Metroid Dread (NS) - ReviewPaul Broussard , posted on 08 October 2021 / 5,627 Views
To say that the 2010s weren’t great for Metroid fans would be like saying that Mt. Vesuvius’ eruption was a bit of a downer for the residents of Pompeii. First there was Other M, an experience not unlike sitting through a really long school graduation speech given by the world’s least charismatic sea urchin. Then, after a full five year gap, there was a 3DS spin-off featuring Galactic Federation troopers which somehow received even less inspiring critical reception. Even with 2017’s solid remake of Metroid 2, the 2020s couldn’t really go anywhere but up.
Enter Metroid Dread, the long awaited continuation to 2002’s Metroid Fusion. Veterans of Fusion will of course remember it as the game that left Samus on a bit of a cliffhanger, having disobeyed the Federation and put herself in a position where she was likely to be wanted and put on trial. Dread proceeds to pick up where Fusion left off by... completely ignoring that cliffhanger and doing something else entirely. Samus and the Federation apparently settled their differences over tea and biscuits, and despite the Federation having now twice put the safety of the galaxy at risk by using Metroids as bioweapons, Samus is still willing to work for them. I guess the Covid recession means even bounty hunters can’t be picky when work shows up.
Anyway, Dread begins with Samus investigating the origins of a mysterious video depicting the believed-to-be-extinct X parasite on the distant Planet ZDR. The Galactic Federation sent in a team of robots to investigate previously, and that turned out about as well as it usually does when the Federation tries to handle a mission by themselves, so Samus has to clean up the mess. Except it doesn’t go great for her initially either. Upon arriving on Planet ZDR, she gets beaten up by a mysterious assailant and has most of her abilities stolen from her. Clumsy Samus, when will she ever learn to upload her power-ups to the cloud so she isn’t left completely defenseless when her suit’s data gets corrupted?
Samus is forced to explore Planet ZDR to try and recover her abilities and find out whether the X really do exist, and being a Metroid title, exploration takes center stage. ZDR is easily the biggest 2D Metroid map to-date, and the largest map in any 2D Metroidvania game I have personally played. The exploration is quite good too. Nintendo and Mercury Steam have done a very good job of designing a game where your hand isn’t held, but you’re also not likely to get frustrated over not knowing where to go. You’ll get lost at points, but it’s never the irritating kind of being lost.
It’s difficult to comment on how open ended the game is, at least from a single playthrough and briefly starting a second. Initially, it appears to be about a bit more open ended than Metroid Prime; where there’s by and large a definite order that items have to be collected in, but there's room to use hidden skills to collect expansions before you’re “intended” to. I can’t say for sure though without a lot more experimentation, but at the very least I was able to locate one entirely optional power-up as well as a number of expansions early. I even managed to snag expansions for a power-up I wouldn’t obtain until much later, although somewhat disappointingly Metroid Dread won’t let you make use of them until you find said power-up.
Speaking of power-ups, there’s an impressive variety on display here. Many of the old series staples show up, such as the morph ball, missiles, bombs, plasma beam, and an entirely revamped Speed Booster that has some really clever puzzles designed around it. There are also a ton of new tricks in here as well. Some of the more notable inclusions are an invisibility power that helps Samus avoid detection, a lock-on/homing multi-missile function that's a bit similar to the seeker missiles from the Prime games but has more combat applicability, and a dash/air-dash ability that's just a ton of fun to play around with. I’ve said before that there are very few games that can’t be improved with an air-dash feature and it turns out Metroid is no exception.
The combat itself is probably the best it’s been in the series as well. Samus controls as well as she has in any series entry, with a slide and the aforementioned dashing mechanic all giving her a spectacular amount of mobility. Samus Returns’ parry makes a comeback and can now be performed during a full sprint. And running up to an enemy and smacking it right in its stupid face is an experience that never gets old. On that topic, the enemies themselves are varied and unique, addressing arguably the biggest complaint about combat in Samus Returns. I think I saw enough different types of regular foes within the first two areas to eclipse the entirety of Samus Returns.
But the real meat of the combat here is the boss fights, and Dread delivers in droves. It contains the most bosses of any Metroid game, and they’re all incredibly fun and well-designed encounters that will put your knowledge of the game’s mechanics and your abilities to the test. The final boss especially stands out in my mind as one of the most elaborate encounters in a Metroid title. Dread’s bosses also tend to be fairly challenging, at least compared with most previous Metroid releases (they've tended a bit too far towards easy for my tastes). You should be prepared to die at least a few times on each encounter; these guys hit hard and fast.
