A Most Dreadful Dream Indeed…
The Metroid series is something I first got into around 2005. Back when I was a bright-eyed 10-year-old kid who learned about the games through Nintendo Power. And after picking up both Metroid Fusion and Metroid Zero Mission throughout that year, I quickly came to regard them as some of my favorite games at the time. I loved the alien worlds and critters, the sense of discovery that came with each new environment, the intense (by GBA standards) gameplay, the wonderful spritework, and exploration-driven gameplay loop that would go on to forever shape my game design preferences.
So, naturally, I was excited to see where the series would go next. And after hearing rumors about Metroid Dread back in 2007, I was confident that, eventually, a ‘brand new’ 2D Metroid game would hit the Nintendo DS. But that never happened. Metroid Dread lingered in development for years due to technical issues, before eventually being shelved. This put the entire 2D Metroid series on a prolonged hiatus until developer MercurySteam delivered a remake of Metroid II: Return of Samus in 2017. And they did such a good job of it that Nintendo decided that they should develop Metroid Dread.
Cut to 4 years later: Metroid 5: Dread was revealed at E3 2021, stunned basically every fan of the series, and came out 4 months later, where it was basically the most successful Metroid game of all time, potentially reviving the series for good.
Now, this is a game I have wanted for literally 16 years of my life, and a title I was more than ready for, having played through Super Metroid, Fusion, Zero Mission, and Samus Returns throughout 2020. I kept my expectations tepid, drew out my playthrough over several weeks, and aimed to take my time with the title so that I could see everything it had to offer, and walk away with a lovingly positive option of it… That didn’t really work out as intended.
Metroid Dread Review
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developer: MercurySteam and Nintendo EPD
Let’s start with the story. One of my biggest gripes with the Metroid series is how, at least in the 2D games, the stories are almost frustratingly absent, despite having lore and story beats that could amount to a grand narrative. And Metroid Dread does not fare a whole lot better. Things begin with an abridged summary of the first four games with a bunch of concept art and no voice acting, before the main story of Dread is introduced.
The X— a parasite that absorbs and mimics its host, was found on a remote planet ZDR. The Galactic Federation attempts to quell this devastating threat by sending specialized E.M.M.I. drones to exterminate the galactic threat. The E.M.M.I. go offline, suspicions emerge, and Samus Aran takes on a job to investigate things. For she is the only one in the galaxy capable of combating the X, given the power of the Metroid DNA that runs through her veins.
From there, she delves into the planet, gets wrecked by a Chozo warrior, and is stranded at the bottom of ZDR. Where she must reacquire her powers, fend off the rogue E.M.M.I., find and exterminate the X, and get back to her ship without dying from the hundreds of creatures who naturally want to kill her. All of which is broken up by periodic exposition dumps by her ship’s computer, Adam, and periodic glimpses into the Chozo— the alien bird people who raised Samus and created the Metroids. However, the story overall feels like it only does what it needs to, and while it delivers some highs during the bombastic ending, I also felt that the developers might have taken the wrong lesson from Metroid: Other M. Because actually people love the story of Metroid and love seeing Samus act as a character. They just don’t like (allegedly) poor localizations.
Or in other words, Metroid continues to be Metroid, and the same is largely true for how the game is structured. Dread is a 2D exploration-driven action platformer that has players explore an interconnected alien world, exterminate imposing alien threats, and enhance Samus’s skill set by acquiring new abilities and various numerical upgrades like missile expansions and energy tanks.
When it comes to the finer details, the game is built off of the foundation MercurySteam established with Samus Returns. But this time the devs were working with more powerful hardware, a proper controller, and extra inputs for more abilities. Thus resulting in a similar, yet refined experience that brushes off some of the rougher edges of Samus Returns, and throws in a welcome dose of added flair.
The melee counter is back, but it can now be used while running, and feels snappier to use due to the cleaner visuals and wider camera. 360 degree aiming returns, but it can only be taken advantage of while holding down the L-button, because I guess dual analog control just wouldn’t work for whatever reason, even though they worked marvelously in 2009’s Shadow Complex. Samus can now do a stylish slide that, while primarily a movement tool above all else, makes Samus feel like a more athletic and capable protagonist.
In regards to general game feel, Dread is the best the series has ever played, with Samus controlling exactly as she should, and the game completely lacking the rigidness of earlier titles in the series. However, the real showcase for these games is how Samus’s base arsenal is expanded upon. The sequence, the new additions, and how the game brings back past abilities. This is something that I thought about in detail throughout my playthrough, and something that I have… surprisingly complex feelings about. I think the best way to express them is to go through a list, so… I’ll do just that!
