Taking a Step Back
If you would have told Metroid fans back in 2005 that they wouldn’t get to play the sequel to Metroid Fusion—by then already a few years old—for another 16 years, you may have been met with groans and grimaces. Add in the fact that it would be in large part developed by an obscure indie developer based out of Spain, people would’ve probably looked at you sideways. And yet, with Nintendo teaming up with MercurySteam to produce arguably one of their biggest titles of the 2021 holiday season, here we are.
How MercurySteam came to take the reins of Nintendo’s beloved IP is an interesting story in its own right. I’ll only note that following their work with legendary game designer Hideo Kojima on Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, the team in Madrid pitched a remake of Metroid Fusion to Nintendo. Their attempt was rebuffed but they left an impression, which eventually led to a collaboration with the Big N on 2017’s Metroid: Samus Returns for the 3DS. As the saying goes, the rest is history.
Indeed, although Metroid diehards have waited an excruciatingly long time for a brand new 2D entry in the series, it never really felt like Samus had left. Sure, she may have characteristically flown under the radar. The combined sales of the entire Metroid series prior to Dread, which includes 15 game releases, sits well below 20 million units. By comparison, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild alone has, as of this past March, sold 22 million copies since its 2017 debut. Regardless, between 2002’s Metroid Fusion and 2021’s Metroid Dread, Samus Aran’s biggest advocates had a fair amount to chew on: the first-person Prime sequels, handheld remakes of older Metroids, a couple of offshoots, and even a pinball game. Still, there was no follow-up to quench that thirst for a genuinely novel 2D Metroid adventure.
Four Metroids, Three Questions
You may have noticed that I keep referring to Metroid fandom in the third-person. I was a huge fan of the hotly anticipated Metroid Prime as a young teenager during the GameCube era. It was a groundbreaking experience of which I soaked up every second. However, it remained the only Metroid that I had ever beaten until revisiting Super Metroid on the Nintendo Switch Online service in 2019, finally seeing that SNES masterpiece to completion. It still holds up! Make that two Metroid games.
Then, last month, I dove into the original Metroid in preparation for Dread. It wasn’t my first excursion into the 1986 classic but it was my first serious attempt at running through the game from start to finish. I wrote about that experience for some of my ‘geeky’ friends here.
Hence, Dread being now the fourth Metroid under my belt, one thing should be clear from the outset: While I think of myself as a fairly ‘hardcore gamer,’ I can’t claim to be more than a casual Metroid fan. It’s not for a lack of interest so much as a lack of opportunity, with so many of these games currently stuck on old hardware (I’m not keen on emulation). Granted, none of this is particularly interesting in and of itself, and I only mention it to A) lay out my perspective as a reviewer, and B) provide context to the questions for which I sought answers in my playthrough of Metroid Dread. These are what I aim to resolve by the time we reach the ‘Conclusion.’ My inquiry was threefold.
First, how good of a game is Dread on its own merits?
Secondly, how far has Dread come since the series’ inception 35 years ago on the NES?
The third question: The Switch has no shortage of quality ‘Metroidvanias’ to choose from, and many available at a fraction of the price. Specifically, I have in mind games like Ori and the Will of the Wisps, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, the recently released Castlevania Advance Collection, and the one I consider to be the king of them all, Hollow Knight. I’m going to resist delving into the silly controversy that erupted over the summer surrounding Metroid Dread’s $60 price tag, but I will briefly broach the subject of its value further below. My final question approximates to the following: Where does Metroid—progenitor of the Metroidvania appellation—fit into this landscape? How does it stand out? In a word:
Thirdly, is Dread better than Hollow Knight?
Notwithstanding whatever other reviews of Metroid Dread that you’ve read by this point, if these questions peek your interest or you merely want to know if Dread is worth a $60 investment, I hope to provide you with some answers! Or, at least some useful insights.
With that long, rambling prelude out of the way, then, let’s head over to the neighborhood of Samus’s latest exploits: Planet ZDR!
