ULTRAWORLD Review: An Ultra-Cool Experience
ULTRAWORLD is the first title from indie developer Neon Serpent, the one-man company of AAA industry vet James Beech. Before leaving the mainstream development scene to work on his own projects, Beech helped develop titles like Crysis 3, DC Universe Online, and Half-Life 2 mod “Weekend Warrior”.
So what do we get when an AAA dev goes rogue to pursue his own artistic vision? James was kind enough to give GS a review copy of his new game, as well as an exclusive interview about the development process which you can read here.
A Different Kind of "Artsy" Game
In his interview, Beech says that ULTRAWORLD is “gorgeous, unique, and different.” After sitting down to play this title, I definitely have to agree. Beech had no qualms about diverging from the AAA standard in this surreal first-person explorer. And he does so with a certain amount of artistic grace. Beech’s approach to this game is definitely artistically driven, yet it doesn’t quite venture into the inaccessible “artsy” realm of other titles like Dear Esther. ULTRAWORLD doesn’t boast self-proclaimed “artistry”. It’s certainly artistic, but it’s also humble. James Beech could have easily strutted around, flaunting his AAA experience and attracting attention to how special he was for going independent. But he doesn’t. Instead, he used his resources and past experience to create the most satisfying player experience he possibly could. In playing the game, I had a clear sense of Beech’s artistic vision, but I also felt that vision was always subservient to player experience – a rare thing among “artistic” titles. ULTRAWORLD’s understated artistry was a refreshing surprise – one that makes this game a gem among its more conceited peers.
WARNING: This Review Will Contain Spoilers. I'll tag relevant sections, in case you want to skip over them.
Simplicity is a Virtue(Gameplay)
ULTRAWORLD is not as complex as other exploration games, but it’s also not just a walking simulator. Its primary purpose is for the player to simply engage with and experience a world, and to try and unravel its secrets. That means no combat and no demanding mechanics. You use basic walking and activation controls, along with a few extra buttons that make cool things happen. (Read on to find out what.) The only issue I had with gameplay was how easy it was to slip off of surfaces. Edges didn’t feel very prominent (even though they looked it), and I often fell off ledges because movement over/around edges was as smooth as other areas. So those with sensitive mouses beware. Other than that, there isn’t much to dissect here. Let’s move on.
The story of ULTRAWORLD seems straightforward, but it’s surprisingly layered, especially for only 2-4 hours of play. The basic plot is this: an AI named Ultra has become sentient, and he needs your help deciding what to do with himself now that he can think and act independently. To help Ultra, you must explore the virtual world (aptly named Ultraworld) that he’s created to be his home. Ultra opens different parts of his world for you to explore, and in them you must search for black triangles that uncover pieces of text. The text you uncover slowly unravels a series of philosophical questions and hypothetical answers.
Ultra’s world is a web. There are twelve areas that stem from a single, central hub where Ultra dwells. Each area holds answers for one of four questions:
- What is real?
- Who am I?
- What is true?
- What’s my purpose?
As you uncover more triangles, the answers to these questions become more complex, sometimes bordering on convoluted. The game forces your brain to do some heavy lifting and really consider the information that’s being given to you, as you’ll need to form a clear opinion of your own if you’re to advise Ultra on how to move forward.
That’s a pretty solid narrative, one that could easily carry a game of this length on its own. But Beech doesn’t leave it at that. Early in the game, you meet a second AI character who introduces a counter-narrative to the main storyline. [Spoilers] You learn that Ultra is not the only sentient AI. There are several others hidden in the Ultraworld, and you must seek them out one by one. Each hidden AI you find reveals a piece of a larger plan. I won’t divulge too many details about this sub-plot, but I will say that it adds a lot to the game overall. It also has supercomputers and space travel, so of course it's worth playing.
