Metroid Dread is moody, cryptic, and frequently frustrating

by 24USATVOct. 7, 2021, 3 a.m. 19
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From the very beginning, Metroid has been about feeling alone. The games typically drop players on a harsh alien world, stripped of most of their abilities and with little guidance on how to survive and escape. When it works, it’s incredible; there’s a good reason why the series spawned an entire genre of 2D exploration games. Even with a host of modern contemporaries, there’s still something about Metroid’s particular blend of sci-fi solitude that remains distinct.

Metroid Dread, the first mainline entry in the series since 2002 — and a game that took a long time to go from concept to reality — largely understands this. Its world is dark and cryptic, both a place to explore and a puzzle to pick apart. It nails the classic Metroid vibe while also adding a new sense of terror in the form of relentless robots that will chase you down like a Resident Evil monster. It’s the closest Metroid has come to being a full-on horror game. At the same time, Dread also wants to be an action game, one with lots of boss battles and surprise fights against quick-moving enemies. Over the course of the game, those two sides constantly feel at odds and never quite come together in a satisfying way.

The game starts, as Metroid games always do, with bounty hunter Samus Aran following a distress beacon to a planet where something mysterious has happened. Her job is to investigate, but instead, she finds herself trapped on a hostile planet called ZDR, which consists of a number of subterranean locations — everything from a research facility to a vibrant forest to an ancient sanctuary — all connected together via various tunnels and a very convenient transportation system. Samus has once again lost her powers when she arrives (the game calls it “physical amnesia”), and the goal is to recover them so that she can navigate the labyrinth and get back to her ship.

Metroid has never been big on story in the traditional sense. It’s not a series that’s packed with cutscenes and dialogue. (That said, the game does open with a helpful primer since predecessor Metroid Fusion came out nearly two decades ago.) Dread continues this tradition; there are a handful of lengthy story moments, but mostly, you’ll be learning about the planet by exploring it and the occasional update from your AI assistant Adam.

But there’s still lots of worldbuilding here, and it mostly comes through the locations you’ll explore. Though Dread is a 2D game, its graphics are in three dimensions, and the artists have used that to build fully fleshed-out environments with lots of visual depth. (The 3D elements are strictly aesthetic.) In the background, you’ll see terrifying, brutal experiments taking place, the ruins of ancient statues and buildings, and wildlife that scatters at your approach. One section was completely dark and covered in cobwebs until I managed to hit the button that returned power. It was delightfully spooky. I was particularly taken by an area that’s set amidst a vast aquarium, where you can see all kinds of alien sea creatures darting around and, on occasion, banging against the glass when you approach. There’s also a great sense of scale, and the camera will zoom out to show you just how tiny Samus is compared to a huge machine or monster. Sometimes these visual touches hint at things happening in the game, like a horrible boss enemy coming up, but mostly, they serve as welcome window dressing that gives a sense of place and purpose to the world.

The average encounter with an enemy feels more exciting and dynamic

As far as how it plays, Dread is classic Metroid, and it largely builds off of 2017’s Samus Returns, a remake of Metroid II for the Nintendo 3DS. That means it’s a side-scrolling game where you navigate tight, interconnected levels using a variety of skills. Backtracking is a hallmark. The idea is that you’ll come across areas — a strange door, or a ledge that’s just too high, or maybe a lava-filled room that’s just a little too hot for comfort — that you can’t access until you get the right ability. At the beginning, Samus can’t do much more than fire her gun arm and jump, but you’ll slowly regain access to her arsenal, from the iconic morph ball to a double jump to freezing missiles. When you have the right ability, you can head back to previously inaccessible areas to open up new paths. It’s a now-familiar structure, but it still works because it’s so satisfying to finally be able to overcome those hurdles that stumped you early in the game. I also love watching the map slowly fill out as I venture to new, hidden corners of each area.

With Samus Returns, Nintendo and its partner studio MercurySteam took a slightly more action-oriented approach, and that continues here. Samus can move quickly with a new dash move, and she has a melee attack that lets you knock back enemies if you time it just right, just like in Samus Returns. This has some benefits; it makes the average encounter with an enemy feel more exciting and dynamic, and it turns some of the boss battles into frantically-paced fights. But there are definitely some drawbacks. For one, the controls are cumbersome, particularly later in the game when Samus gets lots of abilities. Having to hold down multiple shoulder buttons to fire missiles at a goopy alien darting around the screen is not exactly fun, especially when you also have to memorize their movements and dash away so that you don’t die for a dozenth time in a row. The controls simply don’t feel up to the action.

Not all of the bosses or big encounters are so frustrating. Many are thrilling. Metroid fans will know just how satisfying it can be to take down a towering alien after you figure out the right pattern to hit their weak points. And Dread has lots of cool monsters, from tentacle-baring sea creatures to chained-up dragon-like beasts. The problem is that there are just too many of these large-scale encounters. In addition to the main bosses, there are more fast-paced fights against Samus-sized baddies like ancient warriors and robotic soldiers that require quick reflexes and often took me many, many deaths to get through.

The problem isn’t that these battles are challenging — it’s that there are far too many of them. At times it feels like a boss rush mode, where every few rooms, you’re up against something new. To make matters more frustrating, Dread has an annoying habit of frequently blocking your path right before one of these encounters, so you have no choice but to finish the battle before you can proceed. There were many times where I would’ve appreciated being able to take a breather with some exploration before coming back to a challenging boss. The sheer amount of fighting also takes away from the solemn, moody vibe that’s so intrinsic to Metroid, and it’s jarring to be constantly pulled out of the quiet atmosphere.

The E.M.M.I makes for some incredibly tense moments

The good news is that Dread’s most notable addition, robotic sentinels called E.M.M.I, do a lot to add to that vibe. Essentially, certain sections of ZDR are under the protection of an E.M.M.I, and they will hunt down and kill anything that doesn’t belong. All you can do is survive. One of Samus’ new abilities is called a “phantom cloak,” and it makes her invisible for short periods of time. Since you can’t fight, whenever the E.M.M.I approaches, you have to either run or hide. This makes for some incredibly tense moments, where you’re crouched in a corner or hanging from a ledge while the bot prowls, hoping that your cloak doesn’t run out before it leaves. These scenes really ratchet up the tension, making you feel alone and, at times, helpless on this violent planet. And by restricting E.M.M.I to specific zones, the game’s designers have helped keep it from being too frustrating; once you figure out what to do, these sequences usually last just a few seconds, after which point you can finally breathe.

This makes Dread all the more frustrating because it does so much right. It nails the classic feel of a Metroid game while updating it with wonderfully detailed visuals, more satisfying combat, and new areas that briefly turn it into a stealth horror experience. But all of that comes to a grinding halt when you have to fight three bosses in a short span, each of which requires either fast reflexes or pattern memorization to get through — or both. Instead of punctuating the quiet exploration with intense battles, the copious boss encounters instead turn into a slog. Dread features some of the most beautifully dark and solemn moments in the franchise — but you’ll have to be prepared to really fight to see it all.

launches on the Nintendo Switch on October 8th.

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