The very first review I ever had published on this site was Metroid: Samus Returns. Just over four years later, I’ve come full circle and am now reviewing the latest mainline title in the franchise: Metroid Dread. Both the first “new” 2D adventure since 2002 and the first major title in the franchise to hit home consoles since 2010, this is kind of a homecoming. Longtime fans were giddy to point out that this is also a long time coming, given its hinted existence in Metroid Prime 3. Helmed by Mercury Steam, the developers behind the prior game, all signs pointed to an incredible return to form for a series that, at one point, seemed lost in limbo.
What “dread” it is—this game is not mislabeled in its titling. Featuring an intense number of indestructible foes and punishing brutality, it’s an adventure that enthralls with punishment and unnerving vulnerability. As a direct sequel to Fusion, it follows the path laid by its horror-esque predecessor for a new age of players. However, it’s just as much a portal to a rigid past as it is a tool for newcomers’ entertainment. How much pleasure one can extract from it may ultimately come down to one’s affinity for naturally evolving skill.
Metroid Dread is available now on Nintendo Switch for your regional pricing.
Story – Power in Solitude
A strange transmission is sent to the Galactic Federation showcasing a concerning sight: an X Parasite roaming in the wild, alive. To investigate, seven E.M.M.I. drones are dispatched to planet ZDR, but transmission with these robots are quickly lost. Samus Aran is then assigned to the task of checking in on the progress and, if needed, ridding the planet of malicious activity herself. Little does she know, there’s far more awaiting her than what she would’ve expected.
Nintendo is not generally known for any compelling storylines with their games. Mario saves the princess; Link saves the world; Kirby saves the world. A lot of world-saving, you see. Metroid as a franchise isn’t too much deeper, though it has dabbled in a more cinematic, character-oriented storyline before. Dread is like a simple compromise between the two aspects.
I was pleasantly surprised by the number of cinematic cutscenes present throughout. Most of them are simply creature / boss encounters, with Samus readying herself for battle, though others have a bit of narrative significance. While not too much is expressed, there are aspects of a grander story that keep the player immersed in an air of mystery. Who are these threats? The X Parasites still live? What does it all mean? While certainly not the game’s strong point, it’s intriguing enough to strengthen the atmosphere present throughout.
Though to state one thing, seeing as this has been confirmed as the end of the mainline Metroid timeline, Dread is a bit anticlimactic. Certain surprises lie in wait for those playing through, though the ending, in the greater context, is somewhat flaccid. What it does is tie up the loose ends that were set within the gallery section of Samus Returns, as well as provide a new instance of threats for Samus to conquer. As a standard game, it’s fine. As a finale, its impact wanes quickly. Very much a “It’s the journey, not the destination” sort of narrative.
Gameplay – Meticulous, Gratifying Detail
If one has played Samus Returns, a lot of the finer details of gameplay will feel familiar. After all, Mercury Steam’s goal here was to build off of the job they did before onto a bigger, stronger console. The possibilities beforehand seemed enormous, and I’m ecstatic to say that, generally speaking, they work wonderfully.
One of the more notable aspects to Metroid Dread is its occasionally devastating difficulty. General gameplay via exploration isn’t too demanding, though enemies will knock a chunk of your health down if you’re not careful. Where this comes into play are sub-bosses, bosses, and the E.M.M.I. zones. An expectation is set early on that this will not be a casual experience. Trial and error, pattern memorization, and quick reflexes are an absolute must if one wishes to make it far in the journey. For veterans, it’s a blissful foray into the depths of despair; those more inclined to even standard levels of difficulty will struggle.
Both refreshing and interesting to see a triple-A title from Nintendo employ such demanding persistence from their player base. Accessibility is becoming more prominent in many companies’ interpretation of their games, and this title is the polar opposite. It’s a challenge to players to truly see through an experience that is just as terrifying as its title implies. Although, this isn’t to say that it doesn’t encourage players in (near) equal measures. Save points are abundant, spawn points upon death are generous, and many boss battles provide attacks / opportunities for pickups. Many will likely remember the multiple attempts it took them to defeat a big boss, but there are cleverly implemented exploits that reward experimentation.
Where this isn’t so flexible concerns the E.M.M.I., scattered within specific zones in most explorable regions. These drones are explicitly designed to destroy you quickly and without reservation. If they catch you, you have two chances to save yourself, but the timing is very quick. Otherwise, you’re dead. No mercy. These things are if the SA-X from Fusion actually strategically coordinated to hunt you in specific regions. You will need to be sneaky and, if spotted, agile in order to work around them. Even acquiring the only means of defeating them requires some quick thinking and strategic placement. Speaking of…
As a direct sequel, Dread takes considerable inspiration from Fusion specifically, as well as other Metroid titles from the past. The prior comparison of SA-X to E.M.M.I. was literal—they are both tied to making their respective games more ominous and foreboding. Without them, the titles they reside in wouldn’t be quite as notable. They’d still be solid titles, only with less instances of memorable moments of woe.
However, this game places a much heavier emphasis on the E.M.M.I. as an in-game presence than Fusion does with the SA-X. They roam around specifically labeled entrances and zones, adorned with eerie clicks and mechanical moans. Their searching capabilities are borderline unavoidable. And you face seven of them throughout. Powerful and sturdy, all one can do when encountering them is to just run. Ever-present and looming, it’s never safe in these zones. For me, personally, I think their implementation is a tad suspect.