Set sometime after the events of Metroid Fusion, which tasked Samus with eradicating the universe’s most deadly life form, known as the X Parasite, the Galactic Federation receives a video transmission that appears to show the survival of X on the planet ZDR. A group of ‘Extraplanetary Multiform Mobile Identifier’ bots, or E.M.M.I., are dispatched to investigate but soon go offline. As Samus is the only living specimen immune to the X Parasites, due to the DNA-altering ‘Metroid vaccine’ that she received in Fusion, she is chosen for the fact-finding mission on ZDR: verify the authenticity of the mysterious video feed and ascertain the fate that has befallen the Federation’s seven missing E.M.M.I.
Upon Samus’s arrival, she is bushwhacked by a hostile ‘Chozo’ who proves too resilient for her to overcome. The Chozo are an ancient race of bird-men that once thrived in the Metroid universe but are now virtually extinct. For some reason, Samus’s life is spared. After coming to her senses, she discovers that her Power Suit has been stripped of its capabilities. Fortunately, she is able to make contact with her gunship’s A.I., Adam, at various network stations located throughout ZDR. With Adam as her guide, Samus’s new assignment is simple: find a way back to her ship. In order to succeed, she will have to traverse this unfriendly domain, recover her abilities, and ultimately, unearth the source behind all of the recent chaos.
Metroid games aren’t typically prized for having well-crafted, in-depth narratives. Metroid Dread doesn’t contain a lot of dialogue but when it does, it often makes the most of it. To a great extent, Dread is voice-acted too, even treating us to a truly beautiful moment in which Samus breaks her silence and utters a line or two of speech. On the whole, I was quite surprised at just how satisfied Dread’s narrative left me when everything was said and done. I didn’t have the benefit of possessing a full-scope of the Metroid timeline, missing out, as mentioned, on a couple of Dread’s predecessors; yet, the twists and turns that Dread’s plot throws at you still achieve maximum impact.
I won’t say more as it’s best left for you to discover Dread’s secrets on your own. Insofar as Dread’s storytelling takes a back seat to its gameplay, it’s none the worse off, managing to feel complete and putting a nice bow on this particular chapter in Samus’s bounty hunting escapades, assuming Dread really is the grand finale to those Metroids commonly referenced by the suffixes I-IV (Dread being Metroid V).
There are four ingredients that I consider to be essential to the backbone of any good ol’ Metroidvania: platforming, combat, progression, and exploration. Taken in this order, let’s first discuss Dread’s platforming.
Right off the bat, I found Dread’s controls to feel extremely tight and responsive. From wall jumping to Samus’s new sliding ability, you almost always have a sense that you are in complete command of her movements and fully responsible for mastering the quick reaction times that avoiding damage or death frequently require. This elevates the game’s more challenging moments, which can be excruciatingly difficult, to a level of fun that nearly always triumphs its frustrations. The biggest exception to the rule is Samus’s ‘Shinespark’ ability.
Once Samus has acquired the ‘Speed Booster,’ she’ll be able to dash across rooms with incredible velocity. There are a couple of Energy and Missile Tank add-ons that are only accessible by executing her Shinespark, a burst of powerful energy that she can activate while running at full speed, launching her in any given direction with immense force. The catch is that if Samus slows down or stops moving, she’ll lose her Shinespark within five seconds. Some of the harder items to come by are placed in areas that entail wall jumping while maintaining Samus’s Speed Booster charge (which is how she activates a Shinespark). The problem is that hitting a wall or changing her orientation causes her to lose the charge. I encountered more than a few infuriating instances in which performing the steps necessary to retrieve the tanks in question felt totally capricious. When I did finally succeed at pulling off the convoluted procedure of wall jumping while Speed Boosting, I didn’t ever feel as though I had quite ‘figured it out.’ It was as if I merely got lucky after several dozen misfires. This wasn’t the only gameplay mechanic in Dread that I found counterintuitive but it was the only one that I came to view as poorly designed.
