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In many ways Metroid Dread is the perfect game. It starts off easy as pie with a brand new world to explore, and it culminates with one of the toughest and memorable bosses I have had the pleasure of learning and defeating. Its protagonist, Samus Aran, starts off very weak, but she becomes one of the most seemingly-overpowered characters that I can recall in video games by the time the credits roll. The game is exceedingly fun to play with some of the best map and combat design I’ve encountered in the so-called “Metroidvania” games. And, in case you needed further convincing, many reviewers are showering the game with some of the highest ratings ever seen in the genre.
So, is it the perfect game, or are there some weaknesses in Samus’ power suit? Well, first, a quick caveat. Metroid-style games are probably my favorite genre of games, and I’m pretty sure I’ve played them all. So, I’m likely to scrutinize them a tad more harshly than some. Notice I said “Metroid-style” when all of the cool kids are calling them the aforementioned “Metroidvania.” This is because Metroid, itself, has such a special place in my heart, and it’s hard for me to justify Castlevania getting a credit for birthing the genre simply because they changed their direction with Symphony of the Night (ironically, my favorite game of all time). I take Metroid games seriously, and now you understand the extremely focused lens utilized in this review.
You’re in good hands with me on this one, so let’s get to it: can Metroid Dread sit proudly among the top echelon of Metroid-style games? Yes, and no…but mostly yes. So, what’s wrong with it, I hear you ask? Before we get to that, let’s go over what the game is, and what it does so amazingly well.
Metroid Dread is, surprisingly enough, a “Metroidvania” game, a genre that brings one essential characteristic with it: in these games, you are presented with a semi-open world to explore, and you backtrack across it as you locate items or powers which not only grant you more abilities, but they also act as keys to unlock different parts of the map where you will find more items that unlock even more of the map. Designing this well can be tricky for development teams because, due to the nature of traveling back and forth, they don’t want the player to get bored or annoyed from darting across the same terrain they’ve already explored. There have been a variety of ways games have tackled this, and Metroid Dread offers a solution that is equally its strongest achievement and its greatest curse.
Before we delve into that madness which is sure to get some things thrown at me, let me properly set up the majesty that is Metroid Dread. The Metroid series stars Samus Aran, an intergalactic bounty hunter who encounters the titular Metroids through her many adventures. Although some of the Metroid games have been given a 3D perspective (and brilliantly done so in the “Metroid Prime” games), the series finds its roots in the 2D plane, and that is where Metroid Dread sets up camp as well. Also, much like the Metroid games before it, Metroid Dread finds an excuse to steal away Samus’ abilities at the beginning, compelling you to hunt after them once more.
Metroid games have a decent story and lore in them, but they are mostly told in a very minimalistic way. At its start, Metroid Dread takes some story elements from Metroid Fusion and seems to piecemeal a story together from those ashes, but the story progresses to be something so integral to Samus’ overarching story that it can seemingly take on “Deus Ex Machina” properties, including one moment that was just as cringe-worthy as it was absolutely awesome!
Before Samus can enjoy such moments, however, she must first seek out her abilities that were lost due to an encounter Samus endures upon landing on the new, remote world, called “ZDR.” Although the game is set on a 2D plane, the environments are not only fantastic to look at, they’re done in a way that incorporates the 3D backgrounds with the 2D ledges, a marriage that’s probably implemented better in Dread than any game I’ve played in the genre. The 2D ledges appear as part of the background, but they each are contrasted with enough of a silhouette that you will have no problems knowing what is a ledge and what is not. Also, ZDR has what I call “living backgrounds,” meaning that whether the area presents a desolate stretch of landscape or a scene that is teeming with life and suggestive of a prehistoric era on ZDR, the backgrounds are always moving with lots of interesting things to see and details to notice.
Keeping with the little details, they are saturated throughout the game. Beams from Samus’ arm cannon leave behind momentary residue and burn marks. Animations are incredibly detailed with little touches like the way Samus’ body adheres to hills and slides in the terrain and seeing her place her hand on a wall if she leans against one. New abilities change the appearance of Samus’ power suit. Audio nods are very pleasing and harken back to the previous Metroid games. It is very clear that the development team put a lot of care in the details, and Metroid fans will find scores of callbacks and easter eggs in all aspects, including some of the enemy design.
