In the nearly two decades since the release of the last original side-scrolling entry in the Metroid franchise, the genre that the series pioneered has evolved exponentially. The metroidvania genre moniker alone is proof that Metroid's DNA has lived on throughout the lengthy hiatus. As Samus returns in Metroid Dread, it's undeniable that the series is entering a landscape that is littered with games that are indebted to it and in some cases improved on it. Nevertheless, Metroid Dread is a triumphant return for the bounty hunter—in large part because it remains true to its lineage. Like seeing an old friend for the first time in many years, Metroid Dread is charmingly familiar, an old-school side-scroller with a modern look and feel.
Metroid Dread, unsurprisingly, plays similarly to its developer's remake of Metroid II for Nintendo 3DS. Mercury Steam brought over the excellent counterattack mechanic from Metroid: Samus Returns to Dread as well as the manual sighted aiming system that gives you pinpoint control over beam shots and missiles. While Dread is pleasantly familiar mechanically, Samus has never felt this good to control. With a pep in her step and tight controls, Metroid Dread is silky smooth in motion and an absolute joy to play from a combat and platforming perspective.
Utilizing the same 2.5D art style from Samus Returns, Metroid Dread offers crisper, more detailed visuals that help make each of the locales and their enemies stand out. Rocky tunnels, molten caverns, industrial compounds, underwater depths--Metroid Dread is filled with the distinct level designs that have marked the series' storied history. Improved animations, especially from Samus herself and bosses, enhance the overall presentation while still adhering to the signature art direction and style the series is known for. It probably doesn't take full advantage of the Switch's processing power, but as a side-scrolling Metroid game it falls right in line with the series as a whole.
Literally rising from the ashes of a canceled Nintendo DS title of the same name, Metroid Dread has been billed as the swan song of this current Samus saga. Bringing a story arc that began 35 years ago to a satisfying close was always going to be a tall task, but Dread deftly untangles the series' web of narrative mysteries to deliver an affecting tale that features some of the best writing and atmospheric storytelling in series history.
To get there, Dread kicks off in the only way a Metroid game could: with Samus arriving at a destination to investigate a mission gone awry only to soon find herself devoid of her decked-out suite of abilities. This time, it's Planet ZDR, where the Federation had sent a robotic task force called EMMI to search for evidence that the X parasite lived on after the events of Metroid Fusion. Samus quickly encounters a powerful Chozo warrior who knocks her unconscious. She awakens deep beneaththe planet's surface, far away from her ship. Left with only her power beam and a batch of missiles, Samus' trek upwards to the surface to find answers and a resolution begins in earnest.
Though Metroid Dread flips the script by forcing Samus to travel up and back to her ship, rather than down to the heart of the planet, in practice this change isn't a meaningful shakeup. As you'd come to expect, Dread requires frequent backtracking, so you're moving in all different directions throughout the adventure. One notable new feature that makes both exploration and combat different than usual from the start is Samus' ability to slide. This allows her to access areas previously only accessible via Morph Ball as well as provide a nimble way to dodge attacks--the Morph Ball is still needed in many instances.
The biggest addition in Dread has been plastered all over pre-release videos and marketing materials: the EMMI. Dread's winding tunnel system in each of the themed locales inevitably leads Samus into trippy portals signifying the start of an EMMI Zone. Surprising absolutely no one, the robots sent to the planet to investigate have been reprogrammed to do what all well-intentioned robots secretly want to do: kill. Each of the patrolled zones has an ominous gray visual filter and foreboding music.
EMMI Zones introduce stealth to the Metroid formula, and it's a mostly positive addition. The EMMI--which crawl on all fours along walls, reconfiguring physically to chase you through spaces you'd think they can't navigate, and clicking and clanking as they go--are positively creepy, inspiring the dread the title alludes to. If an EMMI spots you, a chase sequence commences, and if you aren't able to outrun it, it can be an instant game over. And you can't exit the zone if the EMMI has you in its sights. You have a very brief window to execute a perfect counter, which stuns the EMMI and gives you an opportunity to slide under it and escape, but the timing is extremely tight and the window seems to vary to ensure escape after capture feels like a stroke of fortune. Pretty early on you unlock a useful cloaking ability that makes you invisible, which can be used to evade EMMI and pass through motion-locked doors, but like the counter it isn't enough to trivialise the EMMI—they are and always remain a serious threat to Samus.
Nevertheless, exploring an EMMI-patrolled zone can be nerve-wracking, but it's never nearly as terrifying as it could have been, mostly because the stakes are low. If you get caught, you simply get sent back to the entrance, effectively losing at most a minute or two of progress. Rather than feeling like a real foe, EMMIs wind up as more of a cumbersome obstacle at times, mainly because the map layout often forces you to zig-zag through EMMI zones to make progress and backtrack. Coming across an EMMI guarding the exact exit you're searching for can be tiresome, especially since the encounters are mostly the same throughout. In isolation, EMMIs bring a well-designed new element of gameplay into the Metroid fold, but in the grand scheme of things they can get in the way of what Metroid is all about: careful and thorough exploration.
