Metroid: Dread Review: the Metroid game fans wanted (Minor Spoilers)

I’d say the Metroid: Dread hype has died down, which is perfect for my style of game reviewing. You know…usually a bit late. I like things to settle, sit, and stew for a little while. Pot roast is always better after sitting in the fridge overnight, and that’s how I like to treat media experiences. If I can’t remember anything about it after a couple weeks that makes me smile or grin like a school kid, it ain’t worth reviewing or talking about it.

That said, Metroid: Dread is probably one of the most fun and interesting games I’ve played in the year of our continuing COVID suffering, 2021. It took game play ideas developer MercurySteam introduced in Metroid: Samus Returns (Nintendo’s published and official remake of Metroid II: Return of Samus) and refined them to an absolute tee. The game also carried Samus’s story further as we see what became of her after the events of Metroid: Fusion and follow her footsteps in the depths of planet ZDR. I’m going to try leaving this review as spoiler free as possible, but be warned there will be some spoilers to discuss gameplay and plot elements.

Gameplay

Metroid: Dread has some of the most fun, fluid, challenging-to-master, and downright amazing gameplay I’ve personally experienced in a side-scrolling adventure in a while. While many reviewers and critics pointed out that the melee counter in Metroid: Samus Returns slowed down gameplay because Samus had to be stationary to perform the move, MercurySteam met that piece of criticism and made the melee counter better. Samus can now perform a moving version of the melee counter, keeping movement going and fun.

One of the new abilities is the Spider Magnet; a take on the Spider Ball present in Metroid II: Return of Samus and its remake, Metroid: Samus Returns, but can only be used on special blue walls. Unlike the Spider Ball, Samus is free to shoot and use a few more powers.

Moves like the wall kick allow veteran Metroid players to engage in quicker and easier navigation and sequence breaks. The wall kick is also easily discovered by players who are willing to experiment and learn with Samus’s move set. The addition of a slide move allows players to go under narrow spaces easily. No more stopping to get into the Morph Ball, which is welcome during quick getaway maneuvers. The Speedbooster and the associated spinespark move returns, creating more means for sequence breaking players to find new routes and collect challenging power-ups. I’m a spinespark novice, but just getting it to work right to collect some tough-to-get missile and energy tanks is fun and rewarding. It felt like completing a puzzle hidden in plain sight, and these little secrets are easy to miss if you’re not paying close attention to the map and the environment’s nooks and crannies.

My biggest gripe about the controls involves the grapple beam, which is a complaint I carry over from Samus Returns. It’s not a “selectable” power. Rather, it has an assigned button, which is fine. However, I’m a bit clumsy with it. I remember finding the grapple beam ability a little annoying at first, so it took time to learn. Whenever I came across a place where using the grapple beam was useful, it sometimes felt like I had to relearn how to swing from point A to point B if it had been a while since it was used. I think I’m just to used to the Prime games and Super Metroid’s grapple beam abilities; for reasons primarily related to the technology and design philosophies of those game, the grapple beam felt better and more fun in past titles. That’s not to say that the grapple beam isn’t fun in Metroid: Dread (it can be), but it never felt used enough for me to get really used to it as a means of traversing ZDR.

On the combat end, enemies and bad guys—especially bosses—are an engaging challenge that tests players reactions and abilities to learn patterns. I won’t lie: I died a bunch. However, instead of curling up into a ball of boo-hoos, I grinned, laughed, and said “One more time!” Beating a boss after trying over and over felt rewarding because I beat the boss; it didn’t just hand me a win because I shot it and drained its health bar. This made some boss fights more memorable as their intro animations were rather cool to watch, especially if Samus did something cool during said animation.

However some “boss” fights feel more like mid-bosses or mini-bosses, specifically the robot soldiers. As I progressed through the game, I encountered these mini-bosses multiple times and at once time had to face two at the same time. These encounters, while fun, where a little bit repetitive once I reached later parts of the game. I think this is due to recognizing the patterns. And while these mini-bosses have some variations on their base form that build on each other, they weren’t as much fun as the big bosses were.

One of the EMMI present within the game.