The planet of ZDR has several distinct areas in which the action takes place, and each has unique enemies that dwell in the spaces. Every enemy thankfully varies not only in appearance, but in abilities and movement as well. Many have ways of controlling the play space, and the player will have to figure out how to tackle each from a variety of angles and situations. Some enemies also have immunities to some of Samus’ arsenal, requiring the player to discover what works against each baddie and what does not. The enemies also look fantastic and imaginative, and they animate very well across their environments with a ton of personality.
Battling against the enemies is even more enjoyable than watching them due to the amazing battle mechanics. Combat in Metroid Dread is one of the finest combat experiences in the entirety of the genre, including the past Metroid games. It all still feels very “Metroid” in its concept, incorporating familiar implements of destruction from the past, but everything is much faster-paced. Samus is fast, and she has a burst of acceleration when moving from neutral that may take a bit of getting used to, but the control scheme is very tight. When engaging the enemies, Samus has 360 degrees of analog aiming and shooting at her disposal, complete with the ever-useful “stay in one place” button. Along with this, she has a somewhat useless melee, but she also has a much more useful melee counter move that is as awesome as it is essential. As the player gains more of Samus’ abilities, it becomes even more exciting to lay waste to the denizens of ZDR to the point of actually feeling overpowered by the game’s end, apart from the bosses.
Just like much of the game, the boss design showcases some of the most exciting and well-developed boss fights you’ll encounter in gaming, and it also includes some of the worst and most trite bosses you’ll encounter in gaming. For the first half of the game, all of the bosses are exceedingly easy. The design of many of those early bosses is pretty fantastic, but it seems the game is incredibly concerned that you’ll have so little chance against the bosses’ dastardly ways that it showers you with constant health and missile pickups throughout the battles. It got so bad for me that I was hoping and praying for a “hard” mode so the bosses could be given their proper time in the limelight (beating the game DID make this wish come true as it did, indeed, unlock a hard mode).
When moving to the second half of the game, the difficulty ramps up considerably, and it was very welcome. Some of the bosses are more difficult than others, and not always in a consecutive way, but they are each engaging. Furthermore, like a mini-puzzle, several incorporate different aspects of your arsenal and gadgets to solve. Some repeated design among a few of the bosses shows up, unfortunately, though only one of these repeated types made me roll my eyes every time I encountered the “new” version of it.
And with that, allow me to introduce the E.M.M.I. units. These are Metroid Dread’s identity; the unique characteristic that sets Dread apart from the other titles in the series. The E.M.M.I.s are nearly-indestructible robots that relentlessly chase you around specific areas of almost every zone’s map, and their implementation is somewhat reminiscent of the SA-X in Metroid Fusion. When I first heard about the E.M.M.I.s, I was concerned they would be too much to tolerate, and I thought I would always have to be concerned about some impenetrable robot chasing me around the entirety of ZDR. Thankfully, this is not the case. The zones that the E.M.M.I.s roam around in are very specific with clearly marked entrances and exits, so you always know when you’re about to engage in some cat-and-mouse action.
While you are actually in the E.M.M.I. zones, though, prepare for some truly tense moments as the increasingly-crafty E.M.M.I.s employ high mobility and agility to chase after Samus. To counter, Samus has a single chance to dodge the E.M.M.I.s each time one grabs her, but it is essentially a game of luck to time it correctly since you never know what the correct timing will be (I once dodged four grabs in a row, a video game accomplishment I won’t soon forget!). If you fail the dodge, it’s instantly game over. If you guess the timing, you get a few seconds to scatter before the E.M.M.I. gives chase again. Along with the chance to dodge, Samus also learns how to cloak herself somewhat early in the game, a power that can only be active for so long before it needs to recharge.
There is a third way to “counter” the E.M.M.I.s, and it’s a doozy! Remember the repeated boss design that made my eyes roll? I wasn’t talking about the E.M.M.I.s (apart from the final couple, they’re usually a great and tense time to figure out); I was talking about the way to properly put them in their place. See, in every E.M.M.I. zone there exists a special room that contains the only means to destroy the indestructible. And to obtain that single-use power, a mind-numbingly easy boss stands in your way. It is always this simpleton that you encounter, and it gains a new yet equally worthless gun with which to playfully fire at you in every new encounter with it. And once you easily trounce this yawner of a boss fight, you will get one of the cooler powers in the game: the omega beam.