I like how the morph ball is not obtained until about 20% of the way through the game, despite being a series stable. It really makes it feel like an enhancement to Samus’s skillset, rather than something to be used arbitrarily or out of tradition. And the decision to make the wave beam one of the final power-ups is actually quite smart, given how powerful the ability to shoot through walls truly is.
The spider grip ability is a wonderful combination of the spider ball of Samus Returns and power grip of Metroid Fusion. As it gives players the ability to more interestingly travel around the environment via clearly denoted goop slathers. The flash shift ability is probably my favorite addition to the Metroid arsenal since Super Metroid, as it gives the player access to horizontal movement options (air dashing) that make dodging easier, traversal more engaging, and allow the bosses to be more frantic and aggressive without feeling cheap. It builds toward something that I always like to see from my exploration-driven 2D action games— giving the player the ability to feel like a god of their environment by surpassing once daunting obstacles with ease.
The storm missile ability allows Samus to fire a flurry of missiles at a locked-on target. And while that initially seems gimmicky, it does allow the player to dole out massive damage in exchange for locking their feet to the ground. The skill makes for a nice risk/reward mechanic that most boss battles give just enough time and leeway for, which I appreciate. Plus, it actually puts the hundreds of missiles the player accumulates to good use.
However… There is also a lot that I don’t like about Samus’s repertoire this time around. The phantom cloak (invisibility cloak) is only ever useful in E.M.M.I. sections and to open certain doors, which makes it almost completely irrelevant during the final quarter of the game. The pulse radar (item scan) ability is not given to Samus until roughly halfway through the game, and I constantly forgot about it because of that. Many upgrades feel like minor and unnecessary half-steps that are quickly replaced with superior versions only an hour or so later. Such as the spin boost (double jump) overwritten by the space jump or how the ice missiles replace the super missiles.
In the game’s adherence to tradition, it includes the screw attack and power bomb as some of its final upgrades, but when removed from the fact that these are staples of Metroid games, I don’t think these work particularly well. The screw attack, in addition to destroying certain blocks, is the most efficient way to kill every common enemy in the game and causes the deliberate combat system to collapse in on itself during the last stretch. Instead of keeping encounters a nice mixture of dodging, shooting, and countering, it is faster to kill enemies by jumping into them. While the power bombs are held off until the player is… 10 minutes away from the final boss battle, and are not used beyond a brief tutorial, a final scavenger hunt, and during phase 3 of the final boss. Thus making them feel… kind of pointless.
The grapple beam is as frustrating to use as ever, and it definitely feels like one of the most needless power-ups in this game. Historically, the grapple beam was used as a tool for horizontal traversal, but with the introduction of the 3-part air dash provided by the phase shift, Samus can clear screens just with a few button presses. Accordingly, there were several grapple beam puzzles that I partially solved by phase shifting, and the overwhelming majority of the times I used the grapple beam were to open an arbitrary door, or unlock a shortcut by tugging something.
Also, and I know I am being petty (trust me, I get worse as this review drags on), but I truly do not understand why there is no auto-charge option for the charge beam. This has annoyed me ever since Super Metroid introduced the concept, as there is never an instance where the player would not want to fire a larger and stronger charge beam instead of a normal beam. So why require them to hold down a face button to charge it, when the game could do so automatically whenever the player is not shooting?
Or in far, far simpler terms, the power-up distribution and balance here has several highs and lows, and this sentiment is carried over to a lot of the game. Such as with the E.M.M.I. The E.M.M.I. are one of the most prominent and unique aspects of Metroid Dread, and a clear evolution and expansion of the underutilized SA-X rival character from Metroid Fusion. They are imposing foes who are immune to all normal damage, have advanced movement capabilities, and this chillingly intimidating aura that inspires a sense of dread whenever the player enters their domain at the heart of every area.
Conceptually, I think they are brilliant, place the power fantasy of Metroid on its head, and make for some of the most unique gameplay in the entire series. In execution… I kind of hate them. I am not a fan of stealth sections in what are otherwise not stealth games, and I think that the E.M.M.I. sections in Metroid Dread are a good example as to why.
In these sections, the player has two general approaches. Run before the E.M.M.I. catches them. Or hide and scour through the environment while waiting for the E.M.M.I. to leave. The problem is that, even though there were only two options, I could never seem to get this boolean quiz right, and I failed these sections about… 50 times, I would say.
Part of my confusion stemmed from how the E.M.M.I. domains are often complete mysteries that I had to learn on the fly. Another part stemmed from how I was really bad at determining what a safe location was. But my biggest hurdle was simply tracking the E.M.M.I. as they scour throughout their domain and move toward the player once a noise hits their range of perception. I never felt like I had control of my environment, and these sections overall made me feel like a mouse in a maze more than anything else.
