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Metroid Dread Review

Metroid Dread Review

Back in March of this year, I decided to play the all-time classic Super Metroid for the very first time. I marveled at how contemporary the game felt 17 years after its original release and it really opened my eyes to what made this Nintendo franchise special to so many (you can check out my detailed thoughts of Super Metroid here). What I wasn’t expecting was just a few months after, Nintendo would drop the news that a brand new Metroid game would be launching this year. A sequel to the Gameboy Advance title Metroid Fusion, a game that had attempted to be made a few times over the years but was ultimately shelved due to technological limitations. That game is Metroid Dread

Watching the trailer for Dread, a simple thought dawned on me; “I really liked Super Metroid and Dread looks very cool, I should really play those other games.” And so I did. Leading up to Metroid Dread’s release, I tracked down and played Metroid Zero Mission, Metroid Fusion, and Metroid Samus Returns, the Metroid II remake handled by MercurySteam who are the developers responsible for Dread. I can now say I am a Metroid fan. The games are designed impeccably well and have such an amazing sense of atmosphere and visual style, especially the GBA games. Having been sufficiently caught up on the story and legacy, I was ready to see what awaited me in Metroid Dread

The first thing that immediately stands out to me about Metroid Dread is its gameplay, specifically how fluid the game feels to control. Samus moves, shoots, and jumps fast. She can slide under obstacles without losing momentum, she can bounce off walls for additional height, and returning from Samus Returns is the ever-so-satisfying melee counter, which can now be activated while running. Samus Returns felt a little clunky to control at times because the mechanics required the player to constantly start and stop when engaging with their environment or the enemies within. It is evident that MercurySteam took some of this feedback to heart, and in many ways, Metroid Dread is all about continual movement. Thanks to all the work tightening and polishing the controls, Metroid Dread is without a doubt the best controlling game in the entire 2D series. This is immediately felt in the very few opening paths at the start of the game, which is impressive considering players will have none of the characteristic upgrades that expand upon Samus’s traversal and combat skills. 

Metroid, as you may be able to surmise, is responsible in part for inspiring an entire genre of 2D action-adventure games characterized by exploration and getting stronger by unlocking new abilities, the “Metroidvania” game. So while the feeling of the controls is certainly an important part of the formula, the main pillars of Metroid Dread’s game design come down to combat and exploration.

Metroid Dread Combat

Let’s start with the combat. At its most basic level, Metroid Dread is a very fun and satisfying 2D shooter. Players will encounter a number of unique enemies throughout the game, most of which can be taken out with some basic beam and missile attacks from Samus’s trusty arm cannon and a well-timed dodge or melee counter. While simple on the surface, it never gets old blasting away all the odd alien creatures and locked doors you come across. And special praise needs to be given to the melee counter. The way the game’s camera zooms in to emphasize a successful counter makes the feeling of accomplishment that much greater. All around the core combat feels just as good as the controls. 

But don’t be fooled by its simplicity, Metroid Dread can, at times, actually be quite a difficult game even on Normal difficulty. Some enemies later in the game deal a healthy amount of damage to Samus and players who are not careful will see the ‘Game Over’ screen more times than they may have initially thought. Certain enemies' parry timings can be difficult to gauge and some enemies may only have one exposed weak spot that will allow you to deal damage so combat in the later parts of the game becomes an interesting balancing act of patience, positioning, and managing threats from multiple angles in addition to just shooting. Thankfully, Metroid Dread has a generous checkpoint system meaning you won’t have to worry about losing large chunks of progress due to an unexpected ‘Game Over’. 

Nowhere better is this fun and challenging balancing act displayed than in Dread’s boss fights. In another fantastic upgrade over Samus Returns, every boss fight in Metroid Dread is a unique enemy that requires different strategies in order to take them down. Bosses deal a lot of damage, sometimes killing the player in only a few hits. Players have to study and learn different attack patterns that bosses throw out. In addition to dealing a good amount of damage, these attacks come out pretty quick so bosses will usually take a few attempts to fully master and bring down. But when you do, there is no greater rush in any other aspect of the game. I won’t get into spoilers here, but the multiphase fight of the final boss had my heart pumping as adrenaline coursed through my veins.

