A genre-defining classic returns to its roots and shows the new kids on the block how it's done. This is Metroid Dread.
A Long Time Coming
It's been nearly 20 years since the last original 2D entry in the Metroid franchise was released. In that time the genre that Metroid helped create alongside Castlevania - known as metroidvania - has exploded. There are now a multitude of punishingly difficult titles available that push the genre forward.
I have played none of them. Not even a demo. I don't know why, but the whole Metroidvania genre remains a mystery to me. Castlevania and Metroid have always been there, I've seen trailers and gameplay videos. I've owned all of the consoles each one and its sequels have been available on, and in some cases, I still own them today. I've even got friends who play them religiously and recommend them to me. I have no excuse for never jumping into the genre. So I decided to change my ways and grab Metroid Dread.
Metroid Dread is presented in a gorgeous 2.5D art style. Protagonist Samus looks fantastic, not only that, but she controls beautifully with tight controls and smooth animation. Both combat and platforming controls feel natural, with satisfying pinpoint accuracy throughout. It's an absolute joy to play. The game is also full of distinct locations, from industrial areas to molten caves. Each area is meticulously designed with intricate details and hints that only eagle-eyed players will spot.
The Beginning of the End
It may have been a bad time for me to get into the Metroid series as Metroid Dread brings the current saga, that began 35 years ago, to a close. I went in fully expecting to not understand a single thing about the story. But Metroid Dread gave me a helping hand in this department before throwing me into the deep end and wiping the floor with me.
The title starts with a simple cutscene that serves as a recap of the events of previous games and gets everyone up to speed. From here things heat up with Samus arriving on Planet ZDR to investigate a mission gone wrong. A task force of robots called EMMI has been sent to search for evidence that the X parasite lives on. From here Samus encounters a Chozo warrior who knocks her out and takes her underground. Once Samus awakens, she finds that she has lost all of her suit abilities (I'm told this is a regular occurrence) and must get back to the planet's surface.
Throughout the game, you'll find and retrieve Samus' abilities and weapons. This in turn allows you to backtrack and open up previously locked or inaccessible areas. For instance, along the way, you'll unlock the Morph Ball ability, which allows you to navigate ventilation shafts and small tunnels. Exploration is a large feature of Metroid Dread and is constantly rewarding with several upgrades hidden throughout the sprawling map.
Kill all the Humans
New for Metroid Dread is the EMMI robots, who Samus must find as part of her investigation. When she does it becomes clear they have been reprogrammed and really want to kill Samus. Each patrol area of the seven (yeah, seven!) EMMI's has a grey filter and a music score you'll learn to recognise and fear. Each EMMI Zone introduces a mild stealth element to proceedings. You'll do your best to sneak around the EMMI - which crawl on all fours, can climb walls, crawl through tunnels and effortlessly keep pace with Samus.
In many cases, you'll fail. Once you fail a heart-pounding chase sequence is initiated. And you'll be trying to remember which door you wanted to go through while jumping, flipping, sliding and climbing at break-neck speed. If an EMMI captures you, you'll be given a brief opportunity to counter and stun the robot and continue running. If you fail it's instant death - once again, in many cases, you'll fail. And no matter how many abilities you unlock, the EMMI are always a threat.
EMMIs also cannot be damaged by Samus' standard weapons. Inside each zone is a room containing a floating armoured eyeball mini-boss. Once found and defeated Samus gains a one-use Omega Cannon to kill an EMMI. But due to the slow nature of the gun and the strong armour of the EMMI you'll need to put enough space between you and your assailant to bring them down.
Throughout your adventure, you'll be given mission updates from an AI called Adam, who resides in Network Centres dotted around the map. But it rarely tells you exactly where to go and opts for giving a nudge and a hint. Luckily exploring is the name of the game with many secrets to uncover. So even if you get lost you'll still find items of use. There are missile packs that increase the amount you can carry by two, with some that increase capacity by 10. More importantly, there are energy tanks that increase Samus' health instantly and energy tank pieces that increase health every time four are collected. Spotting one of these or any other item of interest are instantly added to your map so you can go back later if necessary.
You are Here
Speaking of the map, it's extremely detailed and beautifully easy to read (Jedi Fallen Order should take note). It automatically marks an item you spot and changes the icon once collected. Doors and what you need to unlock them are noted down. You can add markers to things to help find your way back to them. Although these markers aren't as hand-holding as GTA's GPS, they do give a general idea of what direction you should be going. To navigate the map you will need almost all of the 20 suit upgrades available. The Varia suit, for example, allows Samus to extreme heat in the molten caves and there's another that allows for quicker movement through water.
Platforming and combat go hand-in-hand throughout the campaign and you'll be doing both constantly. Combat-wise you can shoot most things from a distance and stay safe. But getting up close or getting Samus into an enemies' line of sight allows for a window to counter an enemy attack. Doing so successfully will shower Samus with vital health and ammunition pick-ups.
The counter-attack mechanic also plays a pivotal role in Dread's frantic and punishing boss fights. From a battle with a chained-up Kraid to a violent ballet with a monstrous experiment, each of Dread's boss battles are unique and memorable. In each one you'll be tasked with working out attack patterns, the best position to be in and checking for spots and the best time to attack. You'll die a lot as you work everything out and find yourself back outside the room before the boss fight.
The loading screen gives hints, but loading is far too fast to read them. That said, there was one I read and it stuck with me - "No attack is unavoidable" - this tip alone kept me jumping straight back in after defeat. Boss fights are difficult, very difficult. Even after getting the attack patterns down you'll still need to be fast enough to execute the plan. But at no point did anything feel unfair or a boss feel like they were overpowered because, as the tip says - no attack is unavoidable.
Back for More
My first playthrough of Metroid Dread took nine hours, thirty-six minutes and eleven seconds. I didn't collect everything, in fact, I think I just got over 55% of the items. The game cheerfully informed me that I had unlocked "hard mode", to which I shouted at my handheld screen "there's a hard mode?!". I'm not ready for that challenge yet. But I'll definitely be taking a crack at it.
It's taken me 35 years to try a game from the Metroidvania genre and it did not disappoint. Smooth controls and fluid animations are a joy and make exploration easy and enjoyable throughout, even when getting lost. The 2.5D presentation is beautifully simple and striking. Metroid Dread is perfect for long-time fans and newcomers alike. Me being the latter appreciated the quick recap and it allowed me to thoroughly enjoyed the story. Boss fights are rewarding and punishing in equal measure. The need to pay attention to your enemy and work out the puzzle of how to defeat them can be difficult but it's never impossible. Which gives a great challenge and, overall, a wonderful experience. I just need to work up the courage to take on hard mode.