Game Review: ULTRAKILL

ULTRAKILL does not advertise its unique strengths right from the start. With the first few levels set in that Id Software-style "hell, but industrial" environment, poking away at zombie-like mobs with a revolver and shotgun, you'd be forgiven for thinking, as I initially did, that this was just one more entry in the current "boomer shooter" trend.

It wasn't until 5 or so hours of gameplay later, as I parried a cyborg's plasma beam into a flamethrower enemy's fuel tank, instantly converting everything in the area to charred red paste and blasting my combo rank to SSS that I realized: Oh, this game rules actually. And at that point I hadn't even gotten the hookshot yet!

Backing up - ULTRAKILL is a retro-style shooter currently in early access on Steam, set in an interpretation of hell inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy. There's a fairly deep lore presented through codex entries and environment details, but honestly the opening screen gives you everything you need to know.


MACHINE ID:        V1


From that point on, the Vibes remain impeccable. The moment-to-moment gameplay - the primary loop - is honed to a razor's edge. Movement is fast and fluid, all the weapons feel satisfying to wield. The soundtrack slaps so hard. Hell is a fairly common setting for games, but using the Inferno as basis frees the environment design from fire-and-brimstone and allows for some truly unique levels1. Most importantly, ULTRAKILL is persistently, astonishingly, and intensely fun to play.

The core of both ULTRAKILL's combat design and its visual identity is blood. Like the "glory kill" mechanic in the modern Doom games, ULTRAKILL rewards point-blank attacks with health to encourage risky plays, but unlike Doom you're healed whenever you catch a spray of an enemy's blood, not just for certain contextual melee hits. It seems like a small change, but it opens up a huge swath of design space. Applying a bleed status effect effectively creates a healing zone, so often a good strategy is to keep a big elite enemy alive and bleeding while you clean up its entourage. When the game introduces certain enemies that don't bleed at all, it's a major shakeup you need to adapt around. Visually, over the course of a fight more and more surfaces are spattered in red as a visceral2 indicator of chaos, as if your violent intrusion has wounded hell itself.

ULTRAKILL wears its boomer shooter influences on its sleeve - your movement speed is approximately MACH 4, and combat encounters throw enough enemies at you to populate a nation-state - but there's two subtler genre elements essential to its secret sauce. First there's the spectacle fighter-style combo meter. This is such a natural pairing with retro shooter gameplay I'm surprised in retrospect I hadn't seen it before. Beyond bragging rights for the leaderboards, stylish play rewards you with faster healing and is also just really really fun. Each stage is ranked on time, style, and total kills, and a perfect clear requires S ranks in all three categories plus no restarts, so you're incentivized to always go for the fastest, coolest methods of destruction available. Like a Platinum fighter, you reach a zen state of perfect flow, only realizing after the fact that it's been hours and your heart is pounding like crazy.

The other genre, less overt but still inarguably there, is the immersive sim. The depth of interaction available in combat is just ridiculous; if an FPS is just an adventure game where every puzzle solution is Use Gun On Man, ULTRAKILL is 5D Use Gun On Man with Multiverse Time Travel . Some representative examples:

The combined intensity and depth of combat makes ULTRAKILL's arena fights feel like solving fifty crossword puzzles simultaneously while being launched from a cannon. If I have any criticisms at all, it's that this depth only blossoms in the mid to late game as your arsenal fills out, and the first few stages limit what you can do with the tools on hand. I suppose the alternative of giving the player every weapon and ability right away would have been too overwhelming, though, so it's an acceptable compromise.

ULTRAKILL is still in early access and at time of writing ends unceremoniously at the end of layer 7 of the promised 9 (plus a "prelude" 0th layer). Still, even in an incomplete state I cannot recommend it highly enough. It's the best kind of indie title, the kind that fundamentally could never get made in the AAA space because of its monomaniacal focus on doing one thing extremely well, rather than twenty things just passably enough to monetize. And again because indie games are amazing, its base price is $25 and it's frequently on sale for half of that. If you're at all a fan of retro shooters and/or combo-driven spectacle fighters, you owe it to yourself to give it a (rico)shot.


My favorite area, both in the Inferno and in the game, is Limbo, the outermost ring of hell for "righteous pagans" who didn't actually commit any mortal sins but never had the opportunity to accept Christ and so can't get into actual heaven. "Discount knockoff of paradise" is a top tier environment aesthetic.


Pun only partially intended