Picture this: You’ve a laser-gun toting, spaceship-flying gal who just saved the galaxy from a powerful threat. You get home, kick your feet up, and sign into your favorite social media site, making a post about it. You just beat hordes of dangerous aliens, after all. It’s gonna be way more interesting than someone posting selfies from their vacation for the hundredth time or recipes for vegan blood pudding or something. Well, the likes and congratulatory posts start rolling in, but then someone tells you that you should get back in the kitchen. Do you play the better person and ignore them, or do you hop right back in your ship, blast your way to their home planet, destroy every single living thing in your path until you find yourself in front of the commenter, and then deliver a single, vicious kick to the balls? I know which one I wanted to do, and Ultionus: A Tale of Petty Revenge let me do it.
Ultionus is all about blasting things in one way or another. It’s split up between shmup and side-scrolling shooter levels, although there’s way more of the latter than the former. Things felt a little weird at first when I played the side-scrolling levels, as Serena S (your character) moves a bit slow for what I thought was going to be a fast-paced shooter. It took a little bit of getting used to, but it grew on me as I came to realize that the game was more about taking precise shots and dodging around enemies than in twitch gunplay. It was a different type of fun than what I was expecting and it made the first few stages a little uncomfortable as I learned to move and jump in what felt like zero gravity. I guess it made sense for space, though.
That speed isn’t unfair, as enemies move at an appropriate pace along with you. This is necessary as you can’t fire your gun all that quickly either, so you really have to pick and choose your shots based on the game’s pacing. I liked the precision of it all, because while I enjoy filling screens with gunfire for no reason, there was something fulfilling about nailing an enemy in mid-air with a single, well-timed shot. It also means that you can’t overwhelm areas of the game or bosses just by shooting as fast as the game will allow; you have to be careful instead. This made even basic enemies worth noticing and developing strategies for them rather than just walking and shooting. While I do love Contra, the game does use waves or worthless enemies all the time while hoping you make a mistake. In Ultionus, you’re given the same waves, but have to do some careful maneuvering and shooting to survive them. It was enjoyable, resulting in many panicked jumps, weaving through the air while taking shots at your enemies. It’s very involved, and because of that it’s very engaging despite being a little pokey. I can’t imagine how hard this game could be at high speeds.
You can upgrade your gun if you find yourself getting annoyed at the firing rate. You build up a score as you kill enemies, one that might just seem like a throwback to old games unless you find one of the game’s secret areas. If you do, there will be a shop where you can buy either an offensive or defensive item, although the offensive items seemed to be where your money is best spent. You can increase your firing rate, make your bullets split on impact, or split your shot into multiple directions each time you fire. These power-ups are doled out as an either/or when you come to a shop, as the shop just gives you the choice between a defense or offense power-up and then disappears. You only get to pick one, and you only get to choose from the two items the shop is currently showing so there’s not much choice involved, but if you’re gaining a power-up at all you’re already doing well. There are a few useless defense power-ups (that I could never figure out how to use), but the weapon power-ups will always be welcome and useful.
The shop is a secret because the levels are all open-ended, allowing for exploration of the areas while blasting your enemies. There are a couple of branching paths in each stage, and the nice part is that the game is pretty good about letting you go back and continue exploring if you want to find more stuff. The stages aren’t terribly large, so there was never any issue with getting lost on multiple paths. It made finding hidden stuff a bit on the simple side, but I preferred that to having to map out a complex area and look for small things hidden behind backgrounds in the levels or anything like that.
The only thing you may want to be careful of doing is accidentally running into the boss, as that creates a checkpoint and you can’t go back. The music goes quiet before you fight them so there’s a pretty obvious indication you’re close, which was a nice touch. You really should go back and look around, too, as you can only access the game’s true ending and last level if you find a hidden character in each level. That rewarded exploring even more, and I got right back into the game after getting the lame ending to poke around and find the last things I’d missed.