I also have to discuss the EMMI, which are a new element for Metroid. The EMMI are Galactic Federation planetary survey robots. Think the Mars rovers like Spirit, Odyssey, and Curiosity, but way more advanced and semi-humanoid. The EMMI are nigh-indestructible, fast, deadly, and persistent. As Samus gets more powerful, so do they, which keeps players on their toes as no two EMMI are entirely alike. When they successfully capture and kill Samus, it’s quick, efficient, and memorable. It’s also frustrating at times because countering their attacks requires perfect timing. I can still see our poor first lady of gaming getting her DNA harvested from those survey bots and their giant hummingbird beak collectors.
On the flip side, getting the Omega Cannon and the appropriate power-up to lay waste to those robots is satisfying. At that point, EMMI encounters have different stakes. They’ll still get you, but you have a chance to beat them and that chance requires a little planning and build up. Even so, blasting them into a pile of bolts is cathartic. You, the player, beat what Samus’s shipboard computer dubbed “unbeatable.” (At which point you can look the Adam dead in his CPU and tell him to suck it.)

One of the EMMI Zones in the game.

Visuals

The art direction in this game is superb. MercurySteam carried their knack for beautiful backgrounds from Samus Returns into Dread. The extra graphical power of the Switch gives to the vision that the developers must have had for their 3DS outing into the Metroid series. Barring the sterile and cold EMMI zones, planet ZDR teems with life both natural and mechanical. Keen eyes will notice things in the background that look important, a feature which was carried forward from Samus Returns. Each area has its own unique environment. Artaria is rocky, sprinkled with Chozo sculptures. Cataris is fiery and hot. Ferenia is a lost Chozo stronghold, its great halls crumbling due to neglect.

Lighting is used to great effect in this game. Save rooms are typically darkened, highlighting Samus as she moves about to activate them. It makes for an amazing contrast while emphasizing just how lonesome and dark ZDR can be.

On the topic of Samus, I love her new look. It’s a great update from her usual look and adds a bit of characterization to Samus. It looks like she’s built some armor onto her Fusion Suit, giving it a bit more of a traditional look thanks to the round pauldrons. This means she can repair her suit should it take too much damage, really cementing the connect between the woman and the armor. Unlike the previous designs, the new Power Suit is sleeker and slimmer, reflecting some of Samus’s physical abilities such as wall kicking and sliding. There’s also a greater emphasis on the Power Suit’s more organic components as sections of it look like muscle fibers, which is a cool nod to the Fusion Suit (it was speculated the Fusion Suit is the more organic component of the old Power Suit, fully linking Samus to her armor). As Samus gains access to her Varia and Gravity suits, her Power Suit gains additional armor. I found this to be really cool because I think it adds to the sense of Samus’s growing power; the further along she goes, the stronger and sturdier her suit gets.

Sounds and Music

The one area where Metroid: Dread goes a bit awry is its music. While it’s atmospheric and sounds good, it’s unfortunately not as memorable as I would like it to be. I can only remember one boss song. However, Dread tries to make new beats and create its own sound. The iconic title music and Samus’s theme are present and they sound great, which upped my expectations for the music. I was looking forward to an epic and memorable soundtrack, and while I liked what I heard from the game when I was hearing it, I just couldn’t remember much aside from Ghavoran’s background music (and even now, I can barely remember it if I think good and hard). I’m not a music guy. Maybe as I approach the big three-oh my abilities to remember new songs are being pushed into a sonic memory-pit. All I know is that I liked the music when I heard it in the game, but I am a bit disappointed that I can’t place any of the songs. Maybe that’s my fault or it’s a signal that the music blended in the background too well, but either way…

HOWEVER!! All of the songs (save the title, Samus’s theme, and some familiar jingles) are all new. This is a big step from Samus Returns reliance on previous Metroid tracks. Yup, Magmoor Caverns is fire; Brinstar brings the beat; but those songs were remixes. Sure they’re good, but they weren’t new songs. Dread brings in some much needed fresh tunes to the series, and I’m glad the musicians tried bringing their own sound to Metroid’s latest outing. Maybe after replaying the game and paying more attention to the sound design, I’ll appreciate it more. (Note: I decided to pull up the soundtrack while I wrote this section, and I have to say the first track for Artaria is appropriately creepy and hair-raising with its drawn-out notes and distant sound percussive beats resembling water dripping in a cave.)

Narrative

This will be as spoiler free as possible, and I’ll try to keep spoilers limited to things seen in the trailer and in the first hour or so of game play. That being said, story wise, this game is pretty simple.

