Review – Metroid Dread
Can you believe it has been nearly twenty years since Metroid Fusion, the last original 2D Metroid? This factor alone is enough to make me love the fact that Metroid Dread exists. It is a return to form for the hugely influential franchise. Not only that, it’s the first Metroid game to be released after the resurgence of the metroidvania genre. Even though that is all thanks to the myriad of indie titles that are often even better than their sources of inspiration, such as Hollow Knight, Bloodstained, and most notably, Ori. Weirdly enough, it’s almost as if Dread is now the underdog when compared to its modern peers. Grandpa is back, so let’s see if it was worth the wait.
First and foremost, let me be clear: Metroid Dread is a direct sequel to Metroid Fusion. As in, it assumes you’ve played it and that you know what the hell happened in that game, because it barely gives you a recap of it. In fact, it assumes you’re well versed in the series as a whole. This is a game for fans, giving newcomers little to no info as to what the hell is a Chozo, a Metroid, or an X Parasite. I did not mind that, since I did play Metroid Fusion back in the day, but it’s worth acknowledging that fact beforehand. If you have never played a Metroid game before, make sure to play Super Metroid on the Switch’s Super Nintendo library before tackling it, in order to get used to the franchise’s gameplay and level design. You won’t get a lot of tutorials in here.
When compared to previous entries in the franchise, Metroid Dread is also surprisingly story-heavy. Sure, it starts off like most Metroid entries: the Galactic Federation tells Samus to go a new planet and investigate mysterious activity. She arrives at said place, gets beaten up by a new threat, loses her gear, and has to recollect them all in order to face the final threat. The difference this time around is the inclusion of a handful of cinematic cutscenes and lots of dialogue sections featuring ADAM, the AI introduced in Metroid Fusion, which acts as the Cortana to Samus’ Master Chief, in broad terms. And yes, that means that there is voice acting in this game. Thankfully, nowhere near as bad as Metroid: Other M.
Gameplay-wise, this is a direct sequel to Metroid: Samus Returns, the 3DS remake of the Game Boy cult classic. That’s both a good and a bad thing. It retains some of the best things about that game’s controls, such as the melee parrying system, but it also retains one of the most annoying things about that game as a whole: its aiming system. I get that you needed to add an aiming button and move your sights around with the circle pad on the 3DS due to not all models having twin sticks, but there is no reason for that to be absent in the Switch. It makes things cumbersome, especially when you’re fighting bosses, as these sections are no pushovers.
Metroid Dread is a hard game, and that’s fine. In fact, that’s excellent. It’s almost shocking to see Nintendo care so little whether or not a big budget release of theirs is accessible to a massive audience or not. This feels like the perfect “this was made with die-hard fans in mind” type of game. Samus is as frail as a twig, with enemies dealing massive damage, and bosses being ridiculously brutal… but in no moment do these sections feel unfair. I cannot say I have ever managed to one-shot a boss in Metroid Dread, but I didn’t mind. I quickly learned their attack patterns, and more often than not I’d eventually kill them without suffering a lot damage, if any. You learn with your mistakes in here and there is no better feeling than overcoming what you once thought was impossible to overcome.
The level design is fantastic, as to be expected in a Metroid game. So is the progression system. I even joked with a few friends when I found out that the Morph Ball wasn’t the first powerup acquired in Metroid Dread, calling it the biggest innovation in the entire game. “It broke new ground!“, I told them. Your typical Metroid staples make a comeback, such as the Wide Beam, Grapple Beam, Space Jump, and the Screw Attack, but new ones are introduced to make your arsenal of gadgets even more entertaining. You have an invisibility cloak, and the Ice Beam has been changed for permanent Ice Missiles, removing the need of having to swap between beams in-game, streamlining your experience.
When Metroid Dread wants to be a Metroid game, it’s fantastic, even if I am not a fan of its control scheme. Dare I say, there are moments in which the game surpasses Super Metroid in terms of quality and “epicness”. Whenever you fight a boss or engage in a story-heavy cutscene, you’ll be blasted with some of the franchise’s most iconic tunes, and boy oh boy, they hit like a freight train of joy. I didn’t mind the soundtrack as a whole that much, and the voice acting is pretty mixed, but these sections more than make up for them.
