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Metroid Dread: A Triumphant Return to Formula

Metroid has never been a franchise that’s ever especially caught my eye. I’ve always considered it something of a C-lister among the ranks of Nintendo’s other more popular IPs. So going into my very first Metroid game with Metroid Dread, I didn’t really know what to expect. This long-awaited series entry drops the player in on Nintendo’s resident space bounty hunter marooned on the planet ZDR. Attacked by a mysterious (and very badass looking) Chozo and stripped of her usual arsenal, the player's goal is to return to Samus’s ship on the planet's surface and uncover the mystery of her Chozo aggressor as well as the alleged presence of an X parasite on the loose. This game hooks you with its world, gameplay, mechanics, and challenges and I found myself coming back time and time again for more of this game which was a pleasant surprise, not only for a franchise I was very unfamiliar with but also for a game that offered a rather high skill ceiling. The gameplay promotes learning and adapting to the challenges the game throws at you and the player ends up bettering themself for doing so. Dying in this game isn’t a major setback which is very much appreciated (especially considering how often you’ll be seeing the game over screen) and it keeps the difficulty from being annoying instead of encouraging. ZDR offers the player a new labyrinthian alien world to discover as you face many different foes on your journey to escape the planet, including the E.M.M.I.

The flagship feature of this Metroid title is the looming presence of the E.M.M.I.s, robotic predators that sulk around with the objective of hunting Samus down and disposing of her in one swift, precise move. These segments were always a thrill, acting in equal parts as a methodical stealth mission and a frantic race to safety for your life. The developers did an excellent job at establishing an eerie atmosphere for the E.M.M.I.s territory, enforcing that hair-raising tension on you as you creep through wary of your surroundings. Overcoming each E.M.M.I. challenge is a very satisfying achievement and was honestly a consistent highlight of the game. The E.M.M.I.s scale in difficult in a way that allows them to organically maintain a consistently threatening presence, each providing a new twist to the hunter-prey challenge for the player to have to face and surmount in new ways that put the player’s tactility to the test and keep the experience fresh throughout the several different encounters Samus has with these lethal foes.

Throughout the game and in typical Metroidvania nature, Samus accrues a lot of upgrades to her artillery and suit. This in turn helps make maneuvering, exploring, and unlocking different parts of the map more snappy and accessible as well as giving the player new weapons to atomize any enemies with. Most all of these power-ups are rewarding to find and none are particularly poorly designed or unfun to use but as the game goes on a slight issue begins to rear its head. This would normally be a welcome and functional curve for Samus to follow but I found that all the weapons you continue to unlock begin to feel excessive at some point. That’s not to say that the upgrades aren’t practical or that they might be unnecessary or anything, they all have their place, sure, but the way that they’re mapped to the Switch’s Joy-Con controllers feels clumsy and crowded. It’s easy to find yourself stuttering while trying to remember exactly which trigger button activates Samus’s grappleshot or which one lets you fire a missile and I personally struggled numerous times with awkward inputs when Samus is in the morph ball or attempting to perform a spin jump which is seriously bad news in the heat of an important battle.

It doesn’t help the fact that these upgrades are very consistently grafted onto your arsenal throughout the game’s duration, leaving very little respite to become comfortable with your established kit before something new with confusingly similar controls is slapped on. It’s definitely not a flaw so frustrating that it damages the game’s experience in any significant way but when mixed in with the game’s fairly consistent reliance on swift gameplay segments and inputs the moment-to-moment gameplay does suffer slightly. On the bright side, it is nice to feel Samus’s escalation in power. Comparing how little you start out with to how powerful and free you are to careen through the world of ZDR is pleasant to experience firsthand.

Metroid Dread is a respectably brutal game, pushing its lightning-fast response times on the player to force them to use Samus’s repertoire to the upper echelons of its potential. It stands as a particular testament to how well this game is designed that such a challenging game kept me coming back for more. See, I’m admittedly not very partial to excessively difficult games. I subscribe to the philosophy that video games are played for fun and a lot of games that herald themselves as high difficulty challenges struggle to find that line between being something challenging and being annoying. There’s a fine line between bullshit difficulty designed to prank and slight the player and the kind of difficulty that offers both a challenging roadblock and an organic opportunity for the player to improve their skills. Dread is a perfect example of the latter, offering boss battles time and time again that may seem unfathomable at first but ultimately reward the player for forging forward with trial-and-error. A lot of games that tout a daunting difficulty level often lose me here as one too many times I have to restart the same boss fight without making any kind of progress tends to end with me dropping a game.

Metroid Dread allows the player to feel the progress they’re making each time they charge back in, getting a little further each time, learning each tell and cue, and adapting to the rhythm of the battle. I remember the first time I attempted the final battle I got mollywhopped so hard in the first few seconds that I couldn’t imagine there being any plausible way to surmount such a challenge but after a few attempts I considered the first phase of the battle that gave me so much trouble before to be remarkably easy. It’s that kind of difficulty that makes for a strong and compelling boss fight. And yeah, it’s not like Metroid Dread is the first game to ever do this, I’m not saying they invented the boss battle here, but it’s nice to see a difficult game not rely on being unforgiving just for the sake of being cruel.

