By Ronald Gordon
When you think of an enticing game, you might imagine an experience that helps you relax, or that triggers a new type of excitement, one you haven’t fully grasped yet. But now, there’s a game that almost makes you feel as if it’s a weakness to be human, like something about you needs to be just the slightest bit faster. And it can only be named in ALL CAPS.
ULTRAKILL is a First Person Shooter game developed by Arsi “Hakita” Patala and published by New Blood Interactive. As a machine falls through a strange tunnel in the game’s boot up sequence, a few words are repeated: “MANKIND IS DEAD. BLOOD IS FUEL. HELL IS FULL.” Very quickly, you’re given a gun and enemies to shoot again and again, and that about sums up ULTRAKILL’s story. These wonderful blurs of shooting mayhem have been in Early Access on Steam, supposedly unfinished, since 2020. And they keep refining the game.
Taking inspiration from games like DOOM, ULTRAKILL is built to be played at an especially quick pace. As you play, you get a grade based on how stylish and risky you are with many multipliers such as headshots, parries, and near misses adding to your score. On top of that, you receive different guns as you progress through the game, with each having one to two alternate firing modes that can be switched out at will. The shotgun, for example, starts off with a grenade launcher, but it can be swapped out for an overload ability that allows you to pump it for added damage. In fact, each gun in the ULTRAKILL arsenal has its more than one nuance, making every weapon more than just a one trick pony. In addition to the gun modifications, you can also switch out your character’s arms in case you want more than just a parry button; that lets you deliver a devastating shockwave punch or use a grappling hook to fly towards enemies.
This is how ULTRAKILL begins to push the Player’s limits: by allowing for many different combinations to lift your grade higher and higher, up to P-Rank with the P standing for Perfection all around. The most lionized ability in the game is called the Marksman pistol, which allows you to toss one of four coins into the air and shoot it for a guaranteed critical hit, often leading to an instant kill on certain enemies. The coin alone has had entire videos made about it (such as this one I’ve frequented by the ever helpful HerbMessiah) that detail each and every one of its mechanics, such as sound cues that can be heard as it flies through the air, and the ability to parry it and build up damage.
I enjoy games that give me a grade based on my performance since I’m driven by improvement overall. But when I first started playing ULTRAKILL I thought I’d never make it very far because of how often I found myself dying against beginner bosses, and how complex the many combinations of the game could be. One of the most difficult bosses in the game is V2, your twin brother who moves like you, shoots like you, and is all around better than you.
When I first fought V2, I died 18 times and my fingers felt like they would explode if I kept going. Then, after weeks of trying and learning more about the game, I did something unimaginable: I got my first P-Rank, and it was for defeating V2! I still don’t know how I managed it, but it’s one of my greatest accomplishments in any game, and I can’t help but feel giddy about it even though it was several months ago. This is just one way that ULTRAKILL rewards its players for becoming masters at the game, and it’s a meaningful part of the overall experience because it makes you want to learn more and perform better each time you play.
The music in the game runs to heart-pounding metal, symphonies and techno. It’s almost as if someone took a playlist from each genre and threw them into a blender on the slowest setting, allowing for a perfect mix of power and classiness that I haven’t heard before. The game’s graphics aren’t much to look at: they’re a retro style of blocky geometric shapes. But that’s almost a benefit, since it creates unique silhouettes and easily recognizable enemy types. It also allows for fluid gameplay on any computer; I almost never noticed any sort of stuttering due to graphical limitations while playing.
ULTRAKILL is not a game for everyone. It’s challenging, crazy quick, and has an insane learning curve. But for those who are up to its worthy challenge, I’d whole-heartedly recommend it. The music drives your every action as you bounce and speed around levels, blasting out the brains of enemies before they can do the same to you. Every moment carries weight, even if you don’t always do as well as you think you could. I’m not usually the biggest fan of FPS games, but ULTRAKILL has done more to keep me engaged with its mechanics than any other FPS. And unlike most other FPS entries into the canon, there’s a lot more to this game than just point and shoot.
Ronald Gordon is a New York Videogame Critics Circle senior intern. He was the first of our writers – or any intern anywhere – to complete an internship at Rockstar Games.