Combat in Metroid Dread is a pure delight that only gets better and better as you progress and acquire more dynamic upgrades. The developers assigning free aim of Samus’s arm cannon to the L shoulder, ‘Missile Mode’ to the R shoulder, and the ‘Grapple Beam’ to holding and pressing L+ZR simultaneously, at first seemed awkward. Once I adjusted to Dread’s button layout, though, I didn’t suffer any issues with combat beyond getting repeatedly trounced by bosses whose move patterns I had yet to decipher.
That’s another bright spot in Dread’s action: It has some breathtaking boss fights. Believe me when I say that you will likely die a lot. Nonetheless, what makes Metroid such a pleasure is the diversity of tools that Samus has at her disposal and the thoughtfulness demanded of the player in how different enemies are approached. This is especially true of Dread’s more grandiose battles, where you must adjust your strategy accordingly as foes contain numerous phases that make them increasingly formidable. Remember, there is always a method to your opponent’s madness. Pay careful attention to their techniques and eventually you’ll emerge victorious. Knowledge is key!
Apart from familiar weapons and skills like ‘Ice Missiles’ or Samus’s infamous ‘Morph Ball’ (how the hell does she do that anyway?), Dread also features new techniques like the ‘Phantom Cloak,’ rendering her invisible for a limited amount of time, the ‘Pulse Radar,’ allowing her to detect passable walls, and the ‘Spider Magnet,’ which lets Samus climb along specifically designated walls and ceilings.
Whether you’re a returning Metroid vet or a newcomer to the franchise, combat is a fun-filled romp packed with enough variation, depth, and nostalgia to please almost anyone. As someone who is probably situated somewhere in-between these two groups, it certainly seemed to be making direct appeal to the more hardcore gaming audiences that Metroid games have traditionally sought to appease. And still, despite my constant failures, I couldn’t get enough of it! Of course, a lot of that has to do with the other two aspects that Dread handles with spectacular finesse.
Progression and Exploration
Like many celebrated Metroidvanias and previous Metroid games, progressing down the path of ultimate warrior goes hand-in-hand with scratching a spelunker’s greatest itch. Planet ZDR has several large maps to explore, each filled meandering corridors, platforms, and hordes of indigenous creatures hankering for a Samus-sized snack. You are basically free to roam where you please at any time, assuming you have the capacity to eliminate any obstacles that might be blocking the way forward.
What Metroid Dread does as well as any title within the genre is weave progression and exploration together so masterfully that each serves to create one of the more addicting gameplay loops in recent memory. You desperately seek out the next upgrade so that you can press onward or return to a previous area and uncover its hidden secrets; the impetus for grubbing about lies in the hope that you’ll be rewarded with a new skill, opening up additional sections of the map. Dread is near-perfect in its pacing, constantly dangling the proverbial carrot in front of your face just enough that I kept telling myself I’d quit playing right after I explored one more room or obtained that last item.
I obviously can’t talk about exploration without mention of the downright dreadful E.M.M.I.s. These are the lethal machines that roam certain stealth-based regions of the map, sectioned off by ‘Zone Doors.’ E.M.M.I.s can’t leave these zones, so you’d best take note of the exits! E.M.M.I.s relentlessly pursue Samus once she is detected (here the Phantom Cloak proves eminently helpful), producing a frantic situation of cat-and-mouse that results in instant death should Samus get caught. Her only reprieve is a parry ability that, while very usual against regular enemies, is difficult to pull off when confronting the DNA-extracting needle of an E.M.M.I. Your prime allies here are your feet. If an E.M.M.I. happens to detect them in motion, do not question, do not hesitate. Run as fast as you can!
As much of a joyride as my time in the depths of ZDR’s hellish undergrounds proved to be, I’m not without a couple of minor complaints. There’s been a popular video recently making the rounds of God of War creator David Jaffe going on a profanity-laced tirade against Dread’s game design due to its sometimes obscure objectives and clandestine passageways. He’s been relentlessly mocked by those pointing out that this is but classic Metroid gameplay, as if he were playing a Zelda game and complaining that he doesn’t like solving puzzles. But I partially agree with Jaffe, albeit with less conviction. There was a moment early on when I similarly got stuck, wandering aimlessly for over an hour, only to discover that a breakable wall was the sole means of advancing the game. Later on, I would have easily noticed this wall, but at that point in my playthrough nothing had really been introduced to indicate such a possibility.