On the subject of dying a lot, now is as good a time as any to bring up the EMMI, arguably the unique selling point for Dread. Remember the aforementioned Galactic Federation robots that went missing? Unfortunately for you, they’ve all been hacked and reprogrammed to want nothing more from life than to shove a giant metallic straw into Samus and take a big slurp. They’re also virtually indestructible, meaning that avoiding them is the only real option.
From a gameplay standpoint, the way this works is that most environments contain an EMMI who patrols specific zones of the map. Outside of the EMMI zone, it’s the usual exploration/action Metroid fare, but inside, the rules change drastically. Samus has to resort to stealth when navigating these zones while an EMMI organically searches for her. If you do get spotted, the EMMI will start chasing you, and if the EMMI catches up, prepare to enjoy your new career as a pincushion. If Samus does get caught, you do have a couple of opportunities to parry the fatal strike, but these are both pretty much just guesswork and if you fail both then it’s an instant game over.
The EMMI actually remind me a lot of the Alien from Alien Isolation more so than the SA-X from Fusion. This certainly isn't a bad thing; in fact I'd consider the comparison to the Alien about as high a compliment I can give an enemy who slowly chases you and forces you to resort to stealth tactics. Both the EMMIs and the Alien search the area organically, both respond to player cues such as noise made from movement, and both force you to make use of all the tools at your disposal to survive. It’s up to you to know when to rely on, say, your invisibility power to hide, and when to recognize that hiding is futile and to try and book it for the exit before you get caught. That said, I think I would have preferred that the EMMI simply deal a significant chunk of damage rather than being an instant kill; it feels a little questionable in my opinion to get an instant game over regardless of how many energy tanks you’ve found, but maybe that would take out a sizable chunk of the tension involved.
The one thing I know we could definitely do without are the dumb segments at the end of each area where you have to actually destroy the EMMI. Every so often, Samus will stumble upon a limited-use weapon that allows her to take down one of her pursuers once and for all. This switches the game into an odd perspective that’s sort of over the shoulder but not quite. You have to aim at a changing EMMI and shoot its face plate off before launching one final charge shot to kill it for good. It’s just a test of aiming from a weird point of view that’s found nowhere else in Dread and really doesn’t serve as a relevant test of skill. The fact that it comes with a potential instant death penalty for failing just adds to the frustration.
The EMMI are a larger part of a narrative that I suspect will be a treat for most long-time fans of the series. While it’s not especially complex, there are a lot of larger details in the series that finally get addressed, and it’s cool to see a number of lingering questions from prior games be resolved. Dread does a particularly good job of portraying Samus as a character through a hundred subtle different ways, be it the way she animates, her facial expressions, or some other, more spoilery related stuff. Maybe the most impressive thing about the story is that it somehow manages to make Adam likable after Other M... and apparently the way to do that was by making him somehow even less human than he was in that game.
Circling back to Samus’ animations, they're part of a larger push towards a superb aesthetic. When Samus Returns released, a number of people called for a return to older, sprite-based designs, but after playing Dread I’m really glad they didn’t. The environments are absolutely gorgeous, and characters move and animate wonderfully. Some of my favorite little touches are the way Samus interacts with the environment, like putting her hand up against a wall when she runs into it as if to break her momentum.
Dread certainly isn’t a perfect game, and I wouldn’t be the absolute stick in the mud that I am without addressing a few nitpicks. The sound balancing feels notably off, with the music being far too quiet for my tastes, and there's no option to adjust it. There’s also no option to adjust controller layout as well, which is becoming a consistent theme across Nintendo games that really shouldn’t be the case in 2021. Some of the complaints about enemies being too tanky without having to resort to using the melee counter from Samus Returns also apply here, especially after a certain story event around the 2/3rds point of the game that causes many of the enemies across the planet to become significantly stronger.
Despite a few slip ups here and there, Metroid Dread is a fantastic return to form for a series that has been dormant for far too long. Dread takes a lot of gambles and the vast majority of them pay off. Between the rock solid exploration and atmosphere, the incredible boss fights, and the solid tension building of the EMMIs, Dread is probably the definitive 2D Metroidvania of the 21st century. The 2010s may not have been kind to Samus, but the 2020s are certainly showing her in with style.
This review is based on a retail copy of Metroid Dread for the NS