You’ll want the extra power-ups against the bosses, although they don’t have very complex patterns. Some of the late-game bosses simply fire so many times that they’ll wear down your three available hits quite quickly unless you get really lucky with your dodges. You only have ten lives to get through any given stage as well, and if you die against a boss it resets the boss’ health bar (As it should), so you need to be careful. It typically doesn’t take all that long for a boss to blast you to pieces, and with finite lives to beat them and the stage, you need to learn patterns fast or hope to win using your upgraded firepower. It all felt quite fair since I could go back to old stages and look for upgrades or just keep on practicing, so players of all skill and patience levels should be able to get through. Even if you’re really stumped you can always play on easy mode, although you still have to kill a boss within a single life so it doesn’t negate the challenge entirely.
The bosses all look awesome, too. Giant plants, battle suits, and weird worms will attack you as you fight your way to new stages, and they’re not short on detail. The entire game has this lush, vibrant, Genesis-era aesthetic that reminds me of a more lighthearted Super Metroid, but on a planet that has a lot more plant life than ZR388 ever did. From that focus on plant and animal life came the game’s nice, organic monsters, with the worm being one of my favorites. It has a couple of pulsing green eyes that shoot these goopy beams at the player that I just didn’t want to touch me. Its skin was also this weird off-white and it just looked like a pale, sickening underground creature. Mechanical monsters look just as nice, such as the canon ship in the dinosaur-riding level with its multiple cannons and moving parts.
The details don’t make these things look as alive as the smoothness of their animations do, though. The game makes a big joke of its breast physics in the opening, but the smooth way they move translates to everything else in the game, too. Enemies bounce and breathe as they move, making them look natural and alive as you play. This is especially true of bosses like the giant worm, whose skin seems to pulsate as it attacks you, making for really gross imagery. Even the mechanical beasts all seem to have multiple animated parts moving independently, such as the arms on the mech suit that shuffle and shake when not in use. It all gives the game’s artwork this feeling of being alive, and makes watching everything in the game very entertaining.
The regular enemies have a lot of variety as well, changing dramatically between levels. There are a few repeating enemies across the stages, but for the most part the game has a whole new set of monsters for every single area, keeping it from ever being visually boring. The monsters are also large and detailed, and have that smooth, intricate movement that makes them seem bouncy and real. It’s fun to see what you’ll fight next, and it’s especially interesting because new enemies also tend to have widely different attack routines and levels of aggression. It felt like every stage was new and exciting to look at as well as fight through because of it.
If you’re still stuck thinking of how slow Serena S moves, there are still a handful of vehicle stages to make you feel better. You ride your spaceship twice (If you get the better ending) and hop on a dinosaur during another stage, and these levels involve a lot more rapid gunfire for people looking for a more twitchy experience. They were tossed in every few levels and broke up the slower, exploratory stages — creating a nice break at regular intervals. These, along with the variety of stages and enemies, made it feel like the dev, DarkFalzX, put a whole lot of thought into keeping the game fresh and interesting all the time. It really paid off, as I never, ever felt like I was bored or that there was any padding in the game at all.
The soundtrack is as varied as the game itself. The sound definitely has a Genesis or arcade vibe to it, and fits in nicely with the game. I have never been a huge fan of Genesis-style music in comparison to the SNES, but I still liked a lot of the upbeat tracks from the game like the one from Level 3 or the boss music. The boss music loop has a menacing feel to it that suited the huge monsters you fought, and is quite long for a retro-styled boss tune. I enjoyed Jake Kaufman’s work on the game’s soundtrack, something that’s especially surprising considering I don’t even like the sound style used to create it. The trailer track by A_Rival blows the rest of the soundtrack away, though. After hearing his work here and in Mega Man X Street Fighter, I think I’m going to have to keep my eye on him.
Overall, the game’s relentless attempts to stay fresh and new make it hard to put down. It’s a solid action game with some decent (and changeable) challenge to it — one that never gets boring due to ever-shifting environments, enemies, bosses, and music. The levels and characters are all fun to look at, and the whole world seems lush and alive. For a game made by a dev who’s already hard at work on another game, this is an awesome project that is well worth the asking price. It’s only a couple of levels, but the great gameplay and secrets had me coming back once the credits were done rolling.