Metroid is a weird little series. Despite being part of the Nintendo first party IP, it has never performed particularly strongly on a commercial level. Weirder still is that this series pioneered the non-linear adventure game genre, which is now actually referred to as “Metroidvania design”, shared between Super Metroid and Castlevania respectively. Where Metroid has been strong however, is with its critical and fan reception, for the most part – Super Metroid being one of the highest regarded games of all time.
Metroid Dread, the latest entry in the franchise has a lot to live up to. Not only does it have to meet the expectations of fans who have waited 15 years for this game, it must also meet Nintendos financial expectations. If that wasn’t enough, it also has to compete with the new kids on the block, the games designed by those who grew up inspired by the Super Metroid, iterated on it, and arguably perfected the design, citing Hollow Knight as an example here.
Has Metroid Dread done enough to modernise itself and compete in a market where being “Metroidvania” is no longer enough to be unique? The short answer, for me, is yes, but there is a lot to discuss.
A long time ago…
The story of Metroid Dread is one which has been ongoing since the series’ inception. If you don’t have the experience with the franchise before now, not to worry, it opens up with a lengthy text intro explaining the main factions at play here, the Metroids, and the X-parasites. You play as Samus Aran, a bounty hunter setting out to destroy both of these factions, which have been located on the planet ZDR. Samus is also part-Metroid herself to complicate matters. None of these intricacies matter too much to the gameplay itself however so don’t worry too much, the story sits in the background nicely. If you have kept up to date with the story until this point, you’ll certainly get more out of it, but I don’t think it detracts from your experience if this is your first time jumping in.
ZDR is also full of robots called EMMIs, large quadrupedal foes, out for your blood who are unable to be damaged through regular means. This is where the titular ‘dread’ comes into play. As if you don’t have enough to content with on this alien planet.
As per most games in this genre, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night included, you start out as a full-blown badass, but unfortunately, some event occurs which ends up with Samus suffering from “physical amnesia”, meaning she has lost and is unable to use her powers. Thus begins your adventure to get them back whilst completing your mission, classic Metroidvania design.
The galaxy far, far away
The planet of ZDR itself is a huge and sprawling playground, full of transport links and varied biomes, even if these fall into the usual architypes seen in a Nintendo game – the jungle bit, the lava bit, the ice bit, etc. These generic environments wouldn’t be an issue for me, however they don’t feel connected in any meaningful way, besides a few elevators and railway networks. Nothing spills over from one place to another; the icy part of the map could sit right next to the fire area with no mention of how they may collide or interact. This is perhaps amplified by the minimalist map screen, which separates these areas by transport links, but doesn’t give the greater context of where we are on the planet, it was my understanding that we were always underground, but we somehow go outside to huge palaces, and also into the rain, so I’m a bit lost as to how this works. Ultimately it doesn’t impact the gameplay per se, but for a series which has an emphasis on atmosphere, it just feels a little off to me. Contrast this with something like the City of Tears from Hollow Knight, an underground city where the rain never ceases. On my first play-through, I didn’t think anything of this, until I ventured further towards the surface and notices a huge body of water sitting directly above the city. Suddenly it all made sense, and it was a memorable piece of environmental storytelling which I would’ve hoped to see more of in Metroid Dread.
When looking at the map screen in its finished state, you would be right to feel daunted, chambers upon chambers of nooks, crannies and hidden blocks concealing upgrades. This was certainly a fear that I had when venturing into ZDR, the deeper I go, the more chance I have of getting lost, frustrated and ultimately shelving Metroid Dread like I have several games of this genre, The Messenger springs to mind. Luckily however, Metroid Dread is ever so cleverly designed. Through thoughtful and deliberate use of points of no return, you never have too much of the map to comb through at any one time. Something else which really jumped out to me was how after gaining each power-up, there is usually a nice breadcrumb trail of places to use this which guide you back to the critical path and keep the pace of the game much higher than something like Super Metroid. I greatly appreciated this, even if some series purists would prefer less-linear progression, newcomers to the series rejoice, this is the most accessible Metroid game to date.
