Ultra Age offers the frenetic energy and pacing of a Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden in a smaller, more future-focused package. This title is both a fun romp through the steel of your enemies, it’s also a weak husk of what it could have been. If the story and difficulty balance had been as cared for as the combat system and environment design, we could be looking at a genre-defining surprise.
Instead, what we seem to have is lofty ideals hung on a feeble narrative skeleton and even more anemic performances. The blade work and those crystal lions are pretty cool, though.
STORY – DYING AGE
Players are thrust into the role of Age, a young man who is literally dropped into an extinction situation in his last days. Set in the year 3174, Ultra Age sees the near annihilation of humanity and the aftermath of their escape off-world. Those that stayed behind in The Shelter have disappeared, and those in the space colony “Orbital Arc” are trying to recover resources from the remains of the planet.
This sounds like an interesting premise for a title, but it’s quickly overcome by a sudden jerk into politics and conspiracy. Age and his robot partner, Helvis, immediately go on the run from the same agency that sent him in the first place, for reasons unknown. For a good portion of the game, it’s difficult to grasp the intentions of the antagonists, as we get conflicting reports about who’s really in charge.
It’s one thing to have a convoluted story with crisscrossing paths, and it’s another to be inadvertently confusing. The outline of the game isn’t helped by the canned voice acting, either. The characters are stiff and feel more like they are giving monologues than actually speaking with each other. If one was to rely on subtitles, that wouldn’t help things very much either, as Ultra Age suffers in another way that we see in so many modern titles the text is just simply too small for the Nintendo Switch. These might typically be issues with Graphics & Audio, and I’ll mention them again, but the impact they have on the story presentation needs to be clear.
The relationship between Age and his floating robot isn’t defined or explored, even though Helvis can be upgraded as the game progresses. At times, he seems to be hiding a secret from Age, but it’s consistently waved away without a payoff. Further, the introduction of Medea as an antagonist is confusing in a way that should work but doesn’t land.
We as players are meant to be as confused as Age is by Medea’s sudden aggression, based on her job description and relationship to Age’s organization. The problem that arises is that we don’t have time to sit with Medea as a “good guy”, our impression of her sudden heel turn is only through the performance provided by Age himself, which is done unconvincingly.
Narrative in an action title is almost always secondary to the actual gameplay, but even the most bare-bones premises can evoke more emotion or understanding for players. As it stands, it’s really hard to see any motivation for any of the game’s characters, even if Helvis keeps mentioning that Age will die within a week.
GAMEPLAY – STEEL AGE
There isn’t much to be found in the gameplay of Ultra Age that you haven’t seen in other high-action titles such as Devil May Cry or Bayonetta. Age has big swords and he knows how to use them. The difference here is that some swords work better than others depending on the enemy type.
Knowing which blades will be more effective against the robotic onslaught or crystal/animal hybrids will help to increase your efficiency, and changing weapons on the fly will keep the actual combat moments from becoming stale. Combine that with the ranged attacks of the gunblade, and you just might have a dangerous arsenal on your hands.
The moment-to-moment combat feels fine, but the targeting system isn’t very helpful. When you’re in the midst of a large mob, it’s important to lock on to enemies to ensure you’re not swinging at space. The problem arises when you destroy an enemy and suddenly, you’re not targeting anything. Some sort of automatic targeting would be incredibly helpful, even if it just helps orient you on the field.
I did enjoy that the upgrade system was directly tied into loot, as I was able to build my Age build as I saw fit as the game progressed. As I ran down the labyrinthine corridors that made up each level, punctuated only by fighting arenas, there were always piles of crystal deposits that could be harvested for upgrade materials.
See, the thing that makes the gameplay of Ultra Age end up working despite the narrative issues is that you feel like you’re making progress towards something, even if the game doesn’t seem to know what is in store for you. At the very least, you’re slicing your way across a mess of hallways, and friction means you’re heading the right way.
There’s a marketed ability that Age can employ that doesn’t actually get much use, and that’s the wire. Age can zipline himself towards anchors to access items on high platforms or pull himself above a boss to reach a lofty weak spot. It didn’t come into play too often, and the extra resources that exploration grants you aren’t so great that they make a large difference in your abilities. I’d have liked to see more of the wire, especially in combat scenarios, but the blades do the job well enough on their own.
GRAPHICS & AUDIO – FRAMERATE AGE
Ultra Age looks like it could be an absolutely stunning title, on a different platform. Like most titles, I played through the game on my Nintendo Switch Lite, as I want to measure the performance on the lowest spec system possible. What I got was a massive amount of framerate issues, which became a significant problem even early on.
As mentioned, a lot of the combat takes place in singular rooms, and mobs are presented in large waves. Too large for the Switch, at least. The worst offenders were in situations where animal creatures and robot enemies would spawn in the same location, as the title struggled to present them all smoothly and effectively. The enemies have AI that is smart enough to allow for inter-species fighting, but I found myself button-mashing to clear the screen, rather than make actual progress.
The actual character models and art design are impressive, and I adore the official artwork, but there is so much about this title that screams early PlayStation 2 era graphical limitations, rather than “developed with Unreal Engine 4” as it is advertised. It’s one thing to have rad robots and beautiful environments, but if it’s littered with low-resolution textures and stuttering, what’s the point?
This all doesn’t even speak to the sound design, which does a fine enough job with world environment audio, but severely drops the ball when it comes to voice acting. Considering that, as the protagonist, Age does most of the talking throughout the game, it’s incredibly grating to hear him speak and monologue about his confusion. The whiny and stiff delivery of his lines is enough to make me play the game on mute.
Ultra Age was reviewed on Nintendo Switch. A key was provided by DANGEN Entertainment.