Review: Metroid Dread

            After a nineteen year wait, the sequel to Metroid Fusion has arrived. Metroid 5, or Metroid Dread, arrived on the 8th October. I, like many others, bought it one Day One, the first time I’ve done that for a very, very long time. Super Metroid (or Metroid 3), remains one of my favourite video games. I’ve played every single Metroid game (yes, even the loathed Metroid: The Other M…which I played once and returned). Inside my head (and outside, as Nintendo put on a publicity blitz for the new Metroid arrival), the hype grew and grew, and I couldn’t help but venture to the shop and make my first full-price video game purchase in quite some time. Could it live up to the hype? Could it justify a nineteen year wait? Could it wrap the Metroid story up in a nice little bow? Well, not quite…

            Alarm bells rang inside my head as soon as Metroid Dread was announced: the game was being developed by Mercury Steam, the same studio behind the remake of Metroid II. Metroid: Samus Returns, as the remake was called, was undoubtedly a satisfying Metroid experience. But it wasn’t a satisfying remake of the gloomy, morose Metroid II. In the remake, the focus was on action, with a new counter mechanic and the ability to aim freely (the latter mechanic, due to the 3DS’s button layout, ensured hand cramp in no less than twenty minutes of gameplay). One aspect Mercury Steam handled with verve was the classic Metroid exploration. As a brand new Metroid game, I may have viewed it differently. But as a remake of Metroid II, it left me unimpressed.

Mercury Steam’s first effort with the Metroid franchise

            The central mission of Metroid II  had Samus exterminating the Metroid species. Yes, Samus was committing genocide. Metroid II turns this mission into a harrowing, interminable experience, as you pump missiles into the same Metroid enemies just to see the Metroid counter flick down, from 30 to 0. The ending makes you reflect on what you’ve just done. Genocide shouldn’t be fun, should it? Mercury Steam, however, tried to make killing the Metroids as exciting as possible, even having cutscenes of Samus doing spinning flips over her adversaries. Even the original ending, quiet and contemplative, was turned into just another area where Samus shot every living creature to pieces.

(Click here for my extended critique of Metroid: Samus Returns)

            But with a brand new Metroid game, could Mercury Steam fulfil the potential that Metroid: Samus Returns possessed?Instead of having to recreate a game, the studio were forging a new path, creating a story that followed on from the events of Metroid Fusion and would wrap up the Metroid storyline that began in Metroid. And while it’s a competent attempt, even a very good game, it struggles to reach the heights of greatness that the franchise grasped at least a few times (Super Metroid and Metroid Prime…).

            As I mentioned before, Mercury Steam are adept as encouraging and rewarding exploration. Streamlined, intricate, and mind-boggling (there are a few secrets I still can’t fathom how to attain!), Metroid Dread ticks all the boxes for that particular form of excitement you want in a Metroid game. And, unlike Metroid: Zero Mission and Metroid Fusion, much of the exploration is unguided. In those two Game Boy Advance games, you’d be directed towards an area of the map. And, regardless of much I adore those two games, that isn’t what Metroid is about. Metroid is about finding your way on your own. Yes, Metroid Dread may sometimes direct you to a particular point on the map, but most of the time you are left to your own devices.

The loading times in this game aren’t too shabby!

            As exciting as the exploration is in Metroid Dread, the areas you are exploring are bland and indistinguishable from each other. You think of Super Metroid, Metriod Prime, even Metroid Fusion, and you can easily pick out each area on the map in your mind. Brinstar, Phenandra Drifts, Area 2 (okay, maybe Metroid Fusion didn’t have memorable names, but I could differentiate between the six areas!)…all bring a distinct image to my mind. Of course, I’ve played the other Metroid games repeatedly since first borrowing Super Metroid from a friend many years ago. And they do tend to rely on basic environments for variation (cold, hot/lava, etc). But in Metroid Dread, everything looks the same, no matter which area you’re in.  There are nine areas, and I couldn’t tell you the difference between Catartis and Ferenia. It reminded me of the first few areas of Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, both of which looks like dreary  greyish-brown bogs. Of course, that game also contains the Sanctuary Fortress, one of the most unique and awe-inspiring areas in any Metroid game. I hope that the same would occur in Metroid Dread. The similarity of the areas does lend the map a sense of continuity. In Super Metroid, it feels peculiar going from the jungle area of Brinstar straight into the fiery depths of Norfair. Sometimes, the map doesn’t feel cohesive. In Metroid Dread, it feels as if you are travelling through interconnected area. There’s a cohesiveness that is lacking in some other Metroid games.

            However, this makes exploration difficult. And it’s not just on a macro-level as well; it’s on a micro-level. In Super Metroid, almost every room of an area looked different. Whether it be a dead soldier on the floor or a menacing statue, every room made its impression on you. So, if you unlocked the high jump ability, for example, you instantly thought of a room where a platform lay just out of reach of your jump. While Metroid Dread does signpost rooms where you’ll need to return with a new ability later on in a game, it’s nowhere near as effective as it should be. If everything looks the same, how can you distinguish anything? And yes, perhaps it’s the 2.5d background I should have been focusing on. There’s plenty occurring in the background, brilliant and beautiful, but it only served as a distraction, a showcase for the graphical excellence, rather than aiding my exploration.