There are also a few more quality of life implementations which help orient yourself as your progress through the roughly 7-8 hour adventure. One which I think should be the new standard for Metroidvania games is the inclusion of icons on your map screen which highlight where abilities should be used. This allows Mercury Stream to cut down on the backtracking time significantly. If you get lost, check the map, look for any dead ends which require a power you have recently earned and pick those off one-by-one. You’ll either find the critical path you are looking at, or at the very least some goodies like the ever-important missile capacity upgrades (essential for boss encounters).
Rules of the universe
Moment to moment gameplay is split up into three sections – platforming/exploration, combat and stealth. As your progress through your adventure, you’ll acquire a slew of powers which will affect all areas of gameplay. Without spoiling any of these in too much detail for you, one power gives you the ability to shoot three bullets at once, not only does this triple your damage output, but you can also use it to shoot three switches at once, which is needed to open certain doors throughout the world. Each of these upgrades serve as worthy additions to your arsenal, and there weren’t any that I thought were completely useless, this made each time a power-up orb was discovered an exciting prospect, what lies inside?
With over 20 powers being acquired through the game, the controls do suffer a little in this regard. Mercifully, some of these powers override existing commands, such as the aforementioned triple shot replacing your single shot. However, some powers aren’t so graceful, such as particular bomb abilities being triggered by “holding down, pressing LT, then holding RB and pressing X”. The compounding of some of these inputs led to a few mistakes on my part as you contort your hands to do what you want, more stressful when it is something time sensitive.
The art of (star) wars
Focusing on the combat firstly, the shooting feels great, I especially love the snappy feeling of holding LB to anchor yourself in place and manually aim with the left stick. Progressing through the world, gaining strength only to return to enemies which previously gave you trouble melting before your newfound power is a tried-and-true exercise in catharsis. On top of this snappy and responsive shooting, you can access to various missiles which are used to damage armoured and boss foes, with limited ammo, ensuring that your aim is true during these encounters can be the difference between victory and defeat.
A parry has also been included, first introduced in the 3DS Samus Returns from the same developer. This is difficult to talk about, it feels awesome to parry a foe at the last second, opening them up to a one-shot kill attack, especially as the camera zooms in and the action slows down to show you just how much of a badass you are. However, the mandatory nature of learning how to use this, makes for some frustrating game design, such as with the bosses and mini-bosses. I would’ve preferred to have this option available to spice up combat and reward skilled play, but not be essential for progression. Especially when these parry opportunities are presented in cutscenes. I thought the industry had moved past quick-time-events.
Boss encounters are disappointingly infrequent, however, when they do crop up, they are lengthy tests of skill, with a respectable scope, giving them a large onscreen presence, for the most-part. The parry mechanic rears its ugly head here too however, every boss encounter must be finished with one, or multiple of these parries. If you fail the sequence, you basically have to start over and this can lead to some unfair feeling losses. The pressure placed on these parry opportunities certainly makes them tense but losing a previously flawless battle because you miss an opening like this sucks.
When you do manage to get the parry though, the boss finishing moves are pretty badass, ripped straight out of your favourite anime. Shout out to the character animation team here for making Samus look like a total boss as she dominates her foe, walking that fine line between flashy, calm and efficient as she dispatches her adversaries.
Mini-bosses are more frequent, and unfortunately recycled, palette swaps of previous encounters, sometimes you have to fight two at one (yay). Not much more to say here, but I wish these was a bit more variety in these fights, rather than just having them seemingly dropped in at random.
Platforming and exploration are what you will spend the majority of your time with Metroid Dread doing however. As mentioned earlier, the exploration is fast-paced, cuts out as much down-time as possible and makes for a much more streamlined experience, for better or for worse. Controlling Samus feels great for the most-part, she most quickly, the animation is smooth and provides great feedback and the inclusion of the slide is a welcome one. Running through previous areas takes very little time thanks to this fluid movement and the little backtracking present is actually a lot of fun thanks to this heightened movement.