However, the game tries to end these sections on a high note where, following a remix of the Mother Brain boss, which makes… some sense lore-wise, Samus is awarded a weapon that can destroy the E.M.M.I. This initiates the mini-game of ‘find the straightaway’ as the player needs to find a long horizontal stretch of environment. Once in the right position, they can use a rapid fire burst to destroy the protective faceplate of the metal freak and then charge a super charge shot to destroy their exposed head parts.
It is meant to be empowering, as the player gets to destroy this persistent bastard in a barrage of glory… but this section is just as tedious and precise as everything that came before it. You need to find the right location, string the E.M.M.I. along the way, watch your back, adopt an over the shoulder aiming stance, and then carefully aim your shot from an unusual camera angle. These bits, like everything related to the E.M.M.I., are a good idea, and probably a lot more enjoyable on a subsequent playthrough. But much like the extra stretch of Zero Mission, these sections made me second guess whether I ever want to replay this game, as I do not particularly enjoy rigid stealth sections in my 2D action games.
I would also like to note that these sections are meant to feel rewarding, but my biggest takeaway from these bits were a different breed of dread, as the defeat of an E.M.M.I. means that there is more map to fill in. When it comes to Metroid and similar games, I get the most enjoyment when pursuing 100% playthroughs, filling in maps, and collecting every item available. But Metroid Dread takes things a bit too far…
Until now, the 2D Metroid series, and many games that took notes from Super Metroid, has denoted the world map with a series of colored squares that represent each room, and contain icons denoting what facilities are in the room, and if there are any obtainable items. Dread expands and modernizes this with a detailed map system that highlights interactables, captures the shape of each room, and denotes collectibles with unique icons. These changes all make it far easier to keep track of where the player is, where they have been, and determine the exact locations of key environmental puzzles that players need to backtrack through. In a sense, it’s like they took features normally reserved for fan-made maps and made them part of the base game.
This all sounds great… but they just had to get two things wrong about the map. First off, the distinction between an acquired and an unacquired item is not made as clear as it could be, and I often had to hover over every item on a map just to make sure if I did acquire them. This could have been averted with an icon filter of sorts, but the developer decided to keep things basic instead.
Secondly, while the game no longer uses the room-based grid system from older games, the map is still technically one large grid. The difference is that this grid is made up of thousands of ‘blocks’ instead of hundreds of ‘rooms,’ and in order to fill in the map, Samus needs to have her body brush against every block in the room. This means that, if walking in a hallway that is three blocks high, and Samus is two blocks high, the game will not recognize the top row of blocks as having been ‘explored,’ unless the player jumps to enter these blocks.
Now, map completion does not matter in Metroid Dread. All map completion does is help the player keep cleaner notes on their environments. The player has no true incentive to fill in the map… but that did not stop me from jumping, thrusting, and scouring Samus across every hovel and hole I happened across. Simply because I was deeply unsettled by the mocking aura of a half-completed map, and felt I needed to explore each room fully and utterly before I could move on. I did not have fun doing this. It was a chore to cram Samus into every cranny. It made the game slower and more drawn out. And it served as the best argument against mini-maps that I have seen from any game I ever played.
I often hear arguments against minimaps from certain designers and enthusiasts who claim that they encourage players to focus on a minimalistic representation of a beautifully crafted world, and, paradoxically, pay less attention to the layout and structure of the environments. I understand the argument, but I typically only glance at mini-maps for a second or two, so this minimap conundrum has remained a non-issue for me. …Until I started Metroid Dread, where I routinely spent 10+ seconds staring at a minimap in order to make sure that I filled in every corner of the map I could.
This, in addition to disrupting the game flow with a chore I needed to perform to enjoy the game, caused me to routinely ignore the meticulously detailed environments. And if I paid more attention to these locales, and less to the map, I might have had an easier time telling one area from the other. …But even if I did, I have an inkling that I would still struggle to tell certain areas apart.
Something that I think Super Metroid did better than all subsequent 2D games is environmental theming. If you take any screenshot in Super Metroid, I can tell which area it is within a second. And you know why? Because Super Metroid had Crateria, Brinstar, Norfair, Maridia, Wrecked Ship, and Tourian. Environments with memorable names, discernable color schemes, and distinct personalities. While Dread is better than Samus Return was in this regard, its environments are nowhere near as distinct. It breaks away from the unifying aesthetic of an area with the sterile E.M.M.I. zones located in their dead center. It features hot or cold rooms that sharply contrast against the theme outside of these chambers. There is a bit too much overlap with thematic touchstones for my liking. And the names… just sound bad to me.
