Metroid: Dread is a fantastic return to the 2D Metroid franchise. Nintendo and MercurySteam have succeeded in producing a sequel worthy of the series’ previous highlights, Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion.
Fundamental to its success is the world design. The different areas of Planet ZDR are deeply interconnected, yet each is distinct and has its own feel. The level designers did a fantastic job of providing the player with a defined path, not an easy thing to achieve with an open world design. This is accomplished by ingenious use of one-way points of no return which commit Samus to exploring “forward” when it might become tempting to backtrack.
The game soft-locks from backtracking you frequently, and at first you might feel unready, even trapped, but each step of the way the design ensures that you have the capabilities needed to continue.
Samus’s character design fits hand-in-glove with the world design to provide a move set and tech tree that work with the world design to create these locks. Each ability that Samus acquires is well realized, with multiple applications, in terms of both movement and combat. Your missiles, bombs, and beams aren’t just weapons, they can unlock parts of the world that are blocked by obstacles that these weapons can eradicate. Likewise, your power suit augmentations aren’t just useful because they provide new ways for you to get around the map, but are effective moves to use in combat: the Flash Shift, especially, but also the Space Jump being essential for the later boss fights. I especially like that immediately after obtaining a new power, you can immediately use it (and often need to in order to escape the room you’re in) to make new progress in the “forward” direction.
I started the game feeling clumsy and awkward with the controls, but by the end I had gotten so practiced that I felt fluent in most of the moves, able to pull them off at will, when needed, and improvise reflexively without having to think about which button does what. There’s certain things that I’m not very good at, chief among them the Shine Spark parkour moves that unlock many of the advanced movement puzzles to earn extra Missile Containers and Energy Tanks, but overall I find moving around in Metroid: Dread to be delightful and empowering.
The challenge curve in Metroid: Dead is amazing. You smoothly ramp up in power as you explore and open up new parts of the world, but the game is always right there with you, providing a level of difficulty that matches well with your current power level in the regions where you need to go in order to make further progress. There were times when I’ve felt like the challenge level was a little beneath my current power level, but they were mostly transitory, and seemed to serve a purpose, such as pacing the challenge level so that I could relax a bit between the bigger challenges represented by the boss fights. Mostly, if the game feels like you need to concentrate and take things seriously, you’re moving in the right direction, and if it feels like it’s a walk in the park, you’re backtracking in the wrong direction (although you might be able to find some useful powerups this way.) When it takes one charge shot or less to destroy an enemy, it’s a fairly trivial threat, but in large numbers, or if particularly aggressive, they can still hurt you.
The enemies in the game have the right feel for a 2D Metroid: you’ve got a decent mix of:
- “wall barnacles” (enemies who attach themselves to the wall and (mostly) don’t move,
- “perimeter crawlers” (enemies that climb along the walls, floors, and ceiling, patrolling their platform or room along its edge.
- “flyers” (enemies that fly about the room or hover, presenting a territorial threat to the space they fill)
- “large animals” (creatures about Samus’s size, which can take a bit more damage to defeat)
- “swarms” (clouds of tiny creatures, which present mostly a nuissance threat)
- “respawners” (enemies that keep re-generating in an area, creating a space of constant, if low-level threat, or depending on how you want to look at it, farms for replenishing energy and ammo.)
They run a gamut from low power to high power, and as their power levels increase, their aggression towards Samus likewise increases. Mostly they provide a routine challenge, nothing special, but enough to keep you engaged and wary when you’re entering a new area, especially for the first time.
Most of the enemies are biological organisms, alien fauna, but some are robotic, and a few are intelligent. By “intelligent” I mean that they react situationally to your presence and respond in different ways, using a variety of tactics. Most enemies are not very intelligent, and will only vary between a passive mode where they ignore you, and an active mode where the respond to either your presence, or to being disturbed by you damaging them or getting too close, and always in the same, predictable way. Robotic enemies are resistant to blaster fire, and often missiles work better on them.
