It takes me a long time to figure out where I can go next. Is it because I can’t read the map or the visual language of the level design? Or is it because these things are too subtle?
That’s a matter up for debate. While I’ve been playing, there’s been a lot of coverage in the gaming press about Metroid: Dread, and one story I read from Scott Jaffe, the guy who designed God of War is upset with the game design because it’s not apparent enough to him how to proceed through some of these areas. There’s an area in the game where you have to shoot through the ceiling in order to proceed.
I can see both sides of this. Original Metroid had tons of these destructible blocks and seeming dead ends that you couldn’t go through unless you happened to know that some of the blocks in the wall weren’t solid, and you could just walk through them. Back in the day, this wasn’t really questioned. It was simply the way games were designed, and it was the way the designers created secret areas and hid things for you to find, if you were clever and smart, or in the know. It’s part of the Metroid franchise’s legacy, and if Metroid maps didn’t have some of this, the game wouldn’t feel as much a part of the Metroid franchise as it otherwise would.
The area Jaffe complains about didn’t really present a problem for me, at all. In the area, there’s an flying alien who is near the ceiling, giving you all the reason you need to shoot at the place where the destructible blocks are, and discover the secret. If you don’t happen to miss, or you don’t bother engaging the enemy, then, sure you might not discover this right away. But there’s other clues as well — you can see that there’s a chamber directly above, the wall that separates the chamber you’re in and the chamber beyond is one “block unit” thick, and you’ve seen places elsewhere in Artaria where you can blow away the walls.
The thing is, some of these are more obvious than others. Some of the destructible terrain is permanently destructible — you’ll see a part of the wall that looks like it’s organic tissue. It’s red, it’s got some veins coming out of it, it looks gross, and maybe a threat, so it invites being treated as a target. If you shoot it, it reacts, and if you shoot it several more times, it is destroyed, and when it blows up an entire section of the wall will be destroyed, opening up a new passage for you to travel.
But other areas, you can shoot and destroy a block, and it is temporary. After a time, the block will re-spawn. Sometimes you can shoot the wall, and it will reveal a destructible block that you have to hit with a specific weapon, such as missiles. You might not have the weapon you need to destroy that type of block yet. This is the game’s way of re-using the map by blocking off areas until you can unlock them with a newly-gained ability.
This is one of the main defining aspects of the Metroid franchise. So if you don’t like it, Metroid just isn’t the game for you. And that’s fine, not everyone has to like something. But Metroid is good in so many ways, and I don’t mind this aspect of the game. I accept it for what it is, and I enjoy it.
Most of the time.
Other times, I do get the feeling that the design is a little too subtle, a little too obscure. I get stuck, and I get frustrated for a while. Sometimes longer than is enjoyable. A little frustration should be expected, or a game is just too easy. But there gets to be a point where you’re tired of being frustrated, and it stops being enjoyable. That doesn’t mean that the game is flawed, it just means that there’s a challenge curve to the game, and you need to climb up it at your pace. When you’re ready, you figure out the things, overcome the challenge, and move forward. Making progress feels good. But then you’re presented with something new, a new type of challenge, something new you need to learn in order to continue making progress, and until you learn it, you’re stuck, and if you’re stuck for too long, you get frustrated.
Sometimes the game is pretty good about telling you what you need to learn, what you need to do. These are straightforward challenges: you have to defeat this enemy. It’s hard, but you can do it. You just have to get good. Master the controls, learn the enemy’s patterns, learn what you need to do to defeat it, figure out a strategy, and execute it.
Other times, the game is less straightforward. There’s no signpost telling you “do X to proceed.” You have to put it together yourself what the solution is. You have to observe carefully, pick up on clues, what clues there are, and once you realize what the answer is, doing it is easy, but it’s discovering the solution that’s hard.
Sometimes it’s kindof both: figuring out what to do is hard, and then doing it is also hard.
I think great games offer a good mix of these elements, but it’s also fine if a game is all one type or another.
One problem with Metroid is when you can’t tell whether you’re stuck because you don’t have some ability yet, and you need to come back later, or if you’re stuck because you haven’t figured out what to do yet. It’s more frustrating when you have the abilities you need to make progress, but don’t realize it, perhaps because there’s some obscure way of using a new power that you haven’t used enough yet, or missed the clue about.
