Metroid: Dread criticisms

I loved Metroid: Dread, but nothing is perfect, and a way I show my enthusiasm for something good is to analyze it, look for weaknesses, and think about how it could be even better.

Melee counter is OP

Against most enemies, any time you melee counter them, you can one-shot them with a follow-up shot. What’s more, killing them this way dramatically increases the amount of loot dropped as a result of the kill. It’s like the creatures of ZDR are all piñatas. Shoot them and you burn most of the candy inside, but beat them open, and you get a ton of loot.

I get that this is meant to provide the player with incentive to make use of the melee counter. Since it requires getting up close and personal with enemies, and screwing it up will damage you, the game design needs to balance the risk with an increased reward.

But they could have nerfed this, so that when you have a high success rate at pulling off the melee counter move, the game stops dropping quite so much loot. Or maybe wean you into lower quantity loot drops for pulling this move off as your max health goes higher. Arguably, they should have.

I also think that it would have been better to have melee-counters set up a counter-attack that does extra damage, but not always a one-shot kill. This mechanic makes too many of the regular enemies you encounter almost trivial, and not a threat at all. Even if you do manage to screw up a melee counter once in a while, you’ll get so much loot out of them when you’re successful that you’ll rarely if ever be worried about your health level for virtually the entire game.

Enemies drop too much pickups

Maybe this is a sign that I’d appreciate Hard Mode more, and if so, then this isn’t really a valid criticism, but I felt like it was too easy to replenish health and missiles whenever I wanted throughout the game. I never felt like resource management was ever a serious problem. This makes me wonder why have ammo at all. It only seems to matter in boss fights. Regular enemies mostly don’t pose enough of a threat to kill you. They mostly seem to exist to provide you with targets to shoot at, and drop so much life and missile pickups that it’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet at times.

In addition to this, the game provides copious recharge stations and save points, and there’s no limit to how much you can use them, or how often. They’re almost always right there for you both before and after a major challenge. I appreciate that the designers wanted you to reach these challenges at full power and ready to face them. And I appreciate that the designers made the boss fights super challenging, so that you really needed to be at full power before taking them on.

EMMI fights are repetitive, lack variety

I really enjoyed outwitting the EMMIs and having to run and hide from them. I think this is something you don’t often get to do in video games, and I appreciate the EMMIs for being different from most other games.

But while the EMMIs were different from other games, they were too similar to each other. Why must you always defeat them in the same way? The Omega Beam as a temporary power-up that empowers you to kill the last EMMI you met, only to be taken away after each and every fight, feels so contrived, it serves to remove me from immersion in the world of the game, and reminds me that I’m playing a game.

I would have loved to see Samus really have to use her wits to defeat the EMMIs in unique ways, using her ever-expanding move-set, and taking advantage of the level design to use the terrain in various creative ways to trap and kill each EMMI. Sure, getting a super weapon that runs out of juice after you use it would be a great way to dispatch the first EMMI.

But if they told a story that you only got to use it once, and even then it was only because you overcharged it and the super charge Omega blast actually burned it out and left it permanently inoperable, that would have given you so much more of a sense of dread: Oh no, there’s still six of them left! Now how am I going to deal with them? Then you would get to learn that Samus isn’t just a hero because she has amazing weapons, but because she is a survivor, who can adapt and outsmart enemies that are more powerful than she is.

That would have been so much cooler than how they did it.

I’ve already said it a few times, but the Control Room fights are also repetitive, and, worse, provided too little challenge. I guess that they were supposed to serve as callbacks to the classic Mother Brain boss fight, but fighting Mother Brain was pretty hard — mostly because any time you took damage, you’d get knocked back into a position where you couldn’t hit the boss anymore, or into lava where you were taking damage every frame and you couldn’t hit the boss anymore.

Killing Mother Brain didn’t just require that you did a certain amount of damage, but that you did it quickly enough to counter her regeneration. So any time you got knocked out of position and couldn’t continue pouring on the damage, it was prolonging the fight. Those factors made the Mother Brain battles challenging and memorable. Control Room has some superficial similarity: you have to avoid laser turrets and Rinkas while hitting a thing that looks a bit like a brain that doesn’t directly attack you. But there’s none of the other element present that made the Mother Brain fight a classic challenge. So what’s the point? And why do we have to do it six or seven times?

