Ultra Age Demo Review
Contributed by DJMMT
I rarely review demos, but I’m making an exception in this case to draw more attention to this recently released indie game that’s getting no attention for some reason that I’m not quite sure of. I would have posted this review sooner, but I was late in even finding out about the game, which is kind of the point of this post. A couple weeks ago, I was on YouTube when suddenly a trailer for a new PS4 game showed up on my feed. The trailer video was from the official PlayStation YouTube channel for a game that had apparently released on PS4 and Switch a week prior to this video showing up on my feed. Even though we literally just had a PlayStation Showcase, I watch gaming social media very diligently, and I’m signed up for several gaming newsletters, I had never heard of this game before. I’m still not sure why I hadn’t heard about an action RPG being promoted on the official PlayStation YouTube channel until more than a week after the game launched.
I immediately downloaded the demo. Not only because I was interested by what I saw in the game’s trailer, but also because I’m very pro demo. I consider one of the great travesties of modern gaming to be the fact that every single game released doesn’t have a free playable demo. When I was a kid, there were so many demos. They had to distribute them via discs through retail stores and in magazines, and yet there were tons of them. And the discs were given away for free mind you. Today they can distribute a demo worldwide in minutes and change the demo if it has bugs. Yet very few games actually get demos today. So I was happy to download and play the Ultra Age demo.
I cannot understand why this game wasn’t given more attention. This is the kind of project that companies like Nintendo and PlayStation should be going out of their way to push. We talk so much about supporting indies and yet the impressive ones that aren’t from what have essentially become low budget AAA popularity studios don’t get the marketing help they need, and in cases like this deserve. So that’s the real reason I decided to review this demo. I actually want you to play it. I don’t want you to buy the game. Because you shouldn’t buy games unless you’re actually interested in playing them. Whether you buy Ultra Age or not, if you download the demo, I did what I set out to do with this post. And I want to clarify that this is not my usual goal with reviews. I never try to convince readers of anything with my reviews. In my opinion, that’s not the job. A reviewer’s job is merely to inform.
Ultra Age looks good for what it is, but it is admittedly created on a limited budget. Considering that this is Visual Dart’s first full game, I’m actually quite impressed with the visuals and graphic performance, but it certainly doesn’t compare visually to recent AAA titles in the same genre, such as the upcoming Project EVE, as shown in the most recent PlayStation Showcase. But a game doesn’t have to be 8K and show the characters stubble in order to be playable.
This game performs well. Even on my base PS4, it runs smoothly. I didn’t experience any stuttering, lag, or visual tearing. The mixture of natural and mechanical settings worked well to create a world that made sense for an RPG story clearly inspired by classics like Final Fantasy. The gameplay looks good in action. The enemies, attacks, combos, and so on play well on screen and give the player the same sense of visual satisfaction you get when playing blade-based action games like Devil May Cry or God of War. Not with the level of impressive visual prowess of the most recent titles in either franchise but certainly in the same realm of gameplay standards.
Something I really liked was how the game uses color to tell the player things. This is a much older style of game design and is often panned today for “breaking immersion” but I think it’s an effective way to help players focus on the essential mechanics of the game. A key part of the game is using “energy” to make use of your special abilities. This energy appears in the form of crystals that you harvest continuously as you traverse the game. Even enemies have crystals they drop when killed. Crystals are color coded so you know exactly what you’re farming. This also helps you prioritize enemies, since you can choose to skip many of them.
Overall, I was fine with the graphics in Ultra Age. I was very aware of the budget constraints as I was playing the game, but they in no way made the game unplayable. If you’re a graphics snob, you might have a problem with how it looks, but anyone who started playing games before the PS4 will have no issues with how the game looks. Because it definitely looks like a PS4 game, albeit an older one. And remember that this game runs on Switch as well.
The audio in this demo was fine. I didn’t love the voice actor playing the main character, but that’s not really an audio quality issue per se. The music worked well. The sound effects did their job effectively. From the opening cinematic, you notice that the team took the time to consider the little things like crystals clinking on the backs of creatures. Your double jump is made possible through special boots that make a spark sound when used. The sword slash sound effects are noticeable and satisfying. It’s the little things that bring a game to life and the audio in this game does that to quite an impressive degree. The music is more upbeat than I would have expected. It’s not the more traditional Square Enix JRPG musical style. It certainly works for the gameplay and settings shown in the demo.
The game also features a host of UI effects such as sounds for harvesting crystals and navigating menus. You’re not going to get anything particularly new from this audio experience, but it’s certainly up to modern standards. And for an indie, that’s all I expect. I don’t need a low budget game to revolutionize the industry. I just need it to deliver on my bare minimum expectations. Ultra Age goes well beyond that in the sound department.
It’s hard to discuss the writing quality in a demo for an RPG that I was able to complete in under 60 minutes. I’m not sure how long Ultra Age is, but I expect a lot more story development in the long run. The demo introduces a lot of names and concepts early on that don’t get any real development in the demo itself. This makes sense for an RPG, but it’s hard to say whether or not the writing is done well overall. Though it sounds a bit arrogant to say, as a writer myself and the husband of a non-native English speaker, I could tell that this dialog wasn’t written/translated by a native speaker of English. It was not grammatically incorrect, which tells me they took the writing and editing process seriously. But a lot of the speech used wasn’t natural. Especially from the protagonist, who was one of the only two speaking characters to appear in the demo.