Once you have the omega beam, you will proceed into the E.M.M.I. mousetrap maze, but now with a trick up your sleeve. It takes a decent amount of time to charge the omega beam to full power (which has a very cool camera effect associated with it), and after the first E.M.M.I., you’ll need to strip the armor off of each E.M.M.I.’s sensor to deliver the destructive blow. As such, it becomes apparent that each of the E.M.M.I. zones is essentially another maze puzzle to solve. Once you figure out where you need to go in order to have enough room and time to charge your beam, you’ll leave the E.M.M.I. in a ruined heap and earn a new power to boot while losing the use of the omega beam until the next intelligence-lowering beam boss is encountered in the subsequent E.M.M.I. zone.
Each of the powers you earn is also a key to unlocking more of the map, and here is where we get to the controversial parts about Metroid Dread. One of the key concepts of playing Metroid games, as with all of the games in the genre, is that you explore a giant map, and every direction you go will lead you toward a new item that will allow access to parts of the map that you couldn’t reach before. Given this definition, many games could be in this same genre, including The Legend of Zelda. After all, you traverse dungeons to acquire items which allow you to solve puzzles with them in order to progress further. But unlike games such as Zelda, the design of Metroid games is usually such that you can choose to go to several different areas and get different essential key items at different times than another player might. In the original Zelda game, I can only go to the first dungeon to progress before heading to the next. Sure, I can technically go to the 2nd dungeon, or the 5th, but I cannot complete those dungeons as I need the items from the 1st to head to the next, and so on. Conversely, in prior Metroid games, I may grab high jump boots to reach a high area right away. Or, instead, I may go for the ice beam first, allowing me to freeze enemies in order to reach other areas that I couldn’t reach with the high jump boots. Of course the end goal is always to acquire all of the necessary items, but the method and timing of obtaining some items before others, and having the choice to do so, gives credibility to the exploration that is so enticing in these games.
With Metroid Dread, the progression path is linear, resembling Metroid Fusion once again. But, in Dread, the powers you obtain are often door keys more than they are powers. Although the maps intertwine with each other, and especially so after the first quarter of the game or so, you’ll come to realize that you’re being ushered through the map in exactly one direction. Sure, you can usually go back and find the odd missile capacity or energy upgrade, but these are often hidden in or behind walls, and they are never far off the beaten path, meaning you more trip over them than explore to collect them. And those capacity upgrades are the only optional items that you’ll find that require some backtracking off of the linear tunnel to the end. With the exception of capacity upgrades, every power you get is the only new power you could have received (edit: with one tricky exception that I was overjoyed to find out about), and that power will lead exactly to another single power. The brilliant map design is such that it ushers you exactly to where you must go, like a candy trail escorting you from place to place.
In an effort to ensure that backtracking doesn’t feel boring or mundane, the exploratory aspects in Metroid Dread were eschewed in favor of constantly changing areas that can often lose their personality in the process. For instance, one area is filled with lava, and it has plenty of heat-filled areas that are too hot to traverse without a power-up. Another area is filled with frozen areas that are too cold to traverse. Before you get the powers to traverse the areas, the game wants to still use that real estate, so it tasks you with diverting power from areas, eventually making the frozen area the scorching area and vice-versa. While these map progressions are well-designed, it isn’t something that you can divert back and forth. The switches only go one way in order to make sure you aren’t going where you’re not supposed to go. There is simply no going “out of order” in Dread. The game will freeze doors, give them power loss, and even go so far as simply declaring some previously open doors “inaccessible” for no better reason than they simply don’t want you going that way. It’s all part of the design to ensure you are always moving toward the next power to open the next candy trail of doors.
For ZDR being a desolate world, I cannot believe how many different types of doors Samus must encounter. This ties into another related issue that I have, being that the great Metroid games of the past made it so the powers unlock new areas through their use, not through their ability to open doors. The ice beam, for instance, didn’t cool down lava doors; it had a gameplay element to it where enemies could be frozen, causing the player to be creative in its use to turn enemies into stepping stones in order to explore nooks and crannies of the map that others might not have thought about. That’s one of the brilliant aspects of games in the genre, and sadly, Metroid Dread doesn’t have these moments of player exploration.