Taking place shortly after the events of Fusion and the destruction of planet SR388, Samus finds herself on a trajectory to Planet ZDR after an X parasite—a lifeform capable of taking on the form of its host—is discovered. Recognizing the X as a threat to galactic life, the Federation send Samus to ZDR to find and destroy the X parasites and to recover the lost EMMI units. Thanks Samus’s previous encounter with the X and being given a vaccine produced from Metroid DNA (the X’s only known predator; I don’t think vaccines alter DNA, but this is Metroid, not a conspiracy theory), she is the only one capable of carrying this mission out.

Not five minutes into her mission, Samus encounters a Chozo warrior who assaults her but leaves her alive. She then encounters a halfway busted EMMI unit, escapes, and finds a means to communicate with her ship’s computer, Adam. He tells her she’s in the deepest section of ZDR and her survival is takes precedent over everything else, so she needs to haul butt back to the surface and return to her ship. With that, Samus is off to face the dangers present in ZDR.

Unlike other Metroid titles where Samus starts on a planet’s surface and works her way down to danger, she starts in the middle of danger in the deepest section of the planet. Unlike in Super Metroid or Metroid Prime 3, there’s no ship at which the player can quickly recharge Samus’s energy and ammo. While there are stations and statues where these functions can be carried out, the ship was always a safe haven in the midst of hostile territory. With the ship more or less removed, the EMMI on the hunt, and a member of Samus’s adoptive race attacking her, Dread feels hostile and uninviting. Metroid fans love to prattle on about the “feelings of loneliness” Metroid titles can and do create, but this is the first Metroid title since Metroid Prime where I as a player felt alone.

I think that loneliness factor can be contributed to what Nintendo and MercurySteam did with the first Chozo character we meet in a Metroid game ever. Fans familiar with the series’s lore know that Samus is an orphan who was adopted by the Chozo after Space Pirates killed everyone on her home colony. This sets the Chozo up as a benevolent and compassionate species given that they are technologically-advanced, 10-foot-tall bird people. The Prime games fleshed the Chozo out as wise, peaceful, and spiritual, but extinct or going extinct, or possibly moving past the veil of corporal existence to another step in evolution. Samus Returns outlines how they were responsible for creating the Metroid lifeforms to combat the X parasites on SR388, outlining their scientific prowess…but even so, the Metroids still run awry, causing the Chozo to flee, but not without containing the Metroids on SR388 via purple liquid stuff. Either way, the Chozo are broadly set up as good guys with only one major failing, that being the creation of the Metroids. Samus’s suit is also a Chozo creation. It’s their technology modified for a human, but in order for Samus to properly operate the Power Suit, she was altered, being given Chozo DNA to survive on planet Zebes before its occupation by Space Pirates. Seriously, hardcore Metroid fans like me just know the Chozo have their tallon prints everywhere in the games’ universe. For first time players and new fans to Metroid, maybe seeing this giant bird person attack Samus won’t resonate the same way as it would with older fans like myself. Tthat’s perfectly ok: Dread is probably a lot of people’s first Metroid game based on its sales figures, and I love seeing older titles and series get new audiences and newfound appreciation. For older fans who yearned for the Metroid we grew up with, be it Super Metroid or Metroid Prime (both titles that really hooked me into Metroid) Dread delivers. I’m not sure what’s like for newer players and fans, but I’m glad Dread really nailed the feeling its title aimed to inspire.

The EMMI are deadly, their musical themes adding to their hunter like aura.

The X are made out to be a bigger and badder threat in one single cut scene.

Adam tells you to flat out to “accept your helplessness.”

And our girl Samus just flips everything the bird with her arm cannon, blowing monsters the size of Godzilla and King Kong away without two damns given or cared! She’s tough (not invincible, even though she acts like it sometimes) and won’t take anything without a fight. Samus got more than one “That’s our girl! Look at her go!” during the short cut scenes before and after boss fights.

And there’s our girl, facing down Kraid without a care in the world.

Overall, for old fans, this is a great installment because it builds on Fusion‘s events. For new fans, this is a great title to get into a new series and discover some great, older titles.

Final Judgment

Metroid: Dread is the one of the finest side-scrolling adventure games I’ve played in recent memory. It might not be right for everyone depending on their tastes, but I give this game a full endorsement because everything feels just about right. Buy this game and play it! It’s challenging, fun, and a joy to play.

And if you’re new to the series, welcome to the Metroid fandom. Have fun with your new arm cannons.

Happy hunting!

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