The thing I liked most about this demo was thankfully the gameplay. For a demo, I’d say gameplay is probably the most important thing to look at. Visual Dart has done some really good work here. While playing the demo, I said multiple times that I’d love to see these mechanics implemented in a AAA title. This is a sword-based action RPG with pretty standard light and heavy combo focused attacking. It’s traditional hack-n-slash core gameplay. What I really like about it is the simple yet effective weapon types system. You have four types of swords. Each type of sword has both elemental and style based features. Different types of enemies are more or less resistant to certain swords and each sword has different strengths and weaknesses. For instance, the katana is much faster and very effective against biological enemies, but it’s weaker against synthetic enemies. The claymore is very effective against synthetic enemies, but attacks are much slower. Sword types aren’t only important for fighting enemies. They’re also used to break barriers. A specific elemental barrier can only be broken by a certain type of sword. You can quick change between sword types at any time, but your swords have durability limitations.
This is one of the only games I’ve ever played where, once I fully understood how it worked, I didn’t have an issue with the durability mechanics. Your swords have energy levels in the form of blades. You have a limited number of blades which pop off and need to be replaced when dulled. But as the blades are in the form of energy rather than physical blades, you use battery charges which deplete and replace the blades automatically during combat rather than through some inconvenient consumable item process. As you find more energy, the number of blades you have increases, and as you fight the number of blades decreases. During the demo, each of the four sword types can have a maximum of 20 blades at one time. I can’t say if this is the maximum for the entire game. While this system does require you to watch your energy in a resource management type of way, it’s not too troublesome once you start to fill up your energy reserves. When you first unlock a new sword, you’re limited in the number of charges you have but once you start collecting additional energy, it stops being a serious problem.
As energy is color coded, you can easily refill whichever energy type you want by focusing on enemies of that specific color. The game works a little like Dark Souls in that it respawns defeated enemies when you die, but I would absolutely not compare it to Dark Souls in style. There is no stamina gauge and enemies weren’t nearly as difficult to defeat. Death has some minor losses to your xp but nothing major. Dying does take you all the way back to the last save point though. You also have a few accompanying powers to go with your swords. Your grappling hook is probably the tool you’ll use the most other than your swords. You can use it to collect energy crystals from a distance, to reach higher locations, and in combat. I really liked how it works in battle. With smaller enemies, you can use the grappling hook to pull them close to you, even allowing you to lift them onto ledges away from the rest of the group. With larger enemies, you can pull yourself towards them quickly for a momentum based combo attack. You can also unlock additional powers for the grappling hook such as the ability to damage enemies that it comes into contact with. In addition to the grappling hook, you also have a rage mode, the ability to turn back time, healing powers, and a robot that helps collect resources for you. Some of these powers seem a bit pointless at first but as you develop them they get more useful.
This game has very simple RPG mechanics. You have a skill map akin to the sphere grid in Final Fantasy X for each of the four sword types. This allows you to increase the performance of each sword with upgrades like “increased damage” or “stronger critical attacks”. You can also upgrade your additional abilities using the same resource that’s used to develop the sword map. The resource used for upgrades starts off hard to amass but as you get certain upgrades, your acquisition rate increases significantly. At the same time, so does the cost of later upgrades. On top of these upgrades, you can equip mods that boost performance in additional ways. I will say that the demo did a very lousy job of explaining this mechanic. Only one mod was available and I found it very confusing. That being said, the game automatically equipped and upgraded it as I found more mod energy, so I didn’t really have to worry about that mechanic while playing. Finally, there are also special items called “power gears” that allow you to develop special bonus abilities on top of your normal skill tree, powers, and mods. Power gears are rare but the benefits gained from finding them are very noticeable.
The thing I liked most about the gameplay was that it was challenging but not complicated and feels very fluid. The combat is easy to walk onto but does have a few special mechanics to make it a bit more interesting. For instance, you have finishing moves. When you build up enough stun, as shown by the first of two meters floating above the enemies’ heads, you get the opportunity to do a special attack for a large burst of damage. In addition to these special moves, there are also durability burst moves. When your current blade is about to run out of energy, you have the chance to unleash a burst attack that uses up the rest of the blade in a special high damage move. My only real complaint about the combat was that the dodge felt a little too weak. It doesn’t take you very far and I didn’t feel like I was truly invincible while dodging. As far as realism goes, that’s fine, but this is a video game after all. It didn’t break the game by any means, and I did learn to use it more effectively as time went on, but it is something I noted multiple times while playing.
As this was only a demo, I cannot speak to the game’s overall length or replay value. I enjoyed playing it and would like to play the full game at some point but I won’t comment on whether or not the price tag makes sense for the amount of content at this time.
Overall, I had a surprisingly good time playing the Ultra Age demo. I went in with very low expectations. I assumed that a game no one was talking about less than a month after release that was featured on PlayStation’s official channel was probably terrible. Why else would it be getting no attention? But it’s objectively not terrible. It’s actually pretty solid for an indie action RPG from a studio I’ve never heard of with no previous games. And they’re not even Japanese. Why is no one talking about this game? Like I said, I don’t want you to buy it. That’s not my goal here or in any of the reviews I write. In this case, I just want you to check out the free demo on PS4 or Nintendo Switch. Note I haven’t personally tried the Switch version. Support demos and give indie games from unknown studios a fair chance.