I don’t know if this is a flaw with the game design per se, as I actually really appreciate MercurySteam’s adamance at sticking to the Metroid formula and refusing to water anything down for the sake of wider, mainstream appeal. Even so, it was pretty annoying.
Likewise, until you reach Dread’s final area, in which fast travel becomes infinitely more useful, backtracking through ZDR can occasionally feel like a bit of chore. This is in spite of a map screen which is pleasantly accommodating, letting you drop pins to help guide your way. Again, I’m not sure who is to blame here—myself or the game?—as it’s a feature of most Metroidvanias, and also one aspect towards which I typically find myself directing most of my frustrations. Setting its 3D environments aside, I cannot help but think about the ingenious Metroidvania-like world design of a game like Dark Souls, which seems expansive and confusing to navigate until you unlock that ever convenient door or elevator that somehow connects everything together. I guess I simply wish that Dread, and Metroidvanias more broadly, would do away with the sense I so often get that I’m wasting so many precious minutes returning from point A to B for the fifteenth time.
Visually and sonically, Metroid Dread is a superb achievement that epitomizes the definition of ‘AAA Metroidvania.’ First and foremost, Dread runs at a smooth 60 fps whether you’re playing in the comforts of your home or on the go. As a ‘2.5D’ game, it seamlessly transitions between gorgeous cutscenes set in three dimensions and the 2D side-scrolling perspective that comprises the bulk of the action. There were certainly moments when the camera would zoom in on surfaces and reveal textures that appeared bare and outdated. Be that as it may, in both docked and handheld modes (I was using my OG Switch and not the flashier and more expensive OLED model), the semi-realistic art style of its sci-fi settings, boasting lots of monochromatic grays and reserving more vibrant, colorful schemes for regions set to specific environmental themes (lava, ice, an underground jungle of sorts, etc.), look absolutely terrific. Apart from Samus, who is made a veritable badass in Dread, the enemies she greets with a barrage of missiles and laser beams are also marvelously conceived, appearing utterly alien, creepy, and menacing.
This latter description applies equally as much to the game’s audio. Longtime series composer Kenji Yamamoto returned to score Dread’s soundtrack, along with relative newcomers Soshi Abe and Sayako Doi. With a mixture of vintage Metroid motifs and a new, synth-driven, ambient tracklist that accompanies Samus on her quest through subterranean, deserted science labs and water-filled caverns, there was nothing on this front that I found wanting. Dread’s music fulfills its requisite role, assisting in the creation of an atmospheric experience that is equal parts eerie, remote, exotic, and treacherous.
On top of Dread’s OST is the game’s general audio quality, which is also fantastic. Perhaps it’s just me but periodically while playing in handheld mode I thought Dread not only sounded louder but also clearer than some of the other games that have dominated my Switch as of late. It’s definitely one for which you’ll want to bust out a pair of earbuds should you decide to go the portable route. From the sound effects of her arm cannon; the clinking noise that attends her transformation into a Morph Ball; the spine-chilling ‘bleep bloop bleeps’ that alert you to the nearby presence of E.M.M.I.; all this, to even the freakin’ opening and closing of random doors, reinforced my opinion that Metroid Dread is a treat for the ears. I also mentioned earlier that the game has voice-acting. As this predominantly takes the form of Adam’s robotic speech patterns and others who communicate in the Metroid-exclusive ‘Chozo language,’ there’s really not much to say about it except that, as with everything else concerning Dread’s presentation, Nintendo and MercurySteam brought their AAA-game.
Three Questions, Two Definitive Answers
Let’s now return to the three questions I posed in the introduction, tackling them in reverse order.
Is Dread better than Hollow Knight?
In truth, I can’t do justice to such a discussion here. Although differing in many regards, I view both games as sitting at the top of their class within the genre, and Dread probably now joins Hollow Knight as my two favorite Metroidvanias to date. I’ll briefly mention a few aspects in which Hollow Knight perhaps retains a slight edge. I think they’re relevant factors to consider whether one is offering a final analysis of Metroid Dread or contemplating a purchase of it.
