Metroid Dread Review: Worth The Wait
I was nervous about Metroid Dread. The last fully original 2D Metroid game was released in 2002. I was still in high school. For 19 years, fans of 2D Metroid only had Other M, a game that is only 2D part-time and is terrible most of the time, and a remake of Metroid II a few years ago. When Metroid Fusion released, Metroidvanias were still mostly just Metroid and Castlevania games. Today it seems like a new game in the genre releases a few times a month.
It probably didn’t help that I didn’t love that remake. Samus Returns had its fans, but the new mechanics, especially the counter, just didn’t work for me. They broke up the game’s flow and didn’t feel like Metroid. It wasn’t a bad game, but I didn’t particularly enjoy it. Hearing that the same development team was making Metroid Dread filled me with dread. After so many years of waiting for a new game in one of my favorite series, would I not enjoy it?
My worry was unfounded. The team at MercurySteam has created a game that stands next to the giants of its series. Metroid Dread features incredible combat, fantastic exploration, perhaps the best story in the series, and a deep understanding of what makes this series work. It isn’t perfect, and there are a few minor issues here and there. Still, this is a game any fan of Metroid or the genre it helped create needs to check out.
A Story Nearly Twenty Years In The Making
Metroid Dread picks up shortly after the events of Metroid Fusion. While that game seemingly ended with the destruction of the X parasite, when the Galactic Federation receives video evidence that these dangerous creatures still exist on a remote planet, they send in a set of seven E.M.M.I. robots to investigate. When communication with those robots ceases, they turn to bounty hunter Samus Aran. With immunity to these creatures gained during Metroid Fusion, she’s the only option to safely fight these creatures.
Things go wrong, of course. On arrival, Samus gets into a fight she isn’t ready for and promptly loses all her abilities. If that wasn’t bad enough, she soon runs across one of the E.M.M.I. and finds it’s been turned against her. These deadly robots are nearly unstoppable and seem determined to put an end to Samus’ mission.
It’s brave tying the story of a game released in 2021 so closely to one released in 2002. Series veterans should appreciate the continuation of long-time plot threads though, giving them a strong resolution. New fans don’t need to worry, either. Excellent cut scenes set the stage well, either getting new players up to speed or refreshing the memory of past fans. Dread’s story takes some truly interesting turns, and while not everything is wrapped up with a bow, it honors Nintendo’s claims that this would provide a conclusion to the core Metroid story.
A Smooth Ride
One of the first things I noticed when I really got to dig into Metroid Dread is how smooth everything feels. Samus controls beautifully, with tight controls and powers which make you feel like the badass bounty hunter she is. Like in most Metroid games, you’ll start with a pretty bare-bones set of powers, but that won’t last. You’ll soon be grabbing old favorites and some new abilities as well.
Two abilities, in particular, set Metroid Dread apart early on. One is the counter. Returning from Samus Returns, this was my biggest hang-up about that remake. The counter was extremely powerful, but it also brought your momentum to a total halt, ruining the fluidity of movement that, for me, is a huge part of Metroid. Dread is a significant improvement in this respect. The counter now works while you’re running, allowing you to use it naturally and making combat far smoother. Counters are still powerful, and they’re often the best way to handle certain enemies, but they now feel integrated with the rest of your moves instead of like an alternative that breaks the game’s flow. I can’t think of a mechanic I’ve so thoroughly changed my mind on between entries in a series.
The other big addition is the slide, which ties into Dread’s biggest change. The E.M.M.I. are nearly unstoppable foes who will follow you relentlessly through parts of the game. When you meet them initially, there’s no fighting back. To defeat them, you’ll first need to find a specific shot for each one. Until you find this, running or hiding are the only options. If you’re caught, you can try to time a counter to avoid death, but this is very difficult to get right. So most of the time, you’ll be staring at a game over screen.
The slide is your best friend when escaping these robotic foes. Replacing the morph ball early on, this lets you quickly slide into tight corridors without slowing down or losing momentum. Don’t think E.M.M.I. can’t follow; they’re very flexible and can fit into spaces even you can’t. Doing so slows them down a bit, though, allowing you to put space between you.
