Worth the wait, and then some.
Editor's note: To maintain a spoiler free review, no screenshots are directly attached to this text. For a more visual review please see the embedded video.
After just over thirty years and only five games (plus some remakes), the story arc that Yoshio Sakamoto began in 1986 with Metroid on the Nintendo Entertainment System has come to a close. While the Metroid series as a whole will certainly continue on, Metroid Dread marks the conclusion of one of the longest running continuous stories in gaming history. It is also the best 2D Metroid game ever made.
After a brief recap of the events of Metroid Fusion, Samus sets down on the planet ZDR, after a team of Federation E.M.M.I. robots go dark. The robots had been dispatched to investigate evidence that the X parasite, an organism capable of controlling and replicating any organic matter, was alive on the planet. However shortly after descending into the depths of ZDR, Samus is knocked unconscious and awakes to find most of her enhanced abilities stripped from her. Her computer AI, Adam, gives her a simple goal: survive and make it back to the surface.
More than any other Metroid game, Metroid Dread takes on the tone of survival horror. Where every other 2D Metroid sees Samus as a galactic exterminator sent to genocide less desirable species. Dread makes Samus herself the target of extermination. It is a concept that had been experimented with during the heavily scripted but admittedly terrifying SA-X chase sequences in Metroid Fusion, and the Zero Suit stealth sequence in Metroid Zero Mission. However Dread allows this concept to fully take shape, and the result is a tense, thrilling, and challenging experience.
Visually and auditorily Metroid Dread is a showpiece for the Switch. While many early impressions raised concern over lack of environmental variety, I can assure you that was merely to avoid undue spoilers. Metroid Dread is a gorgeous journey through the depths and across the surface of an alien world. Backgrounds teem with life and give a real sense of place. Rooms feel like they exist for a reason rather than simply being random tunnels. One can almost piece together the culture of past inhabitants from what's been left behind. The soundtrack is composed primarily of original music, rather than relying on series staples. While a few classic tracks make an appearance, it is always to elicit a specific story relevant response from the player, rather than simply playing the norfair theme anytime you enter a hot area.
As the progenitor of the Metroidvania genre, Metroid Dread serves as a reminder for why Metroid comes before Castlevania in that genre description. Dread is very much a return to something closer to Super Metroid after the more recent titles had shifted toward more guided, linear journeys. Metroid Dread is a game about exploring a labyrinthian planet, finding new abilities, then using those abilities to access previously unavailable areas. There are no objective markers on your map, merely smart level design that effortlessly leads you along. At the same time, you are also not punished for venturing off to look for hidden secrets or even do a little bit of sequence breaking. The concept of sequence breaking had been largely absent from 2D Metroid games since Metroid Fusion. It’s predecessor, Super Metroid, had always been a game that not only allowed you to break the rules, but was fully prepared for you to do so, seemingly encouraging it. Dread feels very much in this same vein. For example if the player manages to get the morph ball bombs early through an extremely difficult sequence break, they can then activate a morph ball launcher in one boss fight to kill the boss instantly complete with an entirely unique animation. The devs not only allow sequence breaking, but give you a special reward for it. While it will be difficult to gauge the full extent of player freedom until the community has had more time with the game (keeping in mind that Super Metroid has been out for almost three decades and remains a wellspring of hidden techniques) Dread feels very much like the first sequel to that element of the design since 1994.
This is very much a culmination of every lesson learned from every other 2D Metroid. It is simultaneously loyal to the truest elements of the series and the genre at large, while also never being afraid to correct elements of the classic design that haven’t aged as well. Samus’s movement is strongly built on the advancements made by MercurySteam’s first Metroid title, Metroid: Samus Returns on 3DS. The player can aim freely in 360 degrees by holding down the left bumper. Samus is quick, agile, and an absolute joy to play as. New to this entry is her slide mechanic which allows her to quickly move through small ground level openings and even between the legs of attacking enemies. This ability in particular takes some getting used to as it allows you make early use of passages otherwise restricted to a morph ball. It is also vital in Dread’s iconic E.M.M.I. encounters.
The E.M.M.I.s are constantly on patrol within the depths of the planet. Each region has large swaths controlled by one of these nearly unkillable machines. Even late in the journey, as you grow more and more powerful, entering an E.M.M.I. zone is to come to grips with your fragility. Each one has its own abilities but all are an almost guaranteed death should they catch you. While Samus will slowly build up abilities that can be helpful when trying to avoid detection by the E.M.M.I.s, the unique abilities of each one mean that they never become easy.
Difficulty in general is worth touching on as while this may be one of the more difficult Metroids, it is also the most fair. Bosses are challenging and may take a few tries but they also telegraph their moves clearly and never require you to take damage. Oftentimes after struggling against a boss a few times and learning their patterns, I’d ultimately wind up beating them with a full bar of health. These are not fights you need to grind out energy tanks for, they’re fights you need to patiently observe. If you go in guns blazing just trying to trade damage, you’re going to lose. So yes, the boss fights are difficult, and they’re supposed to be. They’re fair and excellently balanced with plenty of hidden techniques for attentive players. While a difficulty slider could certainly be an option, I feel it takes away from what are clearly very intentional design decisions in this regard. These bosses are intended to encourage smart observation. Lowering the difficulty removes that requirement, allowing the player to brute force their way through and thus defeat the entire purpose of the encounter. This is a game about Samus being weaker than her environment and needing to be clever. It’s arguably the entire point of the game.
Since Metroid Dread’s reveal I’ve replayed Sakamoto’s entire 2D Metroid series along with several other members of the Nintendo World Report Staff. In our discussions I’ve seen that the experience of playing Metroid can vary greatly from person to person. For myself, I’m not really one to 100% these games, nor am I one to actively sequence break. I do allow my curiosity to cause me to wander off and explore for items, but I largely enjoy letting the excellent level design carry me along without even realizing I’m being guided. For this reason the more linear titles like Metroid Fusion are still among my favorites. And in terms of storytelling the more linear games often have an advantage over the open ones. However Metroid Dread does something incredible that until I played it I wouldn’t have thought possible. It carries the storytelling and tone of Metroid Fusion, into the most open Metroid game since Super Metroid, and does so seamlessly. It sets up a story of helplessness and terror (dare I say dread), then aligns the gameplay perfectly to match player experience. You are weak, and stand against an incredible power. The only hope you have is to outsmart them. This plays out constantly throughout the experience. Whether its against an E.M.M.I, a giant boss, or simply exploring. It isn’t your weapons that will save you, it is your intelligence.
Over the years I’ve heard many people demand a sequel, in terms of gameplay, to one 2D Metroid or another. No matter what sequel you’ve wished for, Metroid Dread is it. It is simply Metroid, in the best way possible. Metroid Dread is the culmination of 2D Metroid in its entirety. It is a testament not only to what the genre has always been, but the potential of what it could become. It is a triumphant return of Samus Aran as the undisputed queen of the genre. Long may she reign.