Well worth the wait and more.
Editor’s note: To ensure a spoiler-free review, no screenshots are attached directly to this text. For a more visual review, check out the embedded video.
After just over thirty years and only five games (plus a few remakes), the story arc that Yoshio Sakamoto began with Metroid on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989 is complete. While the Metroid franchise as a whole certainly continues, Metroid Dread marks the conclusion of one of the longest running ongoing stories in gaming history. It’s also the best 2D Metroid game ever.
After a brief recap of the events of Metroid Fusion, Samus sits down on the planet ZDR after a team of Federation EMMI robots go dark. The robots had been dispatched to investigate evidence that the X parasite, an organism capable of controlling and replicating any organic material, was living on the planet. However, shortly after descending into the depths of the ZDR, Samus passes out and wakes up to find that most of her improved abilities have been stripped from her. Her computer AI, Adam, gives her one simple goal: to survive and make it back to the surface.
More than any other Metroid game, Metroid Dread takes on the tone of survival horror. Where every other 2D Metroid sees Samus as a galactic exterminator sent to destroy less desirable species. Dread makes Samus himself the target of annihilation. It’s a concept experimented with during the heavily scripted but admittedly terrifying SA-X chase sequences in Metroid Fusion and the zero suit stealth sequence in Metroid Zero Mission. However, Dread lets this concept take shape in its entirety and the result is an exciting, exhilarating and challenging experience.
Visually and aurally, the Metroid Dread is a showpiece for the Switch. While many early impressions raised concerns about a lack of environmental diversity, I can assure you that this was only to avoid undue spoilers. Metroid Dread is a wonderful journey through the depths and over the surface of an alien world. Backgrounds are full of life and convey a real sense of place. Rooms feel like they exist for a reason, rather than just being random tunnels. From what is left one can almost put together the culture of the previous residents. The soundtrack consists mostly of original music and doesn’t rely on serial binders. While some classic tracks do pop up, the point is always to elicit a specific story-relevant reaction from the player rather than simply playing the Norfair theme when you step into a hot area.
As the precursor to the Metroidvania genre, Metroid Dread serves as a reminder of why Metroid comes before Castlevania in this genre description. Dread is a return to something closer to Super Metroid after the newer titles shifted to more guided, linear travel. Metroid Dread is a game about exploring a labyrinthine planet, finding new skills, and then using those skills to access previously unavailable areas. There are no target markers on your map, just an intelligent level design that takes you effortlessly. At the same time, you will not be punished for venturing to find hidden secrets or even interrupting a few sequences. The concept of sequence break had largely disappeared in 2D Metroid games since Metroid Fusion. Its predecessor, Super Metroid, has always been a game that not only allowed you to break the rules, but was fully prepared for it and seemingly encouraged. Dread feels very similar. For example, if the player manages to get the morph ball bombs through an extremely difficult sequence interruption early on, he can activate a morph ball launcher in a boss fight to kill the boss immediately with a completely unique animation. The developers not only allow sequences to be broken, they also give you a special reward for doing so. While it will be difficult to gauge the full extent of player freedom until the community has more time with the game (keep in mind that Super Metroid has been out for nearly three decades and remains a source of hidden techniques), Dread feels very similar to the first Continuation of this element of design since 1994.
This is a culmination of any lesson learned from any other 2D Metroid. It’s also true to the truest elements of the series and the genre in general at the same time, and it’s never shy of correcting elements of classic design that aren’t that old. The Samus movement is heavily based on the evolutions of MercurySteam’s first Metroid title, Metroid: Samus Returns on 3DS. The player can aim freely in 360 degrees by holding down the left bumper. Samus is fast, agile and an absolute joy to play. New to this entry is her slide mechanics that allow her to move quickly through small openings on the floor and even between the legs of attacking enemies. This ability in particular takes getting used to, as it allows you to use passages that are otherwise limited to a morph ball early on. It’s also vital in Dread’s iconic EMMI encounters.
The EMMIs are constantly on patrol in the depths of the planet. Each region has large swaths that are controlled by one of these almost undead machines. Even late in the journey when you are getting more and more powerful, you need to manage your fragility when entering an EMMI zone. Everyone has their own set of abilities, but they are all almost guaranteed death should you get caught. While Samus will slowly build skills that can be helpful in trying to avoid detection by the EMMIs, due to the unique abilities of each one, they will never be easy.
The difficulty in general is worth addressing as, while this is one of the more difficult Metroids, it is also the fairest. Bosses are challenging and may take a few tries, but they also clearly wire their movements and never require you to take damage. After battling a boss a few times and learning their patterns, I would often hit them with a full health bar. These are not fights that you have to grind up energy tanks for, but fights that you have to patiently watch. If your only attempt to trade damage with your weapons burning, you will lose. So yes, the boss fights are difficult and should be. They are fair and well balanced with lots of hidden techniques for observant players. While a difficulty slider could certainly be an option, I think it deviates from clearly very deliberate design decisions in this regard. These bosses are supposed to encourage wise observation. Decreasing the difficulty level removes this requirement, allowing the player to brute force his way through, thus defeating the entire purpose of the encounter. This game is about Samus being weaker than those around him and having to be clever. It is arguably the whole point of the game.
Since the Metroid Dread was unveiled, I’ve been repeating Sakamoto’s entire 2D Metroid franchise along with a few other members of the Nintendo World Report Staff. I’ve seen in our discussions that the experience of playing Metroid can vary greatly from person to person. For myself, I’m not really 100% into these games, nor am I one who actively breaks sequences. I allow my curiosity to move and search for objects, but I really enjoy letting the excellent level design carry me without realizing that I’m being guided. Because of this, the more linear titles like Metroid Fusion are still among my favorites. And when it comes to storytelling, the more linear games often have an advantage over the open-ended ones. But Metroid Dread does something incredible that I wouldn’t have thought possible until I played it. It carries the storytelling and tone of Metroid Fusion into the most open Metroid game since Super Metroid, and it does it seamlessly. It builds a story of helplessness and terror (dare I say fear) and then perfectly adapts the gameplay to the player experience. You are weak and faced with incredible power. The only hope you have is to outsmart them. This continues to play out throughout the experience. Whether against an EMMI, a giant boss or just on a tour of discovery. It is not your weapons that will save you, but your intelligence.
Over the years I’ve heard a lot of people are calling for a sequel in terms of gameplay of one or the other 2D Metroid. Whichever sequel you wanted, Metroid Dread is it. It’s just Metroid, in the best sense of the word. Metroid Dread is the pinnacle of 2D Metroid in its entirety. Not only is it evidence of what the genre has always been, but the potential of what it could become. It’s a triumphant return for Samus Aran as the undisputed queen of the genre. She should rule for a long time.