Early on, I was afraid these sequences might take away a little of what makes Metroid special. The ability to explore, find secrets and uncover new items. It does, a little bit, but thankfully never for long. This lets these sequences work as a nice change of pace while still letting most of Metroid Dread feel like Metroid. E.M.M.I. only follow you through set areas, and once you leave their zones, you’re safe from them. That means most of the time, you’re still able to explore to your heart’s content. Even E.M.M.I. zones eventually become safe, allowing you to return and search out items you may have seen evidence of but which you couldn’t stop to grab.
Find Your Way
Exploration is actually the backbone of Metroid Dread. In a throwback to earlier games in the series, you aren’t given a lot of direction. Your computer assistant now and then will provide a hint of where to go, but for the most part, you’ll have to figure out your next steps yourself. This is mostly done using an excellent map that lets you view individual icons for different types of rooms and barriers. Every time you get an upgrade, you’ll now have access to new areas. You can search out upgrades, and there’s a pretty strong chance that your path forward will be behind an area that the latest upgrade gives you access to.
I loved exploring Dread’s caverns and working my way back to my ship. I do wish, however, that each area was a bit more distinct. Dread’s world is broken up into a series of different zones which you travel between using transport areas or teleporters. Functionally it works great, and these areas are beautiful with a stunning degree of detail in the background. Some of the early zones, however, bleed together with similar looks. Some of the later ones are a bit more distinct, but it can make actually navigating these areas a bit confusing, making the map even more important.
Dread’s biggest success may just be the atmosphere it creates, one that is distinctly Metroid yet still feels unique among these other titles. At times there’s a genuine sense of terror as you work to stay one step ahead of your foes. The atmospheric soundtrack really helps to sell it. While I perhaps wish there were a few more standout tracks that would stand among the series’ best, the music consistently set my heart racing as I worked to get away.
The upgrades you’ll find throughout Dread, both new and old, are fantastic. Old favorites like the morph ball, grapple beam, screw attack, and more return. Some take a little longer to show up than you might expect, but I think that’s actually for the best. Some of the new moves play in similar but different design space. Both the morph ball and slide, for example, are useful, but there is some overlap in what they can do. Giving you the morph ball too early might lead series veterans to fall back on the familiarity of the ball even in situations where the slide is better. By the time you get the morph ball here, though, you’ll be more than used to sliding around and have a feel for when it is the better choice. Don’t worry; you’ll still have plenty of chances to roll Samus up like an armadillo. Meanwhile, new abilities like the storm missiles and flash shift are welcome additions, both becoming enormously useful in combat and for puzzle solving. I hope both return in future Metroid titles.
You’ll need every tool you can get against Dread’s series of boss battles as well. This is easily the most challenging game in the Metroid series. While standard enemies aren’t too rough, though they do often require the right moves to take down, bosses are consistently difficult from a rather early point in the game. I often found myself dead quickly against some of them. Thankfully, despite the difficulty, Dread isn’t punishing. You’ll respawn from any deaths within a room or two of where you died. That’s a huge relief because between these bosses and E.M.M.I., you’re going to die a lot. Still, it never feels unfair, and once I got a handle on a foe’s attacks, I always felt I could get them. It just took practice. Remembering to consider what new abilities I’ve recently found was generally a big help. It feels great to finally defeat a foe who killed you quickly the first time you faced them. My only real complaint about boss battles is that too many of them end the same way, with you needing to nail a couple of counters. I love the counter ability in Dread, but it doesn’t feel great to finally run their health down, miss a single counter, only to then have to go through another full phase against them to get another chance.
Metroid Dread is a must-own for any Metroidvania fan. Featuring some of the best 2D combat I’ve ever played and a world dying to be explored, I couldn’t put it down until I reached the thrilling conclusion. Its difficulty and atmosphere help it live up to its namesake but never chased me away. There are minor issues, but nothing that stops this from being one of 2021’s best.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: Switch (reviewed); Publisher: Nintendo; Developer: MercurySteam; Players: 1; Released: October 8th, 2021; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Metroid Dread.