            (As an aside, before playing Metroid Dread, I’d purchased the Castlevania Advance Collection, consisting of the three Castlevania games that graced the Game Boy Advance. Even these ‘Metroidvania’ titles managed to make most rooms memorable, in order to bring about that “ah-ha!” moment when you unlock an ability and realise where you need to utilise it)

            The unwillingness of the developers to do something different with the foreground is even more obvious when you come into an EMMI zone. The heavily hyped EMMIs play the same role as the SA-X does (or do, as there were six of them!) in Metroid Fusion. They present an unstoppable force which Samus cannot approach with her regular weaponry and armour. Getting caught by them means instant death. From the trailers for Metroid Dread and the pre-release hype, you’d think that the ‘dread’ of the title comes from these EMMIs. Well, it doesn’t. Unlike the Xenomorph in Alien Isolation, the EMMIs are contained to particular areas of the map. I understand pinpointing where the unstoppable enemy is on a map can instill a sense of dread when you have no choice but to pass through that place…but upon your first encounter with an EMMI, you’re shown how to counter its attack (nigh-on impossible, an aspect which I liked), and then shown how to destroy it! You need a special upgrade that expires as soon as you kill an EMMI…but why depict the destruction of the “unstoppable enemy” so early on in the game?

            In Metroid Fusion, the SA-X portrayed a much more menacing enemy because it showed no weakness. All you could do was run away. Only at the very end could you confront the SA-X with confidence. Perhaps, like in the aforementioned Alien Isolation, the EMMIs could have been an ever-present threat, not contained to a specific area. Or, just like the SA-X they were clearly inspired by, have them show up at scripted moments. Yes, the design of the EMMI is horrifying in the right way. It’s as alien as the environment around it, twisting and turning in inhuman ways. But, when I had to pass an EMMI zone, I didn’t feel dread at all, just a sigh that I’d have to speed through another section before coming back to it to destroy an “unstoppable enemy.”

            There’s far more thought and effort put into the traditional bosses, some of which belong in the pantheon of great enemies in the Metroid franchise. The underwater horror of Drogyda, the nightmare of Experiment No. Z-57, and the final, drawn-out battle ??? (no spoilers here!)…all left an impression, all were difficult to beat in their own way. Along with Nightmare from Metroid Fusion and Quadraxis from Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, I’d rank Experiment No. Z-57 in particular as one of the best boss battles in the franchise (the final battle steals a little too much offence from the arsenal of the Ridley in Metroid: Samus Returns. It’s a shame that Mercury Steam copied and pastied some of Ridley’s moves onto the final boss…). I’d even go so far as to say that the only returning boss from the Metroid franchise (trying to avoid spoilers here!) brings its most intimidating battle to date…Even the mini-bosses are a pleasure to fight, both difficult and a treat to destroy.

            Let there be no doubt about it; Metroid Dread is difficult. I don’t mean in terms of its exploration, but that’s just because I love playing Metroidvania games. Very little in Metroid Dread left me struggling to find the next destination (unlike Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance, which has left me frustrated at a dead end!!!). I could have finished the game in under six hours if I hadn’t wanted to go back and find all the secrets (I found 83% of them!!!). But, like with it’s predecessor Metroid Fusion, I saw Samus’ suit explode too many times to count. More often than not, it was because an EMMI had caught me, but even regular enemies pose a challenge. Like Metroid: Samus Returns, the game encourages you to use to counter by making all enemies very hostile. The hostility of enemies didn’t fit the world of Metroid: Samus Returns, but it fits in very well here.

            However, I found that part of the difficulty was battling with the control scheme (the same problem I had in Metroid: Samus Returns). You have to hold down the L button to free aim, and as your number of abilities increase, the amount of finger gymnastics you have to do increases, as well. Especially in the boss battles, I’d have to take a break to stop the pain wracking my hands! Maybe my weary hands are worn out from playing video games for so many years…but do the controls need to be so complicated? All you need for Samus to do is aim diagonally…you don’t necessarily need her to free aim! The final boss left me in agony (and this was on the Pro Controller, not in handheld mode). I had put down the control scheme’s problems in Metroid: Samus Returns down to the 3DS itself. It’s a great console, but I can’t play it for more than half an hour without my hands cramping up…and that’s any game I’ve played on it!

            Perhaps I’m being harsher on Metroid Dread than I usually would because I rarely buy games brand new. Like I wrote before, I can’t remember the last game I bought on launch day, or the last game I bought at full price. After finishing the game in less than five days, I wondered whether it was worth it. And I purposefully stretched it out, trying to attain all the secrets as well. I couldn’t help but compare it to Hollow Knight, a game I bought for eight pounds and have spent fifty hours playing through it (and another fifty on a second playthrough). Of course, I’ll come back to Metroid Dread. I’ve played each game in the franchise multiple times. It’s always easy to discount replay value. I wasn’t sure what to think of Metroid Fusion on my first playthrough, but loved it on my second playthrough.

            Maybe I should wait until a second playthrough for a proper view of Metroid Dread to settle in my mind. There were times where I loved it, like the exploration and the boss battles. There were times where I thought Mercury Steam had missed an opportunity to do something different, like the EMMIs or Samus’ final change (no spoilers, again!). But, in general, I was pleasantly entertained by the game. Nothing more, nothing less. It will linger in my mind, for mostly the wrong reasons (especially the ending, which still remains stupid to me). Where does it rank in the franchise? Probably in the higher-middle section…above Metroid Prime 2 and 3, and a better experience than Metroid: Samus Returns. But on a league with the heavy-hitters like Super Metroid and Metroid Prime? Not a chance.


Further Reading

Click here for my review of Metroid (NES)

Click here for my review of Metroid: Zero Mission (GBA)

Click here for my review of Metroid II (Game Boy)

Click here for my review of Metroid : Samus Returns (3DS)

Click here for my review of Super Metroid (SNES)

Click here for my review of Metroid: The Other M (Wii)

Click here for my review of Metroid Fusion (GBA)


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