What’s up with all the lame names?

Planet ZDR? Quiet Robe? Raven Beak? Couldn’t they come up with better names than these?

I guess maybe we could blame the English localization for this.

I guess you can name a planet whatever, but ZDR isn’t exactly rolling off my tongue. SR388, the name of the planet in the original Metroid, is obviously a take-off of the planet from the movie Alien, LV-426. So a convention of two letters, three numbers would have been reasonable, fitting, and consistent. Metroid already has a planet starting with the letter Z, Zebes, so why they went with ZDR, I don’t understand.

They could have just translated “Quiet Robe” and Raven Beak into Japanese and it would have felt fine: Shizukana rōbu, Karasu no kuchibashi. Even shortening these to Shizukana and Karasu would have sounded cooler. Many of the names given for enemies in classic NES games were just untranslated Japanese words (or at least Japanese-sounding words, or sometimes japanified or mistranslated English words…)

It’s not a major thing, but I think they could have done better.

Story quibbles

I don’t really play most video games for their story, which is to say I can very easily tolerate a very thin story in an action-heavy game, and I can accept weak storytelling that relies heavily or even exclusively on cliches and tropes that are utterly formulaic and even cheesy.

I do enjoy and want to encourage game story writers to aspire to do more than that and to elevate their craft to an art form, and to tell original stories in creative ways, and not simply apply “The Hero’s Journey” or some other formula again and again.

I found the way the story unfolded in Metroid Dread was satisfying. I always liked finding a new Communications room and getting an update from ADAM to find out what was going on, what I was supposed to do, and what new information he could tell me.

I also was very impressed by the way the cinematic moments in the game were blended seamlessly into the regular action. Everything is rendered in the game in the same 3D engine. Metroid: Dread is “2D” in that the camera is always showing the action from the side view angle that is consistent with 2D games, and that the levels do not make use of depth, even where they have lots of detail in the background. But the game uses 3D models and presents them in a way that looks the same as 2D side scrolling Metroids of the past have looked, with the added flexibility that whenever they want to, they can pop out of that camera angle and continue rendering everything that’s going on in a more cinematic and dramatic way.

This is brilliant, and I love it. It makes the “melee grab” action in boss fights look super cool, and even though they’re just scripted button mashing events, they look fantastic, are fun, and make playing as Samus so much cooler.

This is all preface to say that Dread does so much very well with its storytelling and with the plot and acting generally.

That said, there were things I didn’t much care for, things that didn’t really make sense, or that seemed unnecessary.

  • At the end of the final battle, the cinematic bit where Raven Beak monologues at you, you seem like you’re helpless, and they misdirect you to thinking you just died, when you suddenly revive and life-drain your way to victory, only to then have to face a “final form” of Raven Beak after he gets infected by the X-parasite and mutates into a giant beast for some reason. WTF was that all about?

    I didn’t buy for a second that Samus was really helpless, and when she uses the energy drain ability to win, it was never a surprise. There’s so much that doesn’t work for me in this little scene:

    Raven Beak’s holding her by the throat, but she’s completely encased in an armored exoskeleton, so it’s not like she’s choking in this moment. So how is it that she’s supposedly blacking out? Is the throat section of the armor that flexible? I guess it could be. Is she playing possum? That would make sense and explain how it is that she is able to “miraculously” wake up and lash out. She’s screaming as she unleashes this final power against him, so clearly she’s got air in her lungs, and her throat hasn’t been crushed.

    During the monologue, Samus is shown struggling, and she does use her left hand, which is her energy drain hand, to grab Raven Beak’s arm momentarily as she struggles to… grab him with her left hand so she… so she can apply the energy drain move… which doesn’t make sense: if she could grab his arm, she should have been able to drain him right at that moment. There wasn’t a need for the overly dramatic choke-out/fake-out. move. When Samus does apply the energy drain, she grabs Raven Beak by the side of the head. Raven Beak is roughly twice as tall as Samus, though, so there should be no way her arm can be long enough to reach his head. Not unless he pulls her in very close so that he can look directly into her eyes as she passes out for the final time, or something… But that’s not how it looks during the cutscene. Raven beak has her at nearly arm’s length, the entire time.

