Developer: Mercury Steam
Genre: Platformer, Exploration
Platform: Nintendo Switch
After having spent years as an urban legend, Metroid Dread has finally dropped, which goes to show that it’s going to take a lot more than being cancelled to stop a true warrior.
In the long-awaited sequel to Metroid Fusion, and what is currently the last in the series in order of the current timeline, the Galactic Federation has dispatched a group of E.M.M.I. robots to the planet ZDR to investigate a strange transmission. However, when contact with the E.M.M.I. has been lost, Samus goes to ZDR to investigate, fearing the possible return of the dreaded X parasites.
During the investigation, Samus encounters a Chozo warrior, and is quickly overcome in battle. Mysteriously, the battle has resulted in Samus being without most of her abilities. In a reversal compared to the rest of the series, rather than starting the game from Samus’ ship and descending into the caverns of an alien world, Samus instead starts at the bottom of the remnants of a civilization, and must ascend to the top in order to escape alive.
Matters become far more complicated with the fact that the borderline-indestructible E.M.M.I. have gone rogue, and will hunt Samus down if she goes anywhere within their coverage areas.
So, that’s the story, but how does the game actually play? That’s where it gets even better.
Like most Metroid games outside of the Prime series, Metroid Dread is a 2D platformer set in huge, interconnected areas that main character Samus Aran explores autonomously. Most areas have multiple branching paths, with very subtle (if any) clues as to which path would take Samus to either a major confrontation or an upgrade to her mobility. Even dead ends may provide opportunity to discover power-ups such as permanent expansions to her missile-carrying capacity, so players have incentive to explore ZDR’s huge caverns, for the treasures that await them. Even getting lost may have its rewards.
Initially, Samus’ techniques are limited. But as she picks up major upgrades to her mobility (such as improved jumps and the series-staple Morph Ball), more functions are mapped to the control scheme. While the controls get complex by late game, the gradual implementation of Samus’ abilities helps to keep players from being overwhelmed by the amount of techniques.
Samus does start the game with some useful abilities that remain helpful throughout. One of these is a slide that allows her to go under narrow openings, which acts as a convenient alternative to the Morph Ball when in a hurry. Another helpful ability is when Samus aims with a laser pointer, allowing her to fire in any direction. Samus has to be standing still to do this, which makes sense, considering that in real life it’s usually easier to aim with precision when standing still. During boss fights, this usually means taking the risk of standing still if it means possibly getting in more accurate attacks.
I’ve noticed early on that Missiles are usually better to use during boss fights than charged beam attacks. I remember that in some previous Metroid games, the opposite was true, and I liked spamming charged attacks. It’s a change I welcome, considering that it’s sensible from a game mechanics perspective for the resource that has the potential to be limited by quantity has higher damage potential. But unless you’ve been missing a significant amount of ammo upgrades and play carelessly, you should have plenty of missiles for most boss fights.
Metroid Dread may provide a lot of abilities, but that doesn’t mean it holds the player’s hand. It’s expected of players to pick up on acquired abilities quickly, and if players can recall them late in the game, that might make some difficult boss battles go a lot smoother.
That brings us to the next point: Metroid Dread is not an easy game. Even on the normal difficulty, players of average skill level can expect to take multiple attempts on bosses before finally emerging victorious. I remember that there was at least a couple times in which I had taken a few attempts on a boss, so I decided to make attempts where I mostly just performed evasive maneuvers, with minimal attacking, in order to practice at avoiding the boss’s attacks. That helped, as subsequent attempts mostly went a lot smoother.
Comparisons have been made with Dark Souls in terms of the difficulty of the boss battles, so victory against most bosses aren’t something that’s just handed to you. Beating the bosses in Metroid Dread is a matter of skill, and when a boss is overcome, it feels like an accomplishment.
But the bosses aren’t the only things in this game that bring the tension. In Metroid Dread, there’s a total of seven E.M.M.I. running about. Each of the E.M.M.I. has an assigned area which it doesn’t leave, but because you’ll have to run through these immense areas to proceed, Samus will have to confront them.
When you come across an E.M.M.I., there’s usually nothing you can do except try to avoid being noticed, and when you are noticed, you pretty much have to run and hide. What’s more, these things are scary intelligent, and usually come along to investigate where they hear sounds.
If an E.M.M.I. catches Samus, it’s usually Game Over. Yeah, there’s a brief quick-time opportunity to escape it’s clutches, but because it’s so hard to time, just touching an E.M.M.I. usually means having to retry. But thankfully, Metroid Dread is generous with restarting the player just outside E.M.M.I. areas and boss doors, so the player can make another attempt right away if they so choose.
In exploration platform games, colloquially known as Metroidvania games, a significant part of the experience is the sensation of movement. And thankfully for the chief genre-namer, movement in Metroid Dread is a joy. Samus responds with just the right combination of realism, momentum, and lack of hesitation to controller input. And what’s more, there’s a sense of power to her many mobility upgrades, to the point that by the end of the game, it really feels as though nothing is missing from Samus’ arsenal.
What’s more, none of the upgrades unbalance the game. There’s no one upgrade that’s perfect for every occasion, but they usually come with a sense of freedom that comes with knowing just how it can be used to overcome an obstacle that rendered previously encountered passageways and power-ups off-limits. And when you find out that an upgrade that you might not have been thinking much about at the time might make a boss battle much easier, that’s really satisfying in its own sense.
It usually goes that when someone buys a new game, there comes a risk that a game with current-gen visuals compromises with mechanical soundness. However, in Metroid Dread’s case, there is no such compromise, as the game offers tight, rewarding gameplay with excellent production values, all wrapped in the same package. While the platforming is in two dimensions, the environments are rendered in polygonal models. Metroid Dread is far from the first game to do this, but what Dread accomplishes is so rich and atmospheric that it’s a strong argument in favor of upgrading to a Switch OLED if you intend to spend a lot of time playing in handheld mode. There are many little touches here and there which goes to show just how much thought that Mercury Steam put into it. For example, there’s a thin, barely-noticeable haze of display static when Samus is in areas where there is an E.M.M.I. active, which conveys an eerie, unsettling technological sense that something is off.
As much as I’d like to discuss the events in the game, and what they mean for the overarching Metroid narrative, I think the best way to discover them is to play the game for yourself. This is one game that’s a blast to play, so that discovery isn’t likely to feel like a chore to a gamer without a crippling case of ennui.
Now, onto the score. It’s my great pleasure to give Metroid Dread top honors:
10 out of 10.
In times past, Metroid games have been something that one might consider to hold themselves over while waiting for some other big release. With Metroid Dread, the Metroid series demonstrates that it’s deserving of more respect.