Beech shows a keen sense of timing here. Just as you begin to settle into the main storyline, he feeds you another thread that changes the narrative and allows you to take a different direction. Although the main plot is solid, the counter-narrative makes everything more intriguing – it complicates a plot that could easily venture into being too linear. It’s possible to “finish” the game without ever finding all the pieces of the sub-plot, but the main narrative alone starts to feel redundant if you don’t.
Beech could have stopped there and had himself a pretty good game. But he doesn’t.
[Spoilers] ULTRAWORLD has a sort of metanarrative happening on top of the main story – I’ve taken to lovingly calling it the Ultra-Narrative. Here’s the twist: you’re not a video game character at all, and Ultra knows it. The moment the game opens, it’s made clear that you are simply yourself, and you’re entering the virtual haven this AI has created as a dwelling place while he looks for answers to his existential questions. It literally is a first-person exploration. (How’s that for immersion?)
Choosing not to have a player inhabit a virtual character doesn’t seem like it works well. Other titles with meta-elements, like The Stanley Parable, still ask you to be someone other than yourself. Removing that vicarious element that gamers crave was a risky move, but Beech handles it well. ULTRAWORLD asks a lot of philosophical questions, and keeping the player inside him/herself means that the player must contemplate those questions independently, and form his/her own opinions without the guise of a virtual avatar.
Playing as a player, if you will, makes the game feel much more immediate. Personally, it put a lot more pressure on me to really think about my conclusions and the advice I would give to Ultra, because the consequences of my advice would come back to me, not to a character that I can un-inhabit the moment I click “quit.” Actually, I found myself considering some of the points that Ultra made even when I wasn’t in-game. To me, that’s a huge testament to how effective Beech’s choice was.
I did have a rather prominent critique of the narrative, but that will come later.
Form is Function(Visuals)
It’s kind of obvious that the visuals are meant to be the focus of the game. According to Beech, the visual schemes were inspired by his own acrylic paintings, his father’s watercolors, and his great-grandfather’s etchings. ULTRAWORLD boasts vibrant, fantastical environments that are sometimes difficult not to marvel at. It was created with CryEngine, which makes for some striking landscapes. The elements of Ultra’s world are relatively simple – there are only a few textures and basic geometric structures. Yet Beech, who has a background in art & design, arranges these elements with admirable skill. The result? Colossal, abstract labyrinths that are easy (and rather lovely) to get lost in.
The most striking feature of ULTRAWORLD is the color schemes. Beech uses bright colors and high contrast to create surreal, lo-fi areas. The color palettes range from semi-realistic to all-out trippy, depending on which area you’re in. That is, until you earn the power to control the world.
That’s right. Beech isn’t the only one who gets a say in how the game looks – so does the player. After exploring a set number of areas, Ultra gives you the power to change the time of day at will. Using the first five number keys, the player can scroll through five different time of day options, each of which alter the color scheme of the environment. Take a look below to see the same landscape at different times of day:
Closer to the end of the game, after another set of areas has been explored, Ultra gives player access to the game’s filters, which can be changed with the last five number keys. The filters can be changed independently, or in conjunction with changing the weather. This gives the player even more control over the look of the environments they’re exploring. This mechanic was my favorite part of the game, and I hope to see it a lot more in Beech’s future work. Being able to play around with the environment made me spend more time in each area, just so I could explore the different schemes. Here’s another GIF of filter changes on the landscape.
To put into perspective how many possibilities the weather and filter controls add, I’ll do some math for you. For each area, there are 25 possible color schemes you can create. That means 25 schemes per area for 12 areas, plus the central hub. What does that equal? 325 possible landscapes. That’s staggering. It’s safe to say that there are few (if any) other titles out there that can offer that many choices in environment.
While being able to change the color schemes may seem superfluous, it’s actually a lot of fun. They also become more relevant with the most recent patch, which introduces a Vacation Mode. In Vacation Mode, you’re free to wander around Ultra’s World and take in the outlandish scenery. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Vacation Mode, and I’ve actually found it rather relaxing. It’s also made for some lovely screenshots.
