A small, sharply sleek spaceship blasts through the atmosphere of a dark foreboding planet. It lands with a gentle whooshing sound. Seconds later the pilot (a female bounty hunter widely feared and admired) emerges, her power suit glinting in the dim light. Samus Aran is the galaxy’s last hope. And yet, within minutes, she will be virtually powerless, her awesome abilities stripped away frighteningly easily by a hulking foe. It’s the beginning of an epic sci-fi saga, that fans of the Metroid series will be very familiar with. In fact, Samus has been a part of the Nintendo ‘family’ for a long time. The original Metroid game appeared on the NES back in August 1986, making the series a little older than me, actually. Over the years there have been a variety of sequels and spinoffs, but as the popularity of 2D games waned, the 3D first-person Prime games were just about all the Metroid we’d get for a time (barring a smattering of remakes). It’s actually been almost two decades since we got a new 2D side-scrolling title. Many consider this to be a great shame considering the series’ obvious legacy. In fact, those original games are half the reason the now common Metroidvania genre even exists. And most games that we play today that are non-linear, focused on exploration, gaining abilities and returning to set areas can often trace their roots back to the original 2D Metroid games.
It is into this storied history that Metroid Dread takes a now more modern starring role. The 2D Metroid plotline has expanded over four games: Metroid (or the remake Metroid: Zero Mission), Metroid II: Return of Samus (or the remake Metroid: Samus Returns), Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion. Metroid Dread is therefore charged with providing a fitting finale to this significant sci-fi pentalogy of the fearless heroine Samus Aran, the Metroids, the Chozo and even the possible re-emergence of the previously-believed-to-be-eradicated deadly Parasite X species. However, given the huge advertising push that the new game has received, it is clear that Dread is also meant to reintroduce the sometimes quite tough 2D explorative back-and-forth gameplay to a brand-new audience. It’s a heavy double-barreled assignment. Thankfully, Metroid Dread’s visceral visuals, engaging gameplay and a satisfying (if a little bottom-heavy) narrative mean it delivers in all the important ways as only a famed space bounty hunter can.
I am not traditionally a big Metroid fan. While the sci-fi and platforming elements are right down my alley, my apprehension is really down to my own lack of any actual sense of direction. In the real world, it’s always been a bit of an in-joke with friends and family at how bad I am at figuring which direction I’ve come from and which way I need to go. Unfortunately, the to-and-fro exploration of Metroid games has therefore always been a bit of an obstacle. As a big Nintendo fan, I’ve obviously tried the original Metroid and even spent several hours traversing planet Zebes in Super Metroid. Regrettably, the frustration of being lost has almost always outweighed the actual joy of the hunt and I’ve mostly given up in dismay. This time around though, the promise of a culmination of what has become quite the sci-fi epic had me reading up on the lore and by the time the opportunity to review came up I was really excited to dive in and stick it out. And I’m quite happy I did.
I can still hear the creepy almost velociraptor like-chirp of their scanner and the ‘ting ting ting’ of their claws tapping on the metallic floors as they edged ever closer
If like me – this is your first fully-fledged Metroid title, and you need a little catching up story-wise – Nintendo has provided a series of ‘transmissions‘ (nine videos reports that get you up to date with what’s going on) which you can check out. However, be warned that quite a lot is revealed in the videos and part of the joy of playing a Metroid game is discovering the story. If you want to avoid any spoilers, thankfully there is a quick but satisfying recap within the game itself. I, therefore, won’t go into much detail – but it’s probably good to know the following: Dread opens up with Samus entering a new planet called ZDR. She has been sent in to investigate what happened to eight robots called EMMI that were themselves sent to the planet to investigate the possibility of the return of Parasite X: a replicating parasitic species that takes over any and all biomatter. Having battled and actually been infected by the X in an earlier game – Samus was then given a vaccine made from the last Metroid. Her newfound immunity actually gave her the means of destroying the X (which she did), ultimately saving the galaxy (which has interesting parallels to the world we’re currently living in – but I’ll leave that one there). The possible re-emergence of the X is worrying, to say the least, and the radio-silence of the EMMI means it’s up to Samus to figure out what is going on. As per the usual formula, upon landing on ZDR Samus immediately loses her powers and a brief reveal of an antagonistic Chozo (a technologically advanced bird-like species that created the Metroids, and also raised the orphaned Samus, but have only made brief appearances since then) really leaves more questions than answers. And it is at this point of confusion and terror that you, as Samus, must begin the journey to figure out what the heck is going on and get your powers back.