EMMIs also cannot be damaged by Samus' traditional weapons. Inside each zone is a floating Orwellian eyeball mini-boss that, once you're able to find, can be destroyed to receive a one-use Omega Cannon. The process for killing an EMMI has two steps: exposing its head by shooting away the shield with a machine gun and then charging up the cannon to deliver the kill shot. The kill sequence is a clever puzzle of sorts, which is presented from an over-the-shoulder camera perspective. You have to find a clear enough space in the zone to shoot the EMMI at a distance and make it vulnerable; otherwise, you have to start the process over from a different spot. Once an EMMI is taken out, the zone becomes a regular area filled with enemies that you can freely explore without worrying about killer robots. With each successive EMMI encounter, the process for killing them becomes slightly trickier thanks to environmental obstacles that force you to think and act quickly.
Despite the intermittent annoyances, the moment-to-moment gameplay involving EMMIs is still enjoyable, even if it sometimes feels at odds with Metroid's core DNA. Thankfully EMMIs aren't an overbearing presence; they are more of an aside. The vital framework of Metroid is still intact here and Dread handles exploration and backtracking better than any game in the series thus far.
As someone who recently replayed all of the side-scrolling entries in the franchise, I was struck by how linear most of them felt, especially Metroid Fusion. Dread feels like a more adventurous take on Fusion's cadence. You still get mission updates from the AI Adam in network centers, but very rarely does it tell you exactly where to go. Instead, there's a clever nudge in the right direction while still giving you the freedom to explore. Though I did get lost for a brief bit twice throughout the adventure, once I figured out where to go, I started recognizing the subtle suggestions in both the writing and environment that point you in the right direction. Dread doesn't hold your hand; it feeds you drips of info and new abilities to allow you to gradually explore previously unreachable areas.
And exploring is the name of the game here. Dread has more secrets to uncover than its predecessors. There are missile packs all over the place, including upgrades that add a whopping 10 missiles to your ammunition capacity. Dread might actually have too many missile packs, as I eventually had so many that I didn't even need to be concerned with being accurate with my shots during late-game boss battles. Energy Tanks, on the other hand, remain critical finds. In addition to full Energy Tanks, Mercury Steam added Energy Tank pieces. Four make a full Energy Tank--The Legend of Zelda Heart Pieces, anyone? Quadrants of the map with hidden collectibles flash after you've visited them to tell you there is something to be found, but not in a way that makes finding upgrades any less rewarding.
Speaking of the in-game map, it's deliciously detailed, marking every single location where you picked up or saw an upgrade as well as points of interest and doors that require specific weapons to open. You can highlight specific icons as well as drop pins at spots you want to circle back to. While the map can get a tad busy as you make significant progress, it does help make backtracking--even after you've finished the story--a worthwhile and engaging endeavor.
Of course, exploration is tied to Samus' abilities, and Dread features a plethora of upgrades old and new. There are more than 20 suit, weapon, and ability upgrades in Dread, and almost all of them are required to fully explore the map. For instance, the Varia suit allows Samus to withstand heat in fiery areas, while the Wide Beam opens certain hatches and moves large boxes. It's not uncommon to find multiple upgrades in an hour. Your means of exploring evolve quickly, consistently giving you more reasons to retrace your steps and voyage to new sections. That said, because of this constant barrage of new upgrades, it sometimes feels like you barely make use of your newly acquired gadgets. This is especially the case for beam upgrades, which replace your existing beam. One of the new Morph Ball gizmos is only really required once, immediately after finding it. Sometimes it can freely like Dread suffers from gluttony due to uneven pacing of unlocks that clutters late-game sections.
Dread's handful or so of locales are wonderfully designed to test both your platform and combat skills, and each has its own stable of enemies that pack a hearty punch. Samus Returns really elevated Metroid's combat system with counters, and Dread continues that. Many enemies, from flying monsters to hulking land beasts, have an attack that can be countered. And successfully slaying a monster following a countered attack drops more health/missile resources, rewarding you for making use of this vital mechanic.
I say vital because it's central to many of Dread's major boss fights. The Metroid series has had a good number of memorable showdowns, and Dread adds to that history with some of the most daunting duels of Samus' bounty hunting career. From a larger-than-life battle with a chained-up Kraid to a tricky back and forth with a brilliantly disgusting experiment gone very wrong (or very right, depending how you look at it), Dread's best boss battles make you feel small and powerless at first, tasking you with figuring out how to evade an onslaught of attacks, timing counters, and laying into the beasts with a flurry of missiles. While around half of the boss battles are exciting spectacles, Dread does fall into the same rut as Samus Returns with repetition of mini-bosses, albeit not to such an extreme degree. Half of the bosses are essentially the same enemy with identical moves, and a particular upgrade eventually eliminates much of the strategy from the showdowns.
My first playthrough of Metroid Dread took nine hours, and I still had plenty of secrets remaining to uncover. My second playthrough clocked in around four hours, largely due to the fact I knew exactly where to go and had a solid grasp of each of the boss battles. While Dread definitely does have a few demanding fights, overall it's not as trying as Samus Returns. That said, you can go back through and play on hard mode after finishing the game, and this difficulty level significantly ups the challenge.
More than anything else, Metroid Dread feels like going back to a place of comfort after a long time away. Though the gameplay is refined and new features have been added to the mix, Dread sticks closely to the formula of its predecessors. In the end, for longtime fans like myself, that's probably for the best. There's nothing to dread here. We're home again.