Metroid Dread Gameplay

However, one aspect I was not so fond of comes from one of the game’s main selling features, the EMMI robots. The EMMI’s are these cold, roaming androids that stalk their marked territories hunting for Samus. As the game describes, The EMMI’s are research robots, and “their incredible mobility and armor plating, made of the strongest stuff in the universe…” makes them impervious to Samus’s conventional weaponry. Should an EMMI touch Samus, it is nearly always an instant death. As a player, you are given two chances to try and parry the EMMI in order to escape, however, the timing on these parries are much more difficult and unforgiving than any of the others in the game. You will likely fail the parry more times than you succeed in landing it. 

These EMMI threats are the primary reason for the game’s subtitle and in the early hours, they are effective in establishing a sensation of tension and “dread”. However, as the game progresses these encounters become much more annoying and frustrating rather than suspenseful and scary. Part of this has to do with the trial and error design of trying to outmaneuver the EMMI’s and the constant “die and try again” loop which can get old very quickly if you are just trying to move through an area. But another aspect of the frustration comes from a lack of progression during these sequences that is at odds with the overall progression of the game. By this, I mean much of the progression in Metroid games is collecting powerful upgrades that allow you to use new traversal mechanics and new attacks in order to combat and counter tougher foes. And this is certainly the same in Dread, but none of your abilities ever increase your arsenal or strategies for taking on the EMMI’s. As the player progresses in other aspects of the game, the EMMI encounters flatline and feel like no matter how much better your skills are growing, you are never able to apply any of those skills or abilities to evening the playing field so to speak. Perhaps that is the intention behind their design, but it’s in this clash that the annoyance festers and holds those sections back from feeling as fun as the rest of the game’s surrounding moments. That said, despite the annoyance they may inspire, the tension that is felt while blasting away at their armor plating with the upgraded arm cannon as they slowly march forward is fantastic, and there is a similar rush that is felt when taking down an EMMI as there is with beating the bosses in the game. 

Let’s start discussing the other main pillar of Metroid Dread, exploration. Planet ZDR is a maze of caves, jungles, high-tech facilities, and old forgotten palaces. These locations are made up of claustrophobic hallways, large open rooms, flooded waterways, and burning hot and freezing cold zones that are hazardous to Samus early on. Exploring new areas requires Samus to not only find a series of elevators and rail cars for traveling long distances, but she also must find upgrades to her abilities that allow her to gain access to new areas within these sprawling maze-like environments.

Metroid Dread Visuals

As is traditional with Metroid games, you will eventually come across a block in the environment that has a funny symbol on it. You tried shooting it with your arm cannon to no avail and you definitely can’t walk or jump through it. “Oh well, there was another path I saw a little ways back, let’s try that way”. These are some thoughts players will regularly have while exploring Metroid Dread and it's why the exploration is handled so well. The environment is constantly teasing the player and hinting at future upgrades that will serve as keys to unlocking these new pathways. Sometimes they may unlock a shortcut to aid in navigation, or they will lead to upgrades that expand the number of missiles or health bars Samus has at her disposal, and other times they may lead to the next major area of the game. Whenever you find a new item or ability, the mind begins to race as you start remembering; “where was that one area with those blocks? Oh yeah!”. The player then makes the decision whether to press onward with their journey or take some time to backtrack and explore an older area to see what was beyond those mysterious blocks. While the game certainly is maze-like and can be a little confusing at times to parse through, it is infinitely more fun trying to figure out how to escape this grand puzzle. 