Nearly every power you get in Dread will get you through another set of doors or walls that act as doors. You can find all sorts of walls that are in your way, and hitting them with a missile or bomb will reveal one of dozens of different powers that is needed to get through it. Instead of using your new abilities to explore unreachable areas in the map, they will instead unlock a door or destroy its specific color of wall tiles. And whenever you gain a new power, again, it will lead you in one direction only. You cannot set off on your own and get, say, the gravity suit to explore underwater areas, or instead choose to get the space jump and explore a vertical area you couldn’t reach before. There is always one way you are being escorted, and if you try to backtrack to obtain capacity upgrades and manage to lose your way, you will likely be completely lost until you retrace your steps successfully back to where you needed to be. You will realize that the exploration is essentially an illusion. You are playing by Dread’s rules, and it is very linear.
So, is this such a bad thing? The map design is pretty genius with its constant change-ups, after all, and it is still fun, right? Yes, it is incredibly fun, but the loss of true, creative exploration is still a bummer. And should you get lost on your way back from collecting the missile and energy capacity upgrades that were behind previously-locked doors, the map screen is so full of different types of icons that it can be daunting to figure it all out. Fortunately, you can zoom in on different areas of the map and be told exactly what type of icon something is…provided you actually got the upgrade. You’ll notice a ton of question mark icons, but rest assured, once you get the power to break those bricks, you’ll be on a linear path right through that area. Instead of needing to remember that those icons exist, the game will later be changing its tracks and sounding the train whistle on a collision course straight through those bricks. Choo-choo!
And on the subject of memorable sounds, the sound design is also amazingly brilliant while still missing the mark. The sound effects are all spot-on, being very reminiscent of past Metroid games with lots of nostalgic effects. Also, the voice-acting that is in the game is well-done and helps lead credence to a story that becomes intensely more interesting in the second half of the game. The music, on the other hand, has some issues for me.
I completely understand what the composers were trying to do with its minimalistic approach to the music, being somewhat reminiscent of Metroid II: Return of Samus. But, in doing so, it misses something I adore about the previous Metroid games (Return of Samus aside). While the tracks are foreign and alien in Dread, there is absolutely nothing hummable or memorable. I simply recall something being there, but that’s it. The most memorable track of the game was a rehashed track from Super Metroid that was used during a cutscene, and it really had me wishing there was music like that in Metroid Dread. The tracks in Dread are serviceable for what they are, but they miss the high mark established throughout the rest of the franchise.
On top of these misses comes some performance issues. Most of the game is smooth as butter, but every now and then there were frame-rate stutters that occurred while docked and undocked, though they happened more for me while the Switch was undocked. Also, the loading times are very noticeable. After the opening story played, my game took over 3 minutes to load the game. I nearly closed the game out thinking it was stuck in limbo, but I was eventually able to start playing. On top of that, whenever you travel from one area to another, the game will take a considerable amount of time to load, ranging anywhere from 15 to 30 seconds (and a couple times even more than that). When you’re in each area, however, Dread mostly runs extremely well, and with all of the eye-candy going on in the background and the play area, that’s a pretty amazing thing.
It may seem that I think Metroid Dread is simply dreadful (I had to do it), but that’s not the case. I’m deeply scrutinizing the latest addition in one of the greatest franchises in video game history. And what we got actually is a very brilliant and incredibly fun game. It doesn’t hit all of the marks for me, but it doesn’t have to. It’s a game that I will come back to, especially with its hard mode, and aim to get all of the capacity upgrades that I missed the first time through. I will lament the loss of true exploration allowing us to change up the pace and timing of the experience, but I will enjoy a combat system that is intensely exciting and blows the doors off of most games, whether in the genre or not. I will face incredible bosses that keep me on my toes while steamrolling others with some eye-rolling, but also with a smile on my face. The E.M.M.I.s will be the prey as I’ve solved those puzzles, and it will be a blast to see those areas from a less ignorant point of view. And, most importantly, when the credits roll once more, I’ll realize that for all of the nitpicking issues I had, Metroid Dread provided me some of the most fun I’ve had in video games this year. Metroid Dread is absolutely a game that deserves a seat right next to its siblings in the series, and that is a fact which none of us should dread.