Monsters versus Aliens
Now, you won’t actually get much more of the story from me. In fact, you won’t get much more of the story from the game either – at least early on. Barring a few brief interactions with your A.I. Adam, most of the story reveals only happen in the latter half of the game and it’s really worth finding those details out for yourself. For the first act and a half, it’s all about methodical and intentional exploring and powering up interspersed with bursts of frantic running and platforming. The reason for this contradiction is that ZDR is filled with the ruins of constructed buildings and open areas of alien nature. As you move around the world, the map in the top left of your screen slowly unveils areas that are to be explored. Many of these though, are hidden behind doors, gates or other obstacles that need to be opened using specific powers. The abilities you need to relearn are hidden around the world or in the current possession of a plethora of inhospitable fauna and hostile mechanical creations. And if taking these on wasn’t intimidating enough, very early on you learn that the EMMI robots have survived but they are determined to capture Samus and kill her – and while they only roam in very specific areas – the fact that they’re virtually indestructible and hunt you down, means I can still hear the creepy almost velociraptor like-chirp of their scanner and the ting ting ting of their claws tapping on the metallic floors as they edged ever closer.
The creature design and behaviour occasionally felt unnecessarily ‘ewwwww’-inducing.
Now, if the title of the game didn’t give it away, the ominously atmospheric music coupled with the constant threat really set the tone for the perilous quest. Personally, though, that was one of my least favourite features of the game. I’ll admit that I don’t get the appeal of fear. I’ve just never even been into scary movies or ever really played a horror game. And while Dread never gets to that level of panicked apprehension, don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t help but wish for a little change in emotional tempo. The music for example, which is undoubtedly hauntingly beautiful initially – started to feel one dimensional the longer I played. Eventually, I actually switched off the audio so I didn’t have to constantly be bombarded with the high pitched shrills or suspenseful pum pum pums. And while this may not be an issue for some, even the creature design and behaviour (particularly in boss battles) occasionally felt unnecessarily ‘ewwwww’-inducing. Call me sensitive, but even the way certain alien creatures are treated and depicted creeped me out. Perhaps, a disapproving comment from Samus would’ve alleviated these feelings, but instead, at times she even feels complicit and it put me off. And while all that doesn’t likely affect my score it did affect my enjoyment.
This is not to say that the game didn’t look or sound good. In fact, while its side-scrolling nature means it will likely never be considered as graphically impressive as some of the 3D masterpieces out there today – I’ve got to admit that I was taken in by how good the game looks despite those limitations. In addition, considering that I played on the base model Switch, the game will undoubtedly look even better on the new OLED model. I played in both handheld and TV mode and except for an odd and very tiny visual stutter during between-area load screens, it ran ridiculously well throughout. Looking back after completing the game, despite the lack of a massive variety between the different locations I was satisfied enough with the uniqueness of each location. Compared to the consoles and handhelds Metroid games have appeared in before, the power and pixels available to the designers on the Switch really allowed them to played with scale to evoke grandeur or insignificance. I’ve already mentioned how the sound design around the EMMI is particularly effective. However, I do wish I had been given just a little more time to breathe. Not only because I wanted to stop and enjoy the visual beauty of the world around me, but I suspect that a substantial break in the music may even have made a later scare that much more unexpected and intense.
You’ll soon be wielding an insane amount of new powers mapped to almost every combination of buttons on the controller making you feel virtually invincible.