There are a few hang-ups here though which cause Metroid Dread to fall short of some of its contemporaries though, one being the jump itself. It feels great when used in large open environments, however, when precision is required it can be a little frustrating. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that with Samus’ forward jump, although you can change the direction, she will always be moving forward, making tight jumps difficult as you wiggle the analog stick back and forth in order to land directly beneath your current position. The other problem is with the distinction between a ‘spin jump’ and a ‘standing jump’. One gives much more mobility than the other and in order to trigger a spin jump, you need to be moving on the ground beforehand – this can be difficult when on narrow platforms or backed into a corner by a boss or regular enemy. A remedy for this would be to change every jump to be a spin variant and allow for greater air control.
The other issue comes with one of the power ups in particular, the grappling hook. This has never controlled particularly well, but I’m not sure that is an excuse. I won’t dive too much into this now since the jumping was the main gripe I had, but I wanted the grapple beam noted down also.
As mentioned, the movement does feel great in those loose sections, like the chase sequences, but whenever precision is needed, this is when the cracks begin to show.
No one can hear you scream
The final ingredient of the Metroid Dread formula is stealth. These sections are initiated as you enter an EMMI zone. This is conveyed to you through the use of smoke throughout the area and some pretty darn creepy music. Getting caught by one of these enemies means almost certain death, they can be parried when initially grabbing you, but the inconsistent timing means you shouldn’t rely on this as a strategy.
The EMMIs are able to hear your footsteps which leads to some very tense moments of skulking around, not knowing when or where you might get jumped. Powers acquired for exploration can also aid you in this facet of gameplay though. Such as the Morph Ball which allows your to hide in tight spaces away from the mechanical death dealers, this can be coupled with the phantom cloak that offers up some much needed cover, even when you are out in the open – at the cost of some mobility.
Once spotted by these foes, you need to run for it. This is where the platform and traversal truly shines in my opinion. The experience of being hunted down by these extremely creepy and surprisingly agile robots is tense and exciting. Chaining together wall jumps, sliding beneath and through tricky areas in order to evade capture and outmaneuver those stupid machines feels awesome. This is further improved when you finally are able to stand toe-to-toe with them and blow their heads off, it all feels so dang good.
I didn’t expect to be too keen on the stealth sections here, but surprisingly, I do love them and the EMMIs are some of the most memorable foes in the game.
Lights and sounds
Graphically, the game stands up for itself. Being on the Switch, the power of the hardware is quite limited, but it never detracted from the experience. The sterile looking environments comes with the sci-fi territory, but there are some glimpses of wildlife in the background of some areas, and this kind of flair and personality is what I would’ve wanted to see more of.
Metroid Dread feels okay on the ears also. The return of the iconic ‘power up acquired’ jingle is always great to hear. The music on the whole isn’t overly memorable for me though, I couldn’t hum any of the tunes to you now and I only finished the campaign last night. It isn’t bad, but it won’t have you scouring the internet for the music files after you’re done. I’m not an expert on music, so maybe take this with a pinch of salt, it might be awesome, it might suck, but for me, it was serviceable.
Dreadfully good or just plain dreadful?
Metroid Dread took me just over 7 hours to complete according to the final results screen, I don’t think this took into account failed boss attempts or any times I died and lost progress, so this was probably closer to 8 hours in total. The adventure was a lot of fun and is even the first Metroid game I’ve seen through to the credits, so that is a mark of achievement for the title.
One thing that I will say is that you should play on the Pro Controller, if you want to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome that is. I can’t imagine playing this in handheld either, with the difficulty of some sections, I’d definitely end up snapping my Switch in half if I was playing on a plane or something.
The big question hanging over Metroid Dread right now is whether or not it is worth £50. My answer to that is a resounding “yeah?”. I spent 50 of my hard-earned pounds on it and I don’t regret it, so that is surely a good sign. Whether you’re a fan of Metroid or not, this is a great way to spend a few hours, even if I would still choose Hollow Knight any day of the week.