I often find myself in a bit of a predicament. While I am prone to enjoying the occasional indie game, especially those more narrative-focused, I tend to desire a higher-budget experience. Alas, I find the likes of Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty to be a tad dreary and overwhelming. It is therefore the case that I am a big proponent of double-A games. In fact, some of my favourite games include The Technomancer, Left Alive and Elex. So when I heard about Ultra Age, the visually stunning action RPG made by a development team of 11 people, I was pumped. Unfortunately, while Ultra Age lives up to its promise of incredible visual fidelity, it lacks in almost every other department.
“Ultra Age’s depiction of a world abandoned is as grungy and hopeless as it is lush and vibrant.”
I’d like to preface this review with a little positivity. Namely, I wish to praise Ultra Age’s most prominently showcased aspect: its visuals. Ultra Age is a strikingly beautiful title that is on par, visually, with certain contemporary JRPGs. Each location feels vast in both scale and detail, even if every level is predominately linear in nature. Verdant valleys stretch far into the distance as you galavant around a dilapidated train station overgrown beyond recognition. Wound pipes snake across crumbling walls as vines and creepers slither through the cracks. Sand dunes roll across the scorching horizon as jagged cliff faces just out from beneath the seemingly ceaseless sands.
While the environmental design treads familiar ground, it still feels fresh and unique. Ultra Age’s depiction of a world abandoned is as grungy and hopeless as it is lush and vibrant. Furthermore, the creatures and enemies that roam this veritable wasteland are perfectly designed to suit it. They feel as part of the world as the sea of grass and roots that form the foundations of Ultra Age’s earlier levels. While they too suffer from a lack of uniqueness in presentation, they nevertheless fit the theme of Ultra Age perfectly.
Ultra Age also benefits from the occasional cutscenes which are usually as extravagant as the game’s overall visual design. What they lack in overall polish, they more than makeup for in ambition and scope. Boss fights usually tend to end in a more cinematic finale, which cap off rather exhilarating engagements. While the minute-to-minute narrative is mostly made up with still frames of characters conversing, these cutscenes add an additional layer of visual quality that significantly elevates the overall experience.
“Ultra Age has a frustratingly confusing plotline that’s hard to follow or even care about.”
Unfortunately, while Ultra Age impresses with its astounding visual fidelity, it otherwise fails to inspire confidence in its success as a complete product. Namely, its inconsistent narrative lets down what would otherwise be a beautiful double-A title. It isn’t that Ultra Age’s narrative is uninspired or banal. Rather, it lacks the necessary context for players to fully engage and immerse themselves within it. While the surrounding lore and characters – which are unfortunately fleshed out far too late into the game’s runtime – are enjoyable, there’s little to no context grounding any of it. As a result, what we’re left with is a frustratingly confusing plotline that’s hard to follow or even care about.
To make matters worse, Ultra Age’s characters and writing are surprisingly excellent. The minute-to-minute banter between the protagonist and his robot companion is genuinely funny. Furthermore, their humourous tête-à-têtes can also offer a glimpse into a profoundly intriguing yet inconsistent world. Additionally, the personal goals of the central protagonist are understandable. It isn’t unclear as to what Age wants to do, rather why he wants to do it. Throughout my time in Ultra Age’s grungy and derelict world I understood that I needed to embark on an epic adventure and venture out to find a spaceship. What I didn’t understand was the greater mythos, world-building and context surrounding that.
It, therefore, coalesces into a narrative I wish I cared about but found myself unable to enjoy. While I thoroughly enjoyed any interaction between Age and Helvis, outside of that, especially toward the beginning of the game, I simply couldn’t get into it. Had the gameplay been so compelling I may have been able to overlook Ultra Age’s narrative shortcomings. Alas, it wasn’t strong enough to alleviate the game’s blatant inconsistencies.
“Unfortunately, Ultra Age barely makes the most of its singular unique mechanic.”
In Ultra Age the player wields four unique blades, each of which is effective for vastly different reasons. For example, the claymore is effective against robotic enemies. Additionally, its wide attack range makes it the perfect weapon for clearing out a room packed with foes. Conversely, the katana is a perfect weapon for biological enemies. Its fast, albeit weak attacks, make it perfect for inflicting rapid damage before dodging out of the way. You can alternate between these swords on the go, making engagements with several different types of enemies an almost balletic dance.
Additionally, the quality of each sword will rapidly decline as you use it continuously. Once they reach breaking point, you can activate a break ability. These will inflict a large amount of damage to a singular or numerous foes. You replenish your swords via crystals scattered across the maps, or by picking up drops from defeated enemies. Crystals need to be recharged before they can offer you any more swords. Fortunately, your handy time-altering ability will allow you to expedite that process. Unfortunately, all of this is practically meaningless as Ultra Age barely makes the most of its singular unique mechanic.