    It’s done solely for heightened dramatics, and doesn’t feel right. Samus should have grabbed Raven Beak’s wrist, and drained him, and that should have finished him off, and thus ended the fight.
  • But not only does Samus drain Raven Beak, this somehow causes the Itorash orbital station to lose power and fall out of orbit. This suggests a few things that are implausible and just dumb: that Raven Beak is somehow powering the entire Itorash station, and that its orbit is actively maintained through the expenditure of power, rather than a simple ballistic geosynchronous trajectory that would require no active power usage to maintain.
    Seriously, why did Itorash crash to the surface of ZDR?
  • The “epilogue” final final boss battle was silly. We see that Samus just drained Raven Beak, yet he’s still alive enough to stand up after surviving the crash landing of Itorash station into the planet’s surface. He’s apparently still got more left in the tank and is ready to continue the battle. Samus just acquired the hyper laser that we saw Raven Beak using in the battle, but we don’t know that yet. Then, out of nowhere, Raven Beak is infected with an X-parasite, and mutates, instantly growing to gargantuan size.

    Then we’re given a mostly-pointless final-final boss battle with Raven Beak X, where all we have to do is hold the charge shot and stream ultra laser into the boss’s face until it melts off and it dies.

    It looks cool, I’l give it that. Having a laser that shoots a beam that’s as wide as Samus is tall feels ultra-powerful, particularly during the escape sequence that immediately follows, where it absolutely obliterates anything it comes in contact with.

    But there’s no challenge to defeating Raven Beak X, it’s literally just holding a button down. I get that the point of it is to show that Samus’s Metroid DNA has fully awakened, giving her the ultimate power, such that what should have been the most powerful boss we’ve seen yet is now child’s play to destroy. But that could have been conveyed through cinematic mode, rather than returning control to the player and requiring they press the button.
  • The escape sequence. Why exactly is ZDR exploding? Did the crash of Itorash trigger that? Was Itorash station somehow maintaining planetary stability? Or did the impact with the planet trigger this destruction somehow? Or was there some other process initiated that coincidentally started the planet’s process of destruction?

    I feel like we get an escape sequence because it’s formula. You can’t have a Metroid game and not have it end with a two minute timer countdown where you have to get to your ship before the world you’re on self destructs.

    I mean, we kindof needed to destroy the world to contain the X-parasites and end the threat they represent to galactic peace. But couldn’t we have waited until we were back on the ship and then nuked the site from orbit? I hear that’s usually how it’s done.
  • The whole “Surprise! ADAM is really Raven Beak!” and “Surprise! Raven Beak is kinda-sorta your ‘father'” thing. Samus is somehow always acquiring her power from her enemies. The last Metroid, the one she spared/rescued in Metroid II, comes back to imbue her with a life-saving power boost in Super Metroid; she officially is infused with Metroid DNA in Metroid: Fusion, which in turn gives her the ability to absorb power (and also DNA, maybe?) from the X-parasites; and now apparently she also has some Chozo DNA, or… I don’t get it anymore. It’s a bit much.

    There’s no actual Metroids in Metroid: Dread, until, at the very end, we’re told by Raven Beak-as-ADAM that Samus is now a Metroid, due to her Metroid DNA activating and metamorphizing her. So… ok. That’s pretty cool. I like it. But it’s a little much that she’s also apparently part X-parasite, and also part Mawkin Chozo?

    In storytelling, you can do a cool thing once, and it’s cool. But if you keep doing the cool thing over and over and over again, it becomes less cool each time, until whatever original coolness was there is spoiled. I feel like, OK, getting some Metroid powers is pretty cool. Using the Metroid powers to become immune to X-parasites and instead absorb their powers is pretty cool. Being X-infected on top of that is where it gets to be a bit much, but if we allow that absorbing the X-power sortof integrates X-parasite DNA into Samus’s already overcrowded gamete is probably about where I draw the line. Telling Samus that she also has Chozo DNA from both Thoha and Mawkin tribes is way over the line. How do the writers of Metroid think DNA works?