What made the SA-X so effective, at least the first time through (given they’re scripted events), was that you never knew when it would appear—you just knew it would, eventually. What made it extra eerie was that it was Samus herself, only it wasn’t. A sort of “You are your own worst enemy” type of situation. The E.M.M.I. are restricted to their own respective zones, and don’t really appear all that threatening or fear-inducing. You know it’s going to be inside these areas, and that, so long as you avoid its sight confirmation, you can leave at any time.
In the end, I was more annoyed than scared, especially as the later E.M.M.I. acquired new ways to slow you down. Every time I visited a new area and saw the expansive zone that was sure to be combed over by a beeping robot, I groaned. Though I’ll note that I’m not much of a stealth player; I’m much more fond of combatting things, guns blazing, which won’t work here.
This is not to say that, design-wise, the E.M.M.I. are not effective in their means of keeping you on your toes. They’re well implemented within their respective roles as guardians and all-powerful adversaries, making one feel relatively inferior. Anxiety-inducing, certainly, and there is some fun to be had with seeing how creatively one can escape their pursuit. My only issue remains with the effectiveness of the “terror” they provide, and whether or not they come across more as a nuisance. They certainly did for me.
General Combat and Functions
What some may be wondering given the scope of the game and the system it calls home is its overall functionality. While the Nintendo Switch isn’t much for power, it takes advantage with somewhat smaller projects filled with a sort of condensed atmosphere and color. Metroid Dread fits this bill, and generally runs quite well. Some dips in framerate can occur every so often, though not to the point of being a stranglehold. What’s more noticeable are the load times, which, especially with all the elevators and fast travel points, can accumulate quickly if on the hunt for item expansions. Ranging from 15 to 20 seconds, it’d be a nice time to take a quick look at the phone.
Enough about the technical details; how does the game play? Without a shred of hyperbole, wonderfully. How naturally the developers managed to take all the tight, responsive controls of Samus Returns and evolve them further for a faster-paced, more challenging package. Samus is beautifully athletic from the very beginning, flipping, wall jumping, sliding, and countering at lightning speed that almost rivals the 2D handheld titles. There is rarely a moment of frustration via the controls—the polish ensures that anything bad that may occur is completely on you.
If the combat isn’t satisfying in a Metroid game, is it really a Metroid game? Dread is quite eager to showcase all that makes the franchise so satisfying to play and more. While the enemy display in general environments is relatively varied and nice to counter, the bosses are what truly shine. Hard as they may be, they’re more advanced than ever, with impressive takedown animations with successful counters and tons of different ways to obliterate you. Like multiple fights against the elongated K. Rool fights from the Donkey Kong Country series, execution is key, and they’re all the more fun because of it.
All the necessary familiarities are present: item-collecting, arsenal-building, puzzle-solving, backtracking, and the returning Aeion abilities. It’s not nearly as nonlinear as Super Metroid, but not quite as rigid as Samus Returns. Though it’s pretty easy to simply progress through the game as needed, as the level design subtly coasts the path along to always show a clear-ish path to the unknown. So long as the player always remembers the item they most recently received, finding the way to go shouldn’t be an issue.
There’s no doubt that this game was developed by a talented group of developers that knew its core audience. Adhering to the “dread” that the title implies, it’s a concoction of all that the franchise is with a distinguishable identity of its own. Complete with a cinematic approach to action and plot twists, it’s a riveting taste of what the future has in store. Whether 2D or 3D, Metroid is back.
Graphics & Audio – New Planet, Similar Sights
Appearing on the most powerful console Nintendo has yet, it’s easy to say that Dread is the best-looking game in the series. Smooth animations, a crisp framerate, and further opportunities for detail provide credence to this sentiment. Samus herself is rather robust, with suit upgrades subtly implying her increasing strength and dexterity. Environments aren’t unlike what’s been shown previously—dark caves, icy pathways, underwater chasms, laboratories, and lava-filled caverns are much of what one will see. However, they’re nonetheless effective in livening the areas and provide suitable distinction between named places. It’s an intriguing, albeit familiar approach to another alien planet.
Atmosphere is a must when it comes this series; it’s among the progenitors of effective use of isolation, wonder, and immersion. While other games may try and squeeze the feeling of innate curiosity, this is more interested in causing, well, dread. E.M.M.I.s and returning faces and new threats are sure to keep the player guessing. Seeing things progress and evolve in this manner is intriguing, those as noted before, perhaps not as well as they would’ve hoped. When it came to uninhibited exploration, it’s as naturally enveloping as any game within this genre can be. Almost like this series set the precedent.
By far the weakest aspect, unfortunately, is the soundtrack. Unsettling, unnerving, and energetic generally, it’s also not particularly memorable. Upon completing the game, I remembered approximately three tracks overall that stood out to me, and one is a remix of an already well-established track. Going back through it afterwards, it’s still not particularly effective. Many tracks are more atmospheric, essential within the context of a situation to be effective. Though most may be too focused on thwarting the difficulty of battle to bother. I enjoyed tracks from Burenia and Ghavoran, though they’re far and few between for a soundtrack that takes up three hours.
Better than that, though, is the sound design. When you destroy things, they’re decimated. When you encounter something monstrous, they display every measure of their might. Specific items are well-endowed with sci-fi-esque blasts and explosions, and even some snappy whips. E.M.M.I. zones will give the player insight into the drone’s location based on the volume of their standby beeps and buzzes. There’s a noticeable bombast to destroying adversaries upon finding newer weapons and items. It’s effective enough to keep the adventure fresh without going too over-the-top.
Metroid Dread was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch.