What’s Good About Metroid Dread
Metroid Dread is the first home console-style 2D Metroid game in roughly 19 years. You’d be forgiven for not keeping track considering that for a good chunk of the 21st century thus far, Metroid has been a strictly 3D affair, with the last “traditional” entry in the series being Metroid Fusion back in 2002. The reason I bring this up is that Metroid Dread came out in early October (Canadian Thanksgiving weekend specifically), has been in some form of development hell for 15 years, and I played through it all the way and most of the way a second time since then. It was one of my most anticipated games of this year and not only did it live up to the hype, but it’s also probably one of the best damn video games that came out this year.
The story begins with Samus recapping the events of the series leading up to the end of Metroid Fusion, followed by getting a Federation distress call about the disappearance of the E.M.M.I. units, 7 virtually indestructible research robots, and the re-emergence of the X Parasites: highly intelligent parasitic life forms that can perfectly mimic whatever they infect and kill (they’re Metroid’s take on The Thing). As the only being in the universe immune to X infection due to being effectively spliced with Metroid DNA, she makes her way to the call’s point of origin, the abandoned Chozo outpost of ZDR. There, she has a run-in with a mysterious, armored Chozo warrior who beats her up and causes her to experience “physical amnesia”, the latest and second-best instance of her losing all of her neat toys at the start of a new game. From there, Samus must navigate the underground biomes of ZDR to learn about what happened there and ultimately get out.
If that seems like a lot, that’s because it is. And what I described was just the first five minutes because this is the most story I’ve seen in a Metroid game since I think Other M, but I never played that. Dread carries itself with the weight of a closing chapter, and it feels like that if you kept up with the stories in these games. All of it is doled out through briefings with ADAM, the AI in Samus’s ship. While I’m not sure if the major revelations the game throws at you lands, it certainly gets points for trying.
What I do like about Dread is how it characterizes Samus; except for two times at the middle and end of the game respectively, MercurySteam opts to take the Doom Slayer approach to Samus Aran. What I mean by this is that she expresses herself primarily through character animation and body language to get the point across. The best example of this is when she runs into long-time pain-in-her-ass Kraid and just greets him but just charges beam cannon while keeping it at her waist, giving off an air of mild annoyances more than anything. This one moment, combined with dozens of other small things in the game all come together to make Samus look and feel like the biggest badass in the room. As she should be.
ZDR is a locale is a mishmash of underground caverns, mining facilities, rainswept docks, underwater facilities, superheated magma caverns, and more. The way that it’s laid out makes it very easy to read as a map and navigate as a space, although I and my legendarily bad sense of direction made sure to screw that up every hour. To the point where even when I was on the right path, I’d get lost, leave it for an hour, and come back only to curse myself out because of the path being super obvious in hindsight. But my bad sense of direction aside, this is an excellently designed game world with several shortcuts, pathways, backtracking, and secret hunting to be done.
Aiding you in this is a greatest hits of Samus’s gadgets and powers. These range from the iconic like the Morph Ball, Speed Booster, and Screw Attack, to the different but welcome like the Ice Missiles from Metroid Fusion and Storm Missiles from the Metroid Prime series, and the Pulse Armor returning from Samus Returns, to the weird and brand new like the cross bombs upgrade for the Morph Ball (which, in an interesting shakeup of the Metroid formula, you don’t get first as a means of highlighting the newer upgrades first), the Spider Magnet (which does what it squads on the tin, it lets you stick to specific surfaces like a magnet and climb the like a spider) and the new Aeion abilities. The Aeion Abilities are these unique powerups introduced in Dread that give Samus new and interesting ways to interact with the environment, like the aforementioned Pulse Armor being a radar that helps you with finding secret items, the Phantom Cloak which turns you invisible for a set amount of time and when it depletes it starters eating into your health, and my personal favorite: the Flash Shift, a super rad and quick-moving dash/dodge that can be chained up to three times and it hands down the best addition to Samus’s repertoire.
You will need not only all of these to get around the terrain of ZDR unscathed, but you will also use a good chunk of them in the game’s combat and E.M.M.I. Rooms. Remember the E.M.M.I. robots I mentioned near the start of this? Well, this is important because they are research robots that are designed to catch targets and get samples of the specimen they are programmed to find. This has been changed to you for reasons you discover later. While the seven E.M.M.I.s are spread across the entire planet, they are designated to patrol specific rooms and can’t catch you unawares as the SA-X did back in Fusion. This is where the majority of your non-combat enhancing upgrades come into play, aiding you in traversing the E.M.M.I.’s patrol zones and keeping them from getting their mechanical mitts on you. They all have their unique abilities to aid in their hunts for you, just as you have yours. It makes for a great game of cat and mouse, and for the record, most of my deaths across both playthroughs have been to these mechanical bastards.
As for the minute-to-minute gameplay, it plays like a refined version of Metroid Samus Returns from what I’ve heard from friends who’ve played it. The key differences are that you have full 360 degrees of aim room to work with and you have a melee counter on top of that, which when you hit the mapped button for it when an enemy flashes white, parries them for a huge stun and an instant kill. This can also be done on bosses for a cool cinematic sequence that can let you get a bunch of damage in a short amount of time. That counter, combined with the Flash Shift, and much more aggressive enemy patterns and attacks all add up for possibly the most difficult combat challenge I think I’ve ever seen in a Metroid game. I’m not complaining in the slightest over this because this is both the most mechanically satisfying to control version of Samus in one of these games and the bosses in Dread are SO GOOD. Like the best bosses I’ve fought in a Metroidvania-style game ever, all capped off with an absolute banger of a final boss fight. Seriously, that final boss fight is so goddamn good.
One last thing I want to touch on is the sound and music. A lot of it comes in the form of ambient background noise and synths, more subtle and subdued than other games in the series from my experience with it. The sole exceptions are the harsh, heavy drones that comprise Dread’s take on the main menu theme and the high-energy final boss theme. It’s great stuff.
Metroid Dread is hands down one of the best games I’ve played in 2021, bar none. It shows an entire genre built by the foundation of Metroid laid out and proceeds to effortlessly go “This is how you do it”. I highly recommend it for those of you looking for what the best examples of the Metroidvania genre have to offer or who need a game to play on Switch this holiday season.
Not bad for a game that was in Development Hell for 15 years.