Because of this design philosophy, the boss battles Metroid Dread has on offer are simultaneously fun, challenging, and satisfying. You always leave a boss room feeling like you’ve improved as a player which is an incredibly positive feeling that was a major contributing factor to the allure of this game. It’s especially impressive for a challenging game to have all well-rounded and fun boss battles; not one was a fluke that felt necessarily like a slog to get through. The one gripe with the boss battles in this game comes more so as a technicality as it’s rather about the minibosses Samus comes to face. Dread repeats the same miniboss battles over and over again, taking an initially difficult encounter and then reheating and reserving another two times with a few new moves in the mix.

Now, recycling miniboss characters doesn’t have to be a negative thing. Doom Eternal comes to mind, a game that introduces the player to the marauder enemy through a boss battle-esque mano e mano showdown. Later on, you see the marauder again but this time he’s mixed in with the chaos of the normal battlefield. He’s still a threat that kicks the intensity of the battle up a notch or two when he steps in but the player has had some time to improve since your last encounter making the marauder’s threat mixed into the rest of the enemies an appropriately challenging obstacle for the player to face. Metroid Dread throws recurring miniboss enemies at you but instead scales the difficulty of the miniboss meaning it retains all the fanfare of the first boss battle with amped-up stakes which starts to become redundant after one or two encounters. Unlike Doom Eternal, Dread halts the game for you to face a boss you’ve already fought before instead of just letting you handle them amidst the rest of the creatures at the business end of your arm cannon. Thanks to the way Dread approaches and handles its boss battles it’s not too much of an issue as these battles still manage to be fun even after two prior encounters but it still feels a bit like padding for the game’s runtime.

Dread is honestly a marvel to look at and features multiple cutscenes that were always a treat to watch play out. I was honestly a bit surprised by how great this game looks, it feels very appropriate for the switch’s power frame. Whereas so many new games are trying to push the graphical envelope and give the player large open-world maps, Metroid’s classic side-scrolling nature seems to utilize the switch’s capacity in deft ways, modernizing the original gameplay with new technological capacity that provides for a very well-made game. The story isn’t exactly anything incredibly robust although it does offer a lore dump here and there. To be honest, I didn’t really mind the story… I was simply more preoccupied with galavanting through ZDR as Samus. Watching Samus’s jaded nonchalance as she’s dwarfed by massive alien beasts during cutscenes is very entertaining and the game really kicks the spectacle into high gear during the final act which makes for some really memorable moments.

A lot of Metroidvanias suffer from overly-complex map designs that are easy to get lost in, especially when it comes to all the backtracking you have to do once you get a power-up that allows access to previously unreachable areas. Having to check online guides time and time again is a real detriment to the game’s pacing. Dread is no exception. The map, while functionally well thought out and fun to traverse, isn’t anything creatively novel. While the game does use the Switch’s capabilities to illustrate some impressive and powerful environments and backgrounds I never really found myself getting super invested in them. Ironically, I probably spent more time staring at the game’s map than the actual areas I was traversing (another symptom of the Metroidvania’s confusing map design.) The individual areas aren’t anything new– you have your textbook volcano area, grassy jungle area, underwater level that’s objectively shittier than the rest thanks to the groggy underwater controls. (Although as a side note to that water level comment, there is a late-game upgrade available that allows Samus to freely traverse underwater areas, unabashed by the usual sluggish controls of the video game underwater segment, which was a welcomely and cleverly cathartic subversion.)

Metroidvanias are at their best when the player can blaze forward, freely exploring and opening up the map, and this game fumbles that ball on more than one account. It’s easy to get lost or not know where you’re going thanks in large part to the game’s lack of direction. There’s maybe once or twice where ADAM, Samus’s AI buddy, tells you where to go but outside of that, it’s left up to your own deduction. Then there’s the matter of discovering an elevator that promises to take you to a brand new location only to have it return you to a previously discovered area which is something of a disappointing anti-climax that occurs at several different points of the game. There’s a lot of hopping around the different areas to explore previously unopened sections which isn’t terrible but hurts that sense of progression and exploration that’s so integral to a good Metroidvania. Like I said at the start of this ranting paragraph, Dread’s map is honestly plotted very well and it’s never a slog to traverse and most of these flaws are just the usual trappings of the genre so it’s safe to say most of these gripes can be taken with a grain of salt. The map is fine if not somewhat unmemorable and occasionally a tad bit of a let-down in the progression department.

This game does so much right and accomplishes a lot of things. It’s a great game that not only does what it sets out to do but does so with both a reverence for veteran fans and newcomers alike. There’s apparently a slew of intentionally built-in sequence breaks since Metroid is such a big name in the speedrunning community. While I, of course, never happened to haphazardly stumble into any of these during my playthrough it’s still nice to know that the developers went the extra mile to implement those, thinking around their very own game design to slip secrets in while still offering a welcoming experience for any newcomers to the series such as myself. It's that kind of thoughtful game design that shows that the developers really care and are trying to make a game for everyone to enjoy. It's not a perfect game, it does have its problems, but I'd be amiss to call Metroid Dread anything less than great. As a final verdict, I'm going to rank Metroid Dread as an 8.5/10.

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