Exploration is made even more fun by the tight movement controls and the fun platforming opportunities that arise as a result of unlocking new abilities. In the early hours, you will do a lot of wall jumping to get up to certain areas in a given level. But once you get a little further in and discover abilities like the speed booster which allows Samus to run forward and jump further given you have enough of a runway to trigger the boost, or an upgrade like the ice missiles that allow you to freeze enemies and platforms that may disappear radically change how you approach exploration. Soon you begin to notice ammo and health upgrades that are cleverly tucked away in hard-to-reach areas that require you to sit and ponder how to best use your abilities in order to reach them. Many of these items may have multiple ways to solve them which instills a monumental feeling of player agency or rather the game making you feel smart for solving its puzzle in your own way. 

Next, let’s talk about Metroid Dread’s presentation because it's an aspect of the game that I’m pretty mixed on. First, let’s start with the positives, the art direction is fantastic. Each area I described above has its own unique vibe, from the lush colors of the forest in Ghavoran to the sterile testing facilities of Dairon to the stormy waves crashing beneath Burenia. Each area has its own look, its own enemies, its own puzzles, and even its own music to help establish the feeling each place evokes. Samus has never looked better in 2D and everything from the creature designs to the user interface looks clean and sufficiently sci-fi. 

When it comes to sound design, all of the robots, beam blasts, special abilities, creatures, and voice acting sound crisp. The sound effects in many cases heighten the effect of the various special abilities and it really does a lot of the heavy lifting when trying to immerse you in the 2D world. The music is fine for the most part, there are definitely tracks in the game that sound great and are unique to Dread, in particular, however many of the music tracks just sort of blend into the background and are not all that memorable. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it helps to have music blend into the background while exploring the different areas so it doesn’t become noticeably repetitive, but none of the music in Dread comes close to matching something like the iconic themes of Kraid’s Lair or Brinstar.

Metroid Dread Performance on Switch

While the art direction is superb, the graphical fidelity of what is possible on the Nintendo Switch, unfortunately, makes many of the areas in the game look a little underwhelming when compared to other similar games. The look of the art in-game is definitely stylized but it also seems to be blending in a more realistic look. This combination makes the game look visually a little more on the cheaper side. That’s not to say the game had a small budget or anything, but looking at the game on a large television screen really highlights the lower graphical capabilities of the Switch hardware.

Performance-wise, Metroid Dread is fantastic. The game will very inconsistently drop in framerate but for the vast majority of the experience, the game runs at a smooth 60 frames per second even when dealing with a high amount of actions and effects happening on screen. I played the game both on the television and in handheld mode and the game is perfectly playable and well suited to both modes of play on the Switch. I must say, it was nice after having played the last three Metroid games on handhelds to be able to experience Dread on a bigger screen. Loading screens between areas tend to be on the longer side, but they don’t take an exorbitant amount of time to pass and serve as nice moments of pause and reflection after particularly long stretches of running, jumping, and shooting.

I haven’t really discussed the story in Metroid Dread, and that is partly due to the fact that there isn’t a whole lot of story to discuss. The game presents its story in a fairly minimal way, there are a couple of large story beats that happen throughout the game but largely Metroid Dread is a gameplay-focused game first and foremost. The revelations that come in the story are pretty consequential and some even come as a surprise. Samus has some pretty amazing character-building moments that longtime fans are sure to love (including a very awesome sequence near the end of the game). Some of my favorite aspects of the story stem from callbacks to earlier games in the series, particularly from Metroid Fusion. Obviously, this is very vague in an attempt to not spoil anything, but all I will say is while it is not the main focus of the game, the story is satisfying enough for both new and returning players.

Metroid Dread is certainly a fantastic game to play and a great return to a franchise that doesn’t see many new releases. The gameplay is tight and responsive, the combat is difficult yet fair, and the exploration goes toe to toe with the other games that came before it. The game has its frustrating aspects in the form of the EMMI’s and some pieces of the game feel like they didn’t get as much attention as the gameplay got, but all in all it is a great game that I suggest anyone who has a Switch plays and enjoys. If nothing else, Metroid Dread stands as a perfect appetizer for the highly anticipated Metroid Prime 4Metroid Dread was released on October 8th, 2021, and is developed by MercurySteam and published by Nintendo. It is available now on the Nintendo Switch.

Metroid Dread | 8 | Great

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