In the infancy of the Internet, many were fixated on quotes and philosophies from lead developers. One great example of this is the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto himself. Miyamoto has always been the face of Nintendo and responsible for so many of its characters, has been perhaps most credited with the idea that a game should teach everything the player needs to know naturally. Just as it happens in the first few seconds of Super Mario Bros. Unfortunately, these lessons seem to have been lost in recent years. Especially by the developers that actively seek to make “hard” games.
Now that games are allowed to be hard (thanks, Dark Souls), we efforts that are less refined, such as Ultra Age here, that simply don’t bother to teach players how to play, until it is to late.
The first sign that this was going to be one of those experiences happened right after I died the first time (it was soon enough). Straight away an achievement popped up congratulating me on dying, but also patronising me that this will be the first of many.
The easiest way to describe the difficulty of enemies in Ultra Age is that any of the smaller enemies that you’ll encounter are harder than you’ll probably want them to be, but they’re manageable. The problems occur with the larger enemies, as these armoured or giant beasts suddenly escalate the difficulty tenfold. Sometimes backtracking helped, as you can grind up upgrades to the point that they’re manageable. At other times, the challenge is unavoidable and therefore deeply frustrating. With those bigger enemies, any single attack from them can wipe away big chunks of your health. Quickly.
These are the usual expected suspects such as health, weapon attacks and armour – all of which can be upgraded as you push on, but ultimately feels a bit pointless since the overall difficulty renders incremental improvements too minimal to be enjoyable. However, one of the more cool things is a energy lasso which Age (yes, your character’s name really is Age) wields which allows him to pull enemies or resources closer to him. With the boss battles in particular that adds an additional texture and tactical layer to the action.
Scattered throughout the game are energy crystals of various colours. The colours differentiate if it is an energy, weapon or amour resource. Energy stacks and helps restore bonuses such as activating the health regen, and weapons also stack to a certain point (around 15 for most weapons) to help collect weapons. But the amour doesn’t stack, and you have to carefully check to see if the power-up will give you a boost, or is weaker than the current set of amour. For the longest time I was just collecting the amour power-ups thinking they stacked, until I started seeing in the inventory there was a negative number and certain amour was taking away from my stats. I started to then think of it as clothing with certain status powers. However, because the last one disappeared straight after and they didn’t just stack in an inventory, it added a challenge to collect the right armour.
One of the downfalls is the barely serviceable story, with “tick a box” being a generous way to describe it. It’s especially unfortunate given that the themes that it play-acts at covering, such as eternal life, could have been compelling. What little there is to the narrative is late-game spoiler stuff and even then it’s more “surprise revelation” rather than “deep thinking”. Set in the year 3174, the Earth has no more resources to sustain human life. Age is down on Earth to investigate why communications to an important space colony have stopped. Yes, you’ve heard it all before, and that’s the problem.
Despite the difficulty, Ultra Age isn’t overly long and can be completed as little as five hours, however for most people the game can be closer to 15. Because the difficulty comes from rapid spikes or nasty bosses, however, you can get stuck in very specific spots for long periods of time, and that can make the 5, 15, or 50 hours feel like an eternity longer.
Finally, due to how the skill tree is designed, if you don’t plan from the start of the game (you know, when you don’t know what’s going on), then you can easily find yourself in a bad place late game if you don’t collect enough power cores. The cores are used for levelling up specific skills which can help with attacks or regeneration of energy. The first time I played through I realised that, because I missed these power cores, I was missing the required skill path to get to the late game amour packs which upgrade everything. And that made things even more difficult.
At the end of the day, Ultra Age is a middle of the pack action thing that has the basic mechanics of the genre down, but doesn’t do anything to stand out, and it has some real balancing issues. but struggles to balance difficulty progression as well as pushing boundaries in the genre. Unfortunately for the developers, this is one genre in which we are spoiled for choice, both in terms of finding challenging games to enjoy, and complex, thought-provoking experiences.
– Trent P.