Despite the issues with tone, I really found the core of the game and therefore, the bulk of my close to fifteen-hour playthrough, absolutely exhilarating. This is because the mechanics and level design are simply fantastic. It could probably be argued that Metroid games have been doing this since the very beginning (and hence their acclaim). However, as the first game in the series I played through in its entirety, I couldn’t help but admire how well Dread had been planned out. Sure, there were times I got stuck. I can think of two occasions that I must’ve spent nearly an hour wandering aimlessly around completely unsure about what I was supposed to do next. And sure that wasn’t particularly enjoyable. However, on the first occasion, I had actually missed a pretty obvious secret block that allowed movement to the next area. On the other – I can blame only my directional ineptitude. However, perhaps apart from the first event, figuring out what to do or where to go next was an utterly rewarding experience. I couldn’t wait to figure it out. And every time I did – I felt like a genius – like I had somehow cracked a series of clever exploration-based puzzles using only my wits and ingenuity – even though that’s clearly exactly what the developers wanted me to do. And to me, that speaks volumes about how good the design is. I found it to be wonderfully addictive.
The game also felt very balanced. Early on – very little guidance is given: there’s a big wide world to explore…but several routes will initially lead to dead ends. Now, while that could be a little frustrating at first, there’s enough to keep you invested, including some early powerups and EMMI-specific areas that will keep you moving quickly. The map, which is definitely more detailed than we’ve seen in past games, also helps in this regard. As new areas start to open up and you need to start back-tracking (the point at which I would usually give up), the map provides a fun little way to highlight doors that need a specific ability to open. It was actually this discovery that finally got me moving the second time I felt truly stuck. It’s a small addition that really makes all the difference. Something else that is great about this feature in particular, is that if there are some Metroid experts out there who feel that highlighting doors will be a bit too ‘hand-holdy’ they can simply not use it – and venture around old-school. However, for those out there who, like me, don’t have that wonderful internal compass – this feature means nothing ever feels too overwhelming.
Around two-thirds of the way through the story beats started coming more quickly and it felt like the game suddenly became more linear. Whether that was because I had just become so familiar with the ‘back and forth language’ of the puzzles by that stage, or the game had really just become more linear – the more straight-forward progression made sense, because, by then, I really wanted to figure out the overarching mysteries in the narrative. The different areas also then have multiple connection points to help you travel through them more quickly. However, the game undoubtedly would have benefited from a more obvious fast-travel. The only real bummer was the load times between areas. It’s not that they were excessively long – but the use of simple elevator or train cinematics during loads seemed to date the game quite a bit and will no doubt have many talking about the Switch’s lack of power. That being said, in general traversing, the map felt good and in figuring out where to go, the layout provided just the right type of challenge.
The movement, mechanics and level design are simply fantastic.
Of course, as in a typical Metroidvania – the game’s level design is intricately intertwined with the mechanics of movement and powerups. Here once again, Dread absolutely shines. Right from the start, Samus slides, runs and jumps effortlessly. Directing your arm cannon while on the run in the opposite direction takes a bit of getting used to, but once it clicks, it works well. The platforming in general feels great – and considering how quickly you have to move when being chased by an EMMI this is a very good thing. Each new powerup also feels great. And this is again because of how well the game teaches you to use every new ability. Acquiring a new ability is almost always followed by having to use that ability to move on to the next area – forcing you to become accustomed to the mechanic. When a mini-boss appears shortly thereafter you can be sure you’ll need to show off your new skills to defeat him. And by the time the final boss comes around (one of the best and toughest battles I can remember) you’ll be wielding an insane amount of new powers mapped to almost every combination of buttons on the controller – you’ll feel virtually invincible. (As a side note: By the time the finale comes around this does really become a game that uses the controller to the limit. You’ll need full control of both analogue sticks, button-mashing on several of the face buttons as well as holds and taps on the shoulder buttons. So, on the accessibility side of things, I do suspect this reliance on a simply ridiculous amount of button pressing may limit those of us with less finger dexterity).
The Final Frontier
After that very detailed breakdown – there’s not much to add. Metroid Dread‘s tone is not one I particularly enjoyed. However, a satisfying sci-fi story combined with fantastic game design and game mechanics made this a truly engaging gameplay experience that I won’t soon forget. For players new to the franchise there’s likely a lot that the new Metroid game can offer – as long as you’re not put off by its forceful emphasis on trying to creep you out – just stick around long enough to figure out how to navigate the world and you’ll love the way it makes you feel powerful, skilled and rather quite clever. It’s a series that introduced the world to a new genre and now plays to its strengths perfectly providing even long-time fans with a fitting conclusion to a story 35 years in the making.