My relationship with Metroidvanias has waned a little over the years. I used to adore them back when I only had the Metroid and Castlevania games to play through, but now I feel slightly overwhelmed by the genre. There are so many nowadays, and they demand so much of your time; not only due to the game’s length, but also because it’s important to retain familiarity with the world in order to remember where you need to inevitably backtrack to. However, given that both of the franchises that spawned the genre are seemingly dormant, these games tend to be from indie developers who want to keep that legacy going.
But now the Queen of the Genre is back. Can she reclaim the throne and show the others how things should be done, or is it time for her to abdicate?
BETTER DREAD THAN DEAD
I’m not going to go into the history of Metroid in order to catch you up to speed with the story, partly because there’s so much stuff out there that does it better, but also because the game offers a nice brief summary of what’s happened so far in its opening. It’s a very ‘cliff-notes’ version of her adventures, but it provides enough detail to allow newcomers to understand the context of what’s going on.
Instead, let’s jump straight into the present where we find Samus investigating a video of unknown origin that appears to show images of an X parasite on the planet ZDR. These parasites were considered extinct after her capers in Metroid Fusion, so their appearance is worrying. The Galactic Federation sent a team of E.M.M.I. robots to look into it beforehand, but their signal was lost soon after they arrived. Samus is the only one immune to the parasite after having being infused with Metroid DNA, which also means she is the only one who can help. Cue a bout of “physical amnesia” after an encounter with a mysterious foe, and your adventure begins on the planet’s surface with only your basic equipment intact.
The story itself is surprisingly light in the early game, with cutscenes predominantly being used to set the scene, or just show off how badass Samus Aran really is. However, later on, you’ll hit a point where the story really comes into effect and you will be swamped with some fascinating new lore that provides more mythology to the Chozo race, and also helps to frame events from previous games. You’ll be left with many questions as you play your way through the game, but many of these will be resolved by the time the credits roll.
THE FUSION OF METROID
Despite never selling very well, the Metroid series has (almost) always been received well by gamers and critics alike. The two games that usually come up when describing the best 2D entries in the franchise are usually Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion; the former because of how revolutionary and open it felt, and the latter because of its brooding atmosphere that always managed to keep you on edge. What Metroid Dread attempts to do is to combine the two formulas: bring back that feeling of dread, whilst giving you the freedom to explore, and perhaps even find your own way to your next objective. In fact, that next objective isn’t always clear and sometimes boils down to ‘find a way to progress’. It’s extremely liberating, if a little daunting, but MercurySteam have pulled it off rather well.
The world of ZDR offers a multitude of distinct locations, even if the themes themselves hardly offer anything new for the series. You have your typical water and fire areas, amongst other usual tropes – each with their own forgettably alien name. They’re fitting for the world of Metroid, sure, but I honestly couldn’t name many of them even after beating the game three twice. Thankfully, the levels themselves are far more memorable, with well designed platforming gimmicks utilised throughout. The series is well known for its top notch design, and Dread doesn’t falter here either. Even the underwater segments are kept rather brief as to minimise frustration, although once you gain the ability to travel through it faster, it still feels extremely liberating. There’s not a single bad area in the game, and you’ll always be eager to find out what awaits you in the next location… even if the loading screens between transitions take a painfully long time.
As you explore every nook and cranny of ZDR, you’ll find a continual supply of new items that will help you proceed further; it’s never long between obtaining one gizmo and finding the next, so you’ll always have new toys to play with. There’s a mix of classic upgrades and new ones, with the latter containing some neat additions to the series – although there are a couple that end up being a little superfluous. As is common with the genre, the world is also jam-packed with hidden weapon and health expansions for you to seek out that will help you survive against the dangers that await you. Most of these are simple enough to find, as they’re easy enough to spot, needing only the right tools to help you collect them. They’re all automatically marked on your map too, helpfully, so there’s never any need to place waypoints to keep track of where you need to return to – but it may still advisable, as the map doesn’t make it clear which upgrades have been collected and which have only been seen. Whilst not all expansions are immediately visible, any quadrant that contains a secret will flash white to indicate that something is tucked away for you to find: this definitely helps make 100%ing the game much less of a hassle compared to previous titles. By the time you’re fully equipped, you’ll feel like an unstoppable killing machine – flying around the world with ease destroying everything in sight. It results in an odd difficulty curve, but being overpowered at that point feels fully deserved: Samus is an unstoppable bounty hunter, so it’s only natural that she will be able to tear through most opponents with ease at full power.
The backtracking required to obtain all these items is also helped by the game’s fast and fluid control scheme. She wasn’t exactly sluggish in the older games, but Dread kicks things up a notch by increasing her movement speed and adding some extra movement options to help you get around. Newly added to the default moveset is the ability to slide under objects (although ‘Metroid’ is still unable to crawl), as well as being able to pull yourself up ledges. Later on, you’ll gain upgrades that make moving around even faster – enabling you to run from one side of an area to the other in no time at all. It’s not just the upgrades that help with movement, but even smaller touches to the movement controls make a huge difference: for example, when Samus comes across a small ledge, she’ will automatically step onto it. A lot of thought has been put into her movement to ensure it’s never a hassle. In a genre where backtracking is frequent, this is a very welcome quality of life change.