Ataria, Burenia, Cataris, Darion, Elun, Ferenia, Ghavoran, Hanubia, and Itorash. Literally named Areas A through I, but the developers screwed up the order somewhat, and settled on some incredibly phonetically unmemorable names, especially when clumped together (4 out of 9 of them end in -ia). This was never a problem in a prior Metroid game, as environments have always had punchy and distinct names. But somehow the dev team managed to screw up something that should be so simple.
I would be inclined to give these areas a pass if they made for a fun world to explore, similar to the unmemorable but well-designed locales of Samus Returns, but… that’s not the case here. Throughout my playthrough, I ran into constant roadblocks. Instances where backtracking to certain areas was impossible. Doors that were arbitrarily shut, preventing me from scavenging for collectible items. One-way paths that stranded me in a new locale. And a world design that is filled with shuttles, elevators, and color-coded teleporters… but it has so many barriers and gates that I had to plan my routes from points A to B, instead of throwing myself into a vague direction.
Because of this, I never felt like I was the master of the world around me. I never felt like I could trust the game when it moved the story alone or pushed me into a new area. And I never felt like I understood how the game wanted me to navigate through its world. I guess this is something I could get used to after multiple playthroughs teach me how I am supposed to travel throughout the world… but why would I do that when I could play a game that does this whole exploration schtick better?
While I can view Metroid Dread and plainy see the components needed to craft a wonderful action game, and potentially the best game in the entire series, the title constantly trips on what should be pebble-sized problems. I simply do not understand how or why nobody took note of these issues. And the biggest— we’re talking proper stone-sized— issue I have with this game and its design is the difficulty.
It all comes down to the boss battles and how, much like Samus Returns, bosses hit like isekei-grade dump trucks and can often cleave through the health bar within 10 hits or less, even if the player is at max health. This makes the game significantly more difficult than Super Metroid, Fusion, or Zero Mission. And due to its lack of an easy mode, I would not recommend Metroid Dread to people who are not well-versed in 2D action games.
The encounters never truly feel cheap or unforgiving. If anything, I think they are some of the best bosses in the entire series. They require the player to learn and make use of their developing arsenal, serve as intense, yet stylish, bouts where the player is empowered through both gameplay and cinematics, and are simply well designed pattern-driven encounters.
But even with the presence of checkpoints before every boss, the low tolerance for player error can make the game alienating to some. It is bizarre to me that nobody involved in this game’s production convinced the dev team to add in an easy mode where damage was reduced by 30 to 50 percent. Especially for what is many people’s first Metroid game.
…Oh right, this is a Metroid game. Does that mean there are some obnoxious sections where the player needs to use the speedbooster to complete precise acrobatic feats using mechanics that the game never explains? Um… Yes. But there’s no space jump bullhockey, so it’s better than Fusion and Zero Mission!
I did not mind these “shinespark” puzzles that much, but they routinely have this problem where they only give the player just enough time or space in order to solve a puzzle. To the point where I cannot really call them a’ puzzle’ as much as a performance exam. Because players need to have good reflexes and excellent timing in order to pass these tests consistently. And with margins so thin that I swear the game only offers less than a quarter seconds of lenience, these sections often felt like bashing my head against a brick wall (a feeling I know all too well). I get that some people are able to breeze through these bits no problem… But I’m not one of those people. And when the barrier to execution is as high as this, the game stops being fun for me and simply becomes frustrating.
…In fact, that might be a good place to stop things here.
Metroid Dread is a game that does a cornucopious amount of things right. It is set in a gorgeously crafted world filled with vividly animated creatures and stellar set dressing. It features fast and fluid gameplay where the player is given a bevy of movement options. It boasts a progression system where the player feels a palpable sense of growth with every (other) new ability obtained. And it expands upon the foundation of an influential and renown series, focusing on its strengths while providing many much-appreciated modernizations.
Unfortunately, it falters when delving into the minutiae. It genuinely felt like I had a criticism for everything it did well, and it made the game a rollercoaster of emotions for me. It fluctuated between being a euphoric experience that fulfilled video game dreams I have been carrying for 16 years of my life. …And a title that made me question if I even truly liked this series in the first place, or if I am just going crazy, and focusing on something literally no one else cares about. Meaning that it is not actually a problem.
I am reminded of my lists of grievances with the other entries I reviewed, and what has frustrated me from the beginning is how few of these problems could not be addressed through patches, fixes, or revisionings. From Super to Fusion to Zero Mission to Samus Returns and now to Dread. This entire pentalogy is a saga of games I dearly and truly want to love— a series of games I have put on a pedestal for the majority of my life, but there are so many minor things that I dislike about each of these games that I don’t think I could ever say that I truly love them. And as much as I dread to say it, that also goes for Metroid Dread.