This is also a game that does provide players with some pretty impressive visuals, considering the Switch’s aging hardware. I think the original reveal trailer didn’t do the game justice, showcasing some of its earlier biomes and cutscenes, which do run at a wonky 30fps. The more you play Dread, the more biomes you’ll unlock, and they do look stunning. This isn’t just about walking through caves and laboratories. You will explore ruined palaces, jungles, and much more, and they do look amazing both on a small screen or on a TV. Some of the more cinematic cutscenes are jaw-dropping, giving us a taste of how the game would look on even more powerful hardware.
That does come at a cost. The game does target 60fps at all times, but that depends on a few factors. One of them is the amount of background detail, as well as the amount of enemies (and, as a result, particles) onscreen. The busier the level, the wonkier the framerate will be. Finally, there’s the “docked x portable” conundrum. Metroid Dread is being touted as the killer app for the brand new Switch OLED, and it’s almost as if it was developed with portable play in mind. There are less framerate issues and slowdowns when playing it in portable mode when compared to how it performs in docked. It’s not unplayable in docked, mind you, but it certainly feels a bit unpolished.
I really like Metroid Dread, but there is one thing included in here that brings its fun factor to a halt: the EMMIs. Remember those Glados-looking robots that appeared on the reveal trailer? Well, they are Metroid Dread‘s main “gimmick”. Because this is a Nintendo game, and Nintendo games need to have a damn gimmick at the end of the day. They are near-indestructible killing machines hell-bent on catching you and killing you in one hit. They are fast, can crawl into tight spaces, and they aren’t affected by water or ice physics. And you need to sneak past them.
A good chunk of Metroid Dread‘s level design is set inside these misty areas where the EMMIs patrol restlessly. You cannot avoid them, and you cannot deal with them at first. As a result, the game stops becoming a metroidvania for a while, and it turns into a stealth horror game that reminded me of Outlast than anything else. This is where you have to use some of your brand new cloaking abilities, but they consume energy and turn you into a turtle walking on molasses. If the damn robots touch you, you have a 0.01% chance of parrying their attacks and avoiding them for a few seconds, but more often than not, it’s game over. Dread is generous with its respawn points, but that doesn’t mean it makes these stealth sections less frustrating.
The only way to kill an EMMI is by exploring these misty labs until you find a specific miniboss you have to kill. Upon killing it, your cannon will be momentarily equipped with an Omega Beam. You now have to look for a long stretch of floor in order to melt down an EMMI’s armor, and then charge a beam that can finally kill it for good. I get what Nintendo and Mercury Steam wanted to do: they wanted to give some tense, Alien-esque vibes in these sections. But in no moment I felt tense or scared. I loathed each and every section featuring an EMMI. Especially those that were set underwater.
Metroid Dread is, well, another 2D Metroid, and that is worth celebrating if you’re a fan of the franchise. It will not, by any means, convert newcomers into die-hard fans of the series, given how it assumes you’ve played its predecessors right from the get-go, but it offers a crap ton of fanservice and excellent level design for those who know what to expect from a Metroid game. If only it didn’t have so many obnoxious stealth horror sections that did nothing but halt my overall enjoyment with it, this could have challenged Super Metroid as to which entry in the series is the greatest of all time.
Metroid Dread boasts some of the most impressive visuals from a first-party Switch title released so far, but it suffers a bit with its framerate, especially on docked mode.
Mercury Steam doubled down on the control scheme used in Metroid: Samus Returns. As a result, while being pretty good, Metroid Dread‘s gameplay feels a bit janky, especially when it comes to aiming with the joycons. Boss battles become unnecessarily harder as a result.
Not the best voice acting in the world, and parts of its soundtrack are just average at best. But when the game decides to hit you with a nostalgic tune or a tense combat theme, you feel it in your bones.
When Metroid Dread is trying to be a Metroid game, it’s brilliant, possibly the best the series has ever been. When Metroid Dread is trying to be a stealth horror game, it becomes a tremendous nuisance.
Final Verdict: 8.0
Metroid Dread is available now on Switch.
Reviewed on Switch.