THE CHOZO ONE
Unfortunately, the combat controls don’t hold up quite as well. They’re good for the most part, but they can feel just a tad finnicky at times. As standard you fire freely whilst moving, but it’ll be hard to kill anything like that earlier on until your beam is upgraded. As such, you’ll learn to rely on manual targeting, which is activated by holding in the left bumper. If you want to switch to your missiles, it’ll require holding an additional button, essentially requiring you to be holding in four inputs at the same time. Later you’ll earn other abilities that function in a similar way but with slight differences, and it can be easy to mix them up under pressure. Even after my second time through, I still wasn’t 100% comfortable with the setup; perhaps a weapon switch option or remappable controls would have helped mitigate frustration, but alas – neither are present here. It’s not enough to be a deal breaker, but it’s slightly disappointing considering how great the movement controls are.
At least the enemies are fun to take out. Your standard fodder are a mix of old and new, with some bearing striking resemblances to creatures found on Zebes, and others being all new. Each have ideal ways to take them out, and many also have an attack which can be melee countered for a quick kill. These counters also make the enemies drop more supplies than usual, so it’s worth doing this if you’re running a little low. As with ever Metroid game, the bosses are where the game truly shines with every fight being both tough and enjoyable. It’s likely that you’ll die at least once in every fight (don’t worry, the game autosaves before), but every encounter is fair. There are no cheap shots, only attack patterns that need to be learnt and avoided. Minibosses fair a little worse, but only because they’re repeated so often that they start to become a chore after a while. They’re still fun, but you’re likely to get sick of seeing the same ones over and over again. What really makes the boss fights interesting is that many have alternate strategies that can be used against them. Remember the boss in Super Metroid that you could instantly kill with the grapple beam? There are similar strategies here. One notable example can be killed quickly by using morph ball bombs – but only if you acquire them earlier than usual. Considering that there’s a special cutscene for this kill, this tactic is 100% intentional. MercurySteam knows what longtime fans love about the series, and it shows.
Of course, I can’t talk about enemies without mentioning the E.M.M.I. units. As mentioned at the top of the review, these deadly robots went missing on ZDR. They weren’t destroyed, however: they were simply reprogrammed to hunt down and kill Samus whilst trying to extract her DNA. Each one sporting a different colour, these robotic Power Rangers patrol a particular zone in each area; entering one, will trigger some ominous music and a slightly fuzzy screen to warn you that you’re now being hunted. Their AI is pretty decent, with them crawling along walls and through tunnels in order to track you down. You can take a stealthy approach to avoid being found, but using the environment to outmanoeuvre them is usually the best approach. It’s always tense, as these tough beasts are unstoppable without using a special weapon to destroy them. If you’re caught though, it’s almost certain death. It is possible to escape with a well-time QTE, but don’t rely on it. The game saves before entering an E.M.M.I. zone, so these encounters never feel frustrating. It also helps that every one has its own gimmick to make each one slightly different to the rest. They’re a nice addition and feel like an extension to the SA-X encounters from Metroid Fusion.
Metroid Dread can’t exactly be classed as a long game, but it certainly feels like a game that’s long enough. Completing the game with all the items should take you around 15 hours of playtime or so, and it rarely feels like a drag. There’s plenty of unlockable art for you to obtain, but these are tied to completion percentages and completion time – neither of which are overly hard to achieve. The artwork is cool and provides some extra background to events, but it’s no real substitute for the bestiary that should have been in the game. I’d have much preferred some extra lore for the creatures, especially for that one boss who makes a return from a prior game. You’ll also unlock a hard mode after beating the game, but it’s a little bit of a letdown: with only slight enemy health and damage buffs, it doesn’t feel like a jump in difficulty at all. In fact, given your improved skills by the end of your first completion, you’ll likely find hard mode easier than your initial playthrough!
But, with all that being said, you will want to play through it again. I jumped into hard mode straight after beating the game, and I’m going to go straight back into the game for a third playthrough. Considering games in the genre usually exhaust me after completion, it says a lot about the quality of the title. The level design is purposely open enough to encourage alternate routes for those who can find them: the shinespark and morph ball bombs in particular work wonders for skipping sections and taking bosses down quickly. The game is certainly designed for replayabiity, but it would still have been nice to have had unlockable suits, or a randomiser mode, or just something else. The lack of extra content is very noticeable, especially when compared to other titles in the genre – or even some of the other games in the franchise. Metroid Prime, for example, had lore entries, a bestiary, hard mode, the fusion suit, and the original game to keep you playing more. Maybe they will add some extra content in the future – but I wouldn’t count on it.
We have been waiting a long time for Metroid 5, and Metroid Dread does not disappoint. There are certainly small gripes, to be sure, but the game deserves a place alongside Super Metroid, Metroid Zero Mission, and Metroid Fusion. If MercurySteam continue to remain in charge of the 2D entries, I think it’s safe to say it’s in good hands.