“Ultra Age’s gameplay is more akin to that of games from the PlayStation 2 era.”
While it always feels as if Ultra Age is innovating, in reality, its gameplay is more akin to that of games from the PlayStation 2 era. Inbetween the scarce narrative moments, Ultra Age will see you repeatedly running down linear paths before entering a larger arena and fighting a group of enemies. However, for the most part, these enemies are of one type which entirely mitigates the need to switch weapons mid-combat. Essentially, you grind away at large packs of ferocious opponents with one type of sword before moving on.
I had hoped that in order to rectify this issue, swords would be in low supply. Attempting to tackle a particularly difficult dungeon with only a handful of swords, all while carefully reserving certain types for tougher enemies, certainly seems like a good idea. Unfortunately, no matter how hard I tried to run out, I found swords practically everywhere. This only leads to further issues as it reduces the time-altering mechanic to a gimmick you’ll never use. There’s simply no need to skip forward in time to gather more weapons when the drop rate from enemies is astonishingly high and there are bountiful supplies of crystals scattered generously across each level.
“Ultra Age’s boss fights are refreshing in their originality and difficulty, and elevate the overall experience.”
Fortunately, Ultra Age’s combat is genuinely invigorating, especially during its earlier levels. The high-quality animations and particle effects that explode on screen every time you cut through another legion of robots are exhilarating to behold. Even the simplest of engagements offer up an enjoyable time due to the game’s fluid and frantic action. It’s sustained for the most part due to further swords being added later as well as its various enemy types. There is a significant amount of unique enemies that you’ll encounter, as well as a litany of re-skinned ones. But it is enough to ensure that combat never feels stale, and you’re constantly having to adapt to difficult situations.
This is also true of Ultra Age’s phenomenal boss fights. Each boss feels distinctly unique and has vastly different skill sets and gimmicks to one another. They either have multiple stages which offer up increasing levels of difficulty, or just a wide range of abilities. This makes each one a genuine challenge, as you’re constantly facing new attack patterns or moves and have to quickly adjust. They’re not always entirely fair, and it’s likely you’ll get stumped by one and be forced to fight it repeatedly. But they’re refreshing in their originality and difficulty, and elevate the overall experience.
“Combat never gets any easier regardless of how much you invest in the game’s pointless skill trees.”
However, once again, for every positive quality, there are numerous inconsistencies that drag it down. For example, the lock on system barely functions and was usually detrimental to my experience. Locking on to enormous enemies that take up a good portion of the screen tends to obscure anything behind it. Other enemies would then disappear off-screen only to charge up an attack I couldn’t see and wipe me out with a single hit. Despite my futile attempts at selecting a target, it would often revert back to whatever it had originally locked on to. At times, it feels as if it was barely locked on as the camera would float about absentmindedly.
Combat in Ultra Age is also disproportionately difficult. Coming up against a singular enemy one on one is an easy ordeal that rarely takes more than a few seconds. However, should you be pitted against a larger group of enemies, you’ll often find yourself overwhelmed and defeated in practically no time at all. While there are plenty of upgrades available for each individual sword as well as Age himself, I found their ambiguous bonuses did little to improve my chances in combat. I felt just as powerful at the beginning as I did by the end of the game. This meant that combat never gets any easier regardless of how much you invest in the game’s pointless skill trees.
“Not only is Ultra Age riddled with inconsistent gameplay, boring mission designs and a lacklustre narrative, but it is also far too expensive for the experience you receive.”
Dying can also be a hugely detrimental and irritating experience. Upon death, you’ll be reset to the nearest save point. Unfortunately, save points are few and far between and so dying can be incredibly frustrating. To make matters worse, Ultra Age’s general level design already encourages backtracking. As death is a frequent occurrence due to the disproportionate difficulty, you’ll be forced to endure even more backtracking than is already required of you. Furthermore, upon death, all the enemies you’ve just defeated will respawn. This means that you’ll have to beat them all over again. However, as healing crystals are scarce, you’ll have to do so without losing too much health, especially if you’re heading for a boss fight.
I wish I could recommend Ultra Age. I wish I could say that despite all its flaws, Ultra Age still remains a fun romp. Unfortunately, I simply cannot. Not only is it riddled with inconsistent gameplay, boring mission designs and a lacklustre narrative, but it is also far too expensive for the experience you receive. For $29.99 you’re getting an astonishingly beautiful and at times brilliant game that is so bogged down by its multitude of flaws that it simply cannot maintain one’s attention for very long. While I certainly commend the incredible developers at Next Stage and Visual Dart for their excellent attempt, Ultra Age falls short on too many occasions to recommend others play it.
*Disclaimer: Reviewed on PS4, code was provided by the Publisher.