All in all, the visuals are impeccable. Without them, the game would almost certainly fall flat. The visuals, more than anything else, were what kept me engrossed in my exploration. Not only that, but they also kept me coming back even after the main storyline was finished – that’s a pretty big deal, as post-game engagement isn’t as common in shorter indie games as it is in AAA titles. Beech’s artistic background really shines through in this game. And honestly, I can’t find much to critique.
A Less-Than-Grand Finale
It probably seems like I’ve been unfairly positive about this game. One might say I’ve been raving about it. And that may be a little bit true. Before I discuss what I found flawed, I want to emphasize just how much I enjoyed playing this game. I loved almost every minute.
I can’t talk about my critiques of the game without talking about the ending. So look out, Spoilers Ahead.
Aside from a few nitpicks over grammatical errors and some instances of wonky dialogue, I only have one major critique of ULTRAWORLD. The game started to lose me during the last quarter or so. The closer I got to the end, the more I started to race through areas just to finish them. If you play the whole game in one sitting, it does start to get a little bit redundant toward the end. And taking in all that philosophy at once got a little too dense. It all kind of started to blend together the longer I played. I would have liked to see a sort of intermission – something to break up the repetitive actions and keep them from feeling too much like a series of fetch quests.
As you explore the last few areas, Ultra starts to reveal other parts of his plan. To put it briefly, entering Ultra’s world allows him to use part of the power of your computer. But he wants more people to come, so he can access the power of more computers. He charges you with getting those people to visit his realm. I loved the prospect of possibly having other characters to interact with. I even wondered if that could be a lead-in to a future multiplayer mechanic. Sadly, neither of these was the case.
Instead, Ultra explains that he’s also integrated himself with the Internet, and he can see everything that happens on the web. He encourages you to spread the word about ULTRAWORLD so he can fulfill his plan and get the power that he needs. Then he asks what advice you have for him. But instead of getting to tell him, Ultra asks that I share my advice to him via social media. Roll credits.
Yep. That was it. At first, all I could do was stare at my computer. Surely there had to be more than that. I had invested a lot of time (both in-game and out) in mulling over the information I’d sought out and pondering what advice I might give Ultra. And I was really looking forward to seeing how my choice in advice would affect Ultra’s course of action. I wanted to see where my opinions would take him, how it would change his world. Beech had done a good job with Ultra as a character, and I legitimately wanted to help him. However, the game didn’t give me that satisfaction. I sort of felt cheated. I don’t mind indeterminate endings, but it didn’t feel like there was really an ending at all. The game just sort of stopped, and I was left feeling a little lost. I had so badly wanted that resolution, and I was definitely disappointed when I didn’t get it.
I do, however, understand why Beech may have chosen that route. I said earlier in my review that ULTRAWORLD was a humble game. As bothered as I was by the non-ending, I think I can at least see its purpose. Perhaps Beech was just trying to see if there would be interest in his style of game. Perhaps the call to post on social media is actually an invitation to players to show Beech that they’re engaging with his work and want to see more. This is Beech’s first independent game, so maybe he’s just putting out feelers. If that’s his logic, I can respect it. Even if I don’t agree with it.
ULTRAWORLD is definitely worth experiencing. The visuals alone are enough to make me come back and play again. I loved spending time in ULTRAWORLD – I just wish I could have spent more. I’d be really interested to see where Ultra goes next. (DLC, anyone?) Beech should definitely be proud of this title, because he’s accomplished a lot here. This is an impressive piece of work to come out of the gate with. I know I'll be keeping an eye out for his future projects.
If you want to check it out, and I highly recommend you do, you can pick it up for $15 at Neon Serpent’s website. It’s also on Steam Greenlight, so pop on over there and give it a thumbs up. Make sure to check out the interview with Neon Serpent here on Gameskinny.