re at a point where you need to start breaking these conventions to really stand out. We’ve tried to keep a lot of the quirks we found when experimenting with our movement, to give our player character more personality.

On another note, one of the best feelings I like in a Metroidvania is when it communicates “being lost, without really being lost”. As in when a game can throw the player into a vast world but still guide them through environmental hints and level layouts to where they need to go.

One of the epitomes of this is Super Metroid I feel. Therefore, the latest Metroid game, Metroid Dread, was kind of a letdown for me in that aspect, never allowing the player to feel lost and just teleporting the player forward in a linear progression, robbing you of the exploration aspect of the genre. In ULTROS we’ve had exploration as a core value of the experience, both spatially exploring the world but also its different systems.

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Being a songwriter and artist myself, I always think about the emotion and unspoken story a soundtrack can deliver. When you and Oscar Rydelius were first discussing the soundtrack, were there any particular themes, emotions, or motifs you were aiming for?

The earliest seed of inspiration towards ULTROS was some years before the production of it had started. Oscar ‘Ratvader’ Rydelius, our Sound Director, was traveling in Asia and got acquainted with the idea of ‘Ahimsa,’ a moral principle with the idea of not hurting or killing any other living creatures. When traveling back to Sweden he started discussing this topic with Niklas ‘El Huervo’ Åkerblad and it later came to be a central part in the game. In regards to the music this of course became a central part in all musical exploration and the soundtrack of ULTROS.

The loop gives the player chances to explore “what if I do this instead” scenarios. It directly ties into the game’s philosophies of a karmic cycle.

The music can therefore be seen as a counterpoint or reflection of the player’s more violent actions and the impact they have on the world.

This sentiment is integral to the story of ULTROS, so we wanted to keep it throughout both exploring and fighting in ULTROS, to make the music and the experience feel as continuous as possible. The soundtrack will indeed amplify whenever you’re fighting. But it’s layered and doesn’t “restart” the music. All with the intention and idea of not pulling the player out of the experience if not necessary.

Ultros Plantlife

ULTROS has such an interesting take on a skill tree – different nutritional values provided by eating various things unlock new memories / skills. Considering the skills are being “relearned” (via remembering), how do the food you eat and the skills you unlock play a role in the overarching story?

The food you eat, which can be both fruit you grow and guts from your fallen enemies, all contains varying amounts of nutrition. These nutritional values expand beyond just being a level-up system for the player – nutrition runs everywhere throughout the world. For example, the nutrition is also part of the soil that makes the plants grow and other creatures in the world want to eat as well and yearn for the same nutrition as you.

So, as you eat something, you effectively take that nutrition from one part of the world and invest it in yourself. This individualistic way of thinking, not uncommon in games, is ingrained in the story themes of the game. We want to give the player a chance to meditate on that, and maybe try to do something different, even if it goes against the nature of playing a game like this.

I’m very curious about the [perceived] roguelike element here. How does the unique loop mechanic you’ve described impact how you navigate the story? Do certain storylines reset with each loop or do you get to experience the same story in unique ways with each loop based on your decisions?

While we don’t consider ULTROS to be a roguelike, we still had to take the notion into consideration as it uses common semantics like loops and cycles. So, I see it more as if the game flirts and plays with the use of roguelike mechanics, without them being the core of the experience. Instead, it focuses on the exciting parts of retreading familiar ground but with new knowledge and priming of situations in previous cycles.

The loop gives the player chances to explore “what if I do this instead” scenarios. It directly ties into the game’s philosophies of a karmic cycle, and lets the player explore this through their own agency. It means you will relive certain things and scenarios but get to see them from different perspectives.

But as with a karmic cycle, the secret of it lies in what survives the loop. Some aspects of the world live on through the loop and allow you to evolve the world over loops. Real gardening work is also based around cycles, or seasons, where what you plant at one point can either grow larger or die during the course of a season.

Ultros Finding Sword

It seems with each loop, some abilities or combat-related mechanics will reset, and possibly some will carry over. Can you tell us more about this? Will you essentially be relearning the skill tree each time?

Yes, a lot will reset; emphasizing the “starting over” part of the loop structure. However, pretty early on you will find ways of circumventing this. You could see it as a part of the whole ‘break the cycle’ theme of the game, it’s what you strive for and will be rewarded for in the game.

ULTROS is a game about changing behaviors and trying new things and solutions. Although taking away perceived progress from the player may feel harsh on the surface, we didn’t want players to be stuck in upgrade choices and play styles they had at the early stages of the game as we want to give the player a chance to change their perception of what the game is as they progress through the story.

I know ULTROS is initially slated to release on PlayStation and PC only. Are there plans to bring it to other platforms in the future? Or will it be exclusive to PlayStation and PC?

Currently we’re working hard on delivering the best experience for players on PlayStation and PC ready for launch in February. We’re open to considering new platforms in the future, but currently our focus is on PlayStation and PC.

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