The first problem I have is with this section of the map in Artaria, where you use the Spider Magnet ability for the first time. There’s a vertical area where you can use Spider Magnet to crawl up the walls to get to a part of the room you couldn’t get to before. The top of the room splits down the middle, and the first way to go is to the left. From there, it’s not obvious what you do next.
After a long time I figure out that you can shoot the wall at the top, and get from the left half of the top of the chamber over to the right half. You get rewarded with a missile container for figuring this out. It took me forever because at first I didn’t realize you could shoot enough of the wall away to just jump over — I only hit one destructible block at first, and by convention I thought that meant that I’d have to come back when I get the morph ball ability, so I could roll through the low tunnel that I opened up by destroying that block. It turned out that there was a whole section of blocks that I could have destroyed, and if I’d just kept shooting I would have realized this and saved myself about a half hour of head scratching trying to figure out what to do.
Immediately after getting past my own stupidity on that puzzle, I couldn’t figure out what to do again. But there’s a section of wall over on the right side which is covered with the magnetic tiles. If you cling to this, your weight will pull it down to slide on a track, and this moves the wall out of the way and exposes a new passageway that is the way forward.
What I didn’t notice right away was some glowing tiles that in effect are a signpost, they make arrows that point downward and that’s the clue that you’re supposed to read to realize that the magnetic section of wall can move. Even if you don’t “read” the design of the level, you’ll probably discover it by accident eventually, if and when you climb on that section of wall and hang on it long enough for the gravity to pull it down.
But part of what makes it frustrating is that these “physics puzzles” are only in very specific parts of the game. There’s pressure plates in floors, movable platforms, destructible blocks, but they’re “special” — deliberately put there for a particular purpose of the designers of the game, who wanted to create a puzzle for you. But after playing Breath of the Wild, which had much more integrated game physics, where pretty much anything and everything could be interacted with in multiple ways, leading to no-one-solution puzzles where you could overcome the obstacles in any number of ways, some easy or obvious, others not at all easy or obvious. But Metroid: Dread isn’t like that. It wants you to figure out one specific solution to most, if not all, of the puzzles it throws at you.
There might be some sequence-breaking opportunities to get past some of these obstacles without having yet acquired the ability you’re meant to use, but I haven’t discovered any yet,
But my main complaint is that when you discover a solution to some puzzle, you can’t apply that same logic to other things in the map. If these blocks are destroyable, why can’t I just tunnel through any wall by blasting it? Etc. Obviously the game needs to constrain you in ways that make the game a challenge and a fun experience, and if you could blast your way through any amount of wall and tunnel your way out to the surface, you could just bypass the whole game, and the game would be called Metroid: Nope, and the mission would be “dig to the surface, get on your ship, and don’t get any new abilities, your normal blaster and jumping is all you need…”
So… I get it. But the consequence of this is that there’s some “now you can, now you can’t” issues with the game continuity that make it a little bit frustrating. “This ability only works when you’re solving this puzzle, but in another situation where it looks like that would be a thing to try, it won’t work.” Why? Because.
It’s not really that bad if you know all along what you’re supposed to do, but when you’re trying to figure out what to do, not knowing what you can and can’t do, and not knowing what you’re meant to do, it turns a game that could probably be played through in a few hours into a 100+ hour slog through your own incompetence, as you fumble about trying to make your way forward, hoping you don’t accidentally take a wrong turn and end up somewhere you’re not meant to be yet, or worse, that you can’t go back from to get back to the familiar area you haven’t quite fully explored yet.
I got through the magnet wall secret door and start exploring a new area. Very quickly I find myself in another boss fight, before I realize it, expect it, or am ready for it. I run down a long corridor and at the end of it there’s this weird organic door that I have to blast through. It looks like a charge shot door at first, but has something growing on it. It comes alive and attacks me, and I hit it with a volley of shots and it doesn’t take too much to destroy it. The doorway now opened, I proceed.
As I walk through this doorway, I guess I should have known to expect something special after that weird encounter, because the game switches to a cutscene mode.
(As an aside, I love the way the game handles cutting from gameplay mode to cutscene mode. It’s very fluid. The camera just changes angles and behaves in a more cinematic way, but the whole time the game is presenting itself to you in one engine. It’s really well done, compared to how games used to be decades ago, where they would cut to pre-rendered full-motion video that didn’t look at all like the regular in-game graphics that the game engine churned out.