    I know, I know. It’s a sci-fi fantasy, it can work however they want it to work. I.. just… do the cool thing once, maybe twice, max. Samus doesn’t have to merge genes with every species in the galaxy.
  • The overly elaborate setup to awaken and harness Samus. At the very start of the game, Raven Beak kicks Samus’s ass. He could have easily taken her DNA right then, forced Quiet Robe to do science-y stuff to it to activate the Metroid in Samus, and then cloned that shit to make his army.

    He didn’t need to toy with Samus to get her to gradually restore all her suit’s missing powers, yadda yadda, and then pull a Philip K. Dick move on her at the end, revealing that the “ADAM” she thought she had been talking to since she woke up was really him manipulating her, and then offering a part Faust, part Darth Vader bargain to sell herself out to rule the galaxy side-by-side with Raven Beak as father and daughter.

    The whole game isn’t necessary because the plot self-nullfies when you realize that he could have just taken a sample of DNA at the very beginning, killed Samus, and did the thing he told Samus he was going to do during the final monologue just before you win the game.

    The only way it’s not necessary for the game to have happened is if the adventures you guide Samus through were somehow necessary in order to “awaken” the Metroid DNA.

    Which is silly. Even if it were the only way, Raven Beak could have taken a clone of Samus’s DNA, and raised it in a truly fatherly fashion, and brainwashed it to see him as good and willingly serve him and work for him.

    When you see stuff like this happening in suspense-thriller movies, and I suppose now also video games, it’s because the writers have lost the plot, trying to keep the audience guessing by introducing so many plot twists that stuff no longer makes sense, failing to pass self-consistency checks.

    I’m a big stickler for internal consistency. I can suspend disbelief, but I need for the internal logic to make sense. Otherwise, it just feels like the storytellers are bullshitting you, and it only works if you’re too dumb to see through it. Which is an insult to your intelligence, and so obviously when I’m smart enough to see that, I have to reject it. I have no choice.

    It’s that, or pretend that I’m dumb, in order to placate the storyteller’s ego, or something.

I still love the game, but these story aspects don’t do it for me. It only detracts from the overall game a tiny amount. But when you can make something good, why make it less than it could be?

I could be fine with Raven Beak impersonating ADAM and trying to deceive Samus; that element has a lot of potential. They could have had buried subtle clues that this was going on throughout the game — perhaps some ADAM conversations could have been the real ADAM, and others could have been attempts at misdirection from Raven Beak. This could have created some confusion initially, rising to a level of “OK WTF something is not right here” and then a revelation that at times you’ve been following instructions from Raven Beak who’s been manipulating you into doing his work for him, because (for some reason) only you could have, and now he’s got a planet full of X-parasites that he can use to take over the galaxy with… And at some point you have to figure out that this is what’s been going on, and directly disobey your ADAM instructions in order to advance the game.

  • The very final twist at the end, where Quiet Robe is waiting in Samus’s ship, and is somehow still alive, and is somehow able to revert Samus’s transformation into a Metroid by just touching her, and this is necessary so she can take off without draining all the power out of her own ship, and that Quiet Robe speaks to her in ADAM’s voice, and that this doesn’t immediately turn Samus against Quiet Robe because she just iced the last motherfucker to pull that shit on her, and that this all happens conveniently seconds before ZDR explodes, allowing her just enough time to escape… yeah, it’s straining credulity a lot thin by that point, isn’t it?

I guess you could refute much of the above criticism by saying something like “Come on, you care way too much about all these little details. It’s just a fun story. Just enjoy it.” But, no, telling someone to enjoy a thing more by caring about it less is nonsense. The little things matter. Continuity and internal consistency matters. Good storytelling matters. Feeling like you’re smarter or have better taste than the creators leaves an audience member feeling dissatisfied.

Could I have done Metroid: Dread better myself? Absolutely not. Could I have fixed all of the above story and plot issues if I’d been on the team? I absolutely could have. How much difference would that make really? I dunno. Maybe it turns a 92% score into a 96%?

My point is, the game is really good, and these issues are all minor enough that it doesn’t stop me from loving the game and thinking it’s a triumphant return to form for the franchise. But that doesn’t mean that these things shouldn’t be talked about, either.

Updated: 2021-Nov-03 — 2:19 am

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