Metroid Dread – Dreadfully Good
In 35th years the Metroid franchise has seen its fair share of turmoil. Despite its prominence in other Nintendo media like Smash Bros. and spin-off titles in the form of Metroid Prime, but the core, 2D Metroid titles, the ones that put the Metroid in MetroidVania as a sub-genre have languished for the bulk of the years post 2004. Recently though the winds have change have begun to sweep through for the franchise with Castlevania: Lord Of Shadow (and sequels) developer MecurySteam reviving Metroid II in the form of the wonderfully received 2017 title, Metroid: Samus Returns, and now, in 2021, we finally get the next chapter in the Metroid timeline, the long rumoured, and longed for, Metroid Dread.
Set at the (current) endpoint of the Metroid timeline, Samus is bringing with her a host of trauma from her previous encounters with the Metroid, and the X Parasite. Seemingly, the world was in a place of peace, until a mysterious transmission emerged, showing an X out in the wild on the planet ZDR. The Galactic Federation, eager to squash the threat, dispatched E.M.M.I to investigate the area. Usually E.M.M.I would be readily equipped to eliminate the threat instantly, but when all communication with the E.M.M.I dissipates, the Federation turns to Samus to save the day. What transpires is an incredible journey of Samus fighting survival against all odds against the Federation’s own corrupted E.M.M.I forces, and a threat looming above it all pulling the strings on a scheme that could bring about the end of the world if Samus fails. The plot is a fascinating one, pulling on all of the threads from previous Metroid games, whilst weaving a constantly engaging plot through ZDR as well.
Dread by name dread by nature, with Metroid Dread leaning heavily upon moments of suspense to underpin parts of the gameplay. While the standard fare is here and plays as well as it ever has, the intensity ratchets up significantly when Samus enters E.M.M.I zones, areas of each region that are stalked by one of seven E.M.M.I, and when one finds you, it will relentlessly chase you, and should it be successful, you have an incredibly small window of time to evade death. Get caught by an E.M.M.I and you’ll have two miniscule windows of time to parry; failure results in instant death, but success gives you a small window of time to escape. Players will need to utilize the fullest extent of Samus’ skillset to evade and survive the E.M.M.I threat, but the best-laid plans can crumble fast if you’re spotted, and with the excessively small window to counter, players might find themselves frustrated by these encounters, especially given the MetroidVania nature of the game requiring players to re-enter the E.M.M.I zones frequently. Some balancing is also required for the game’s bosses. Ignoring the fact that in the final third of the game, players will begin to see the same re-skinned bosses return for multiple bouts, the bosses themselves are particularly hard to thwart, not because their attack patterns are hard to recognise, but because evading and retaliating on your own end can be quite difficult and the bosses can be a bit bullet-spongy.
Samus’ biggest threats can be a bit of a handful, but outside of those arenas and E.M.M.I zones, the moment-to-moment of Dread is exceptional. The MetroidVania elements are well implemented, with players zig-zagging across the map with ease. The critical path is usually quite clear, and the game does a great job of highlighting Samus’ newly acquired abilities to ensure that once the onboarding is complete, you can then scan your map quickly and identify your next destination. Combat, especially as Samus’ artillery expands, has been well balanced, with Samus always feeling like the dominant force in the room, but still vulnerable at any given moment. The parry functionality, introduced in Samus Returns, itself returns in Dread and ensures the game continues to feel modern and fresh, despite the classic elements included that take the spotlight. The game draws upon all of the right elements from previous Metroid entries; the updated combat of Samus Returns, the world structure of Metroid Fusion, and the expansive, fairly overwhelming size of Super Metroid.
Metroid Dread is a pretty game. Samus will visit a number of different regions on ZDR, but each feels as though it has an identity of its own, more than the cliche fire and ice regions, or the region with toxic air. Each region has been stunningly rendered, either on the big screen or in handheld mode. CG cutscenes have been realised incredibly well and the voice-acting is superb. The pulsating soundtrack, evoking the spirit of previous titles, instantly grabs your attention, and even when implemented more subtly, is additive to every scenario you Samus finds herself in.
Metroid Dread is a truly exceptional return to the spotlight for the franchise and Samus Aran. Having been somewhat lost in the wilderness for the better part of a decade, the pair of Nintendo and MercurySteam has worked wonders for the franchise. Some balancing issues erode at the unbelievable foundation of the game, but dread about the future of Metroid no longer, Samus is back in style.