The first is Metroid Dread’s length. It took me around 17 hours to 100 percent Dread on ‘Normal’ difficulty (a harder mode becomes available upon completion of the main campaign). My actual playtime was undoubtedly longer than this as the game’s internal clock apparently doesn’t calculate time that results in death. As I said, I died more times than I can count. When the credits finally rolled, no part of me walked away feeling dissatisfied in the least. Dread’s playtime felt wholly adequate. More importantly, I had a blast from beginning to end.
That being said, I can understand why some might think Dread’s asking price is a tad much given the relative brevity of its campaign, especially when weighed against the other excellent Metroidvanias presently on the Switch market. A game like Hollow Knight offers an adventure that lasts 2-3 times longer than Dread, and is (criminally underpriced at) $15. I’ve never bought into the argument that Metroid Dread’s $60 price tag is too much because of the fact that it is 2D (or 2.5D), but with stellar games like both Ori titles selling for a combined total of $50, each offering a tremendous experience comparable to Dread in terms of duration, the reasonableness of Dread’s cost remains for me somewhat of an open question. For my part, did I find it to be worth $60? Yes!
A more substantial critique of Dread, in keeping with the comparison of Hollow Knight, is that it doesn’t really do anything to move the Metroid series forward or innovate the genre. Whereas Hollow Knight borrowed from the Souls games, incorporating a real sense of gravity into each fight by forfeiting your money at death (but giving you a chance to retrieve it), Dread wholly lacks any consequences in this regard, which partially diminishes the ‘dread’ it seeks to instill. Moreover, unlike Hollow Knight’s brilliant progression system involving Charms, which continually kept combat fresh and offered a different kind of strategic angle than what was the norm in Metroidvanias up to that point, Dread largely plays it safe, sticking to the time-honored Metroid blueprint. But maybe that is a good thing.
How far has Dread come since the series’ inception 35 years ago on the NES?
Happily, this is a much easier question to answer. With Samus’s first campaign still lingering in the fore of my mind, it was intriguing to notice how little the core franchise has changed over three and half decades, and also how much MercurySteam have managed to perfect every bit of minutiae that made games like the NES Metroid and Super Metroid so idolized among older fans. If you were to ask a team of developers to write a love letter to those timeless Metroids, in many ways I think Dread would be the result. I can’t say whether or not those who’ve waited 19 years to play Dread will be contented with the final outcome. I suspect most will be. It is certainly my new favorite Metroid, and I sincerely hope Nintendo keeps MercurySteam around to develop future Metroid titles (that Fusion remake perhaps?).
One Final Verdict
How good of a game is Dread on its own merits?
Metroid Dread is a phenomenal journey that goes from zero to sixty and hardly ever lets up on the throttle. A compelling rush from its initial moments right up until the last epic battle, most if not all of my criticisms of Dread are mere nitpicks in the overall picture. Its controls are fluid. Planet ZDR’s environments are vast and alluring, always inviting you to pry deeper into their mysteries or stay a little bit longer. Skirmishes are consistently exciting, often punishing but always rewarding. Graphically and audibly, Dread is nothing short of pristine, regardless of some noticeably simplistic textures when viewed at close range. Its steady 60 fps performance in handheld mode is no less impressive.
Is Metroid Dread perfect? I can’t say that. But it’s not far off. Does it deserve a place in upcoming Game of the Year conversations? Without question.
Samus is back, baby.
- An impactful, unpredictable narrative
- Near-perfect pacing
- Awesome Power Suit upgrades
- Tight and responsive controls
- Lush, comprehensive environments to explore
- Addictive gameplay loop
- Fun combat and even sicker boss fights!
- Top-notch performance and sound
- Sometimes obscure objectives, unclear path forward
- Doesn’t do enough to innovate the Metroid franchise or the genre; ‘plays it safe’
- Can occasionally feel like a chore to navigate
- Wall jumping while Speed Boosting!