So Samus walks into a large chamber, and pauses to examine a large sculpture in the middle of it, when suddenly a creature appears behind her, and attacks! It’s a huge, whale-sized scorpion-like thing with a nasty mouth and a whip-like tail. Samus blasts it in the face with a missile, and then slides under, between its legs and gets behind it.
This scene serves as a very subtle mini-tutorial for how to fight the boss. You have to hit it in the face with charge beam shots or missiles, and dodge its tail attack. If you let it get too close it’ll hit you with a bite attack, and it will also spit globs of poisonous-looking goo at you. It has a nice mix of attack modes, and keeps you on your toes. The tail whip is very subtly telegraphed, so if you can pick up on when it’s about to strike, you can jump and dodge out of the way, but the timing is pretty tight.
After you do enough damage to it, its tail develops a weakpoint, a glowing red swell a few segments back from the stinger. You have to shot this spot a bunch of times, and I found that it’s easiest to stand still and use the aim shot and just rapidly spam out normal-power shots. It’s the one thing that it’s vulnerable to the normal shot. You can hit it with charge beam or missiles too, but it’s moving constantly and hard to target, and you don’t want to waste shots. After doing enough damage to the vulnerable spot on the tail, the game switches back into cutscene mode for a moment, and the creature turns its back, as though it’s trying to protect its head, while simultaneously lining up for a tail attack.
If you don’t take the cue, you can stay bedhind it and try to hit it more, but it’ll basically corner you and you don’t have enough health to withstand more than a few hits. But if you try to slide under, you can get back in front of it.
There’s a split second where you can use the melee counter ability just as you’re coming out from the slide, and then you’re back in front of it again, and you have to pound it in the face and the weak point on the tail again with missiles or charge shots.
If you take damage or run low on ammo, its goo globs can be shot down with the regular beam, and they’ll drop a few health or missile pickups, which really helps. The monster will also exhale a cloud of poison, which will creep toward you slowly. To get away from this, you need to jump up and cling to the magnetic sections of the wall until the cloud dissipates.
Then you have another chance to slide under it again.
If you hit it enough times, eventually it goes back again to cutscene mode and you finish it off.
I had to run this fight a good 20 or 30 times before I figured out all the different tactics and “you have to do this now because nothing else will work” aspects of the fight, but after I finally figure it out, I realize that I’ve gained some skill and that if I have to do that fight again, I’ll be able to handle myself and succeed nearly every time now. It truly feels like I have accomplished something and leveled up.
Figuring it out by myself, and not relying on a strategy guide feels especially good.
Having now defeated this thing, I gain its ability: the Phantom Cloak. This power makes you invisible and enables you to sneak past EMMI without being detected. It also enable you to walk through special doors that are triggered by sensors which lock the door if you get close to them. There’s a bunch of these doors in different places throughout Artaria, so now I have a few more places I can explore.
I pick a direction, and before I know it, I’ve come to an elevator that leads to a new section of the world: Cataris
I figure I’ll check out Cataris, and if it looks like it’s too much and I’m not ready for it yet, I’ll turn around.
I don’t get too far into Cataris before I’m stuck behind a one-way and can’t retreat to the relative safety of Artaria, though.
There’s another EMMI in this region of ZRD, of course. This one is yellow. I can put my new cloaking ability to good use. The regular enemies here are tougher, take more damage to kill, are more aggressive, and do more damage. They feel like legitimate challenges that I need to deal with, rather than bump-on-a-log targets that I can farm to top up my health if I need to.
Cataris is big, and fiery. There are a lot of things to burn yourself on — enemies that shoot fire, geysers of flame shooting from the walls, floors, and ceilings. Zones where the temperature is so high that just being there inflicts damage. I explore as much as I safely can, and find more magma flow controls, which I activate and these in turn unlock more areas of the map.
I haven’t found a lot of additional power-ups though, so far. Just one missile container that I’ve been able to grab, and that’s it.
I feel lost, cut off from the way back, and uncertain about how to make progress again. I’ve opened up a lot of new territory, and it’s time to take stock of it and figure out what I need to do next.