The boss fights provide a lot of variety, and each of them is well done and provides an appropriate level of challenge for your current power level. The only boss fights that I felt were disappointing were the Control Rooms where you’d have to blow up an armored robotic eye in order to temporarily obtain the Omega Beam in order to deal with the local EMMI threat. These were entirely too easy, and never seemed to get much more challenging as the game went on, despite being repeated in each world.
EMMI fights are a highlight of the game, and one of the things that makes it stand out as different from a lot of other games. It’s hard to think of another game where you have a similar setup of hunter and hunted, and then turning the tables. These fights remind me of movies, especially the 80’s sci-fi action trinity of Alien, Predator and Terminator — and in a good way. Your opponent is much more powerful than you physically, and you have to use your wits and resources to find a way to turn the tables and overcome it. It’s a little unfortunate that these encounters are so similar to one another — each time they do get a little more challenging, because the environmental obstacles become increasingly a factor, and because each successive EMMI has some additional power that makes them even more of a threat. But otherwise these encounters become repetitive enough to start to seem routine — you build on your knowledge from your previous fights to know how to approach the next one, which is good, but it’d be nice if there were different ways of dealing with them apart from the Omega Beam. Like, couldn’t I dunk one in lava, using a trap door platform that I can manipulate with a recently acquired movement power? Or couldn’t I crush one by caving in the ceiling? Or couldn’t I just trap one, neutralizing its threat, by getting it stuck in a one-way area that it can’t get out of? Or couldn’t I get trapped by one, and rather than it being “Game Over” I’m taken to a new area where I’m imprisoned and have to find a way to break out before it comes back?
There’s a lot of potential variety in the ways they could have employed EMMI, and to have a single basic paradigm for these encounters, with the only variance being that each one is slightly more difficult than the one before, seems less imaginative.
Still, they do have the scene in Ferenia where Quiet Robe intercedes and deactivates the EMMI before it captures you, and the last fight, when your latent Metroid energy-draining power awakens and you defeat it with your bare hands, are here. These are small bits of variety, but hint at what more there could have been.
Otherwise, I found the boss fights to be great. Little room for improvement, no obvious criticisms.
One does wonder why they brought Kraid back again, but not Ridley? I think you can have a Metroid game without re-hashing the original minibosses, and I understand why there usually are callbacks to these classic characters, but to me it seems unnecessary to constrain the series to having the same bosses return again and again, as though they didn’t die in the last battle. So I can accept no Ridley, and no Mother Brain — that’s fine. But why then did they bring Kraid back? I liked the Kraid battle, mind you, I just wonder why, from a story perspective — what was he doing waist deep in lava, chained to a wall on Planet ZDR?
I liked the new Chozo Mawkin tribe soldiers, and found them to be a nice challenge. Fighting them felt like playing a classic 2D fighter game in the arcade, like a Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat. Indeed, these fights had a bit of a Smash Bros. feel to them, I felt. These were really well done, and forced me to put my move set together in creative and agility-based ways, rather than just standing still, taking aim, and dishing out firepower, as I could in many of the other early boss fights.
Given how much skill and knowledge I’ve gained through playing the game, it would be appealing to run through the game a second time to see how much better I can do certain encounters. Most of the difficult spots in the game, I had to learn by playing through them multiple times, failing, trying again, and getting a little better each time, and now that I’ve done that, it seems like I could probably get through them much more readily than on my first run. And this seems like a fun, enjoyable thing to want to do again. So I think that the game has repeatability.
There’s also the fact that I’ve only managed to get a 68% completion so far — there’s a lot of secrets still to be unlocked, and I’m not sure I even know how to tackle them all. Some, the solution may be more or less obvious, just difficult to pull off. Others might require some study to puzzle out the deep mechanics that I’m supposed to understand and be able to use in order to navigate the obstacle keeping me from the secret.
The game also, obviously, offers a lot of replayability for speed runners and sequence breaking. I think it’s a great game and maybe the best 2D Metroid game yet.
One thing that is interesting to note about this Metroid game is that it seems that Samus has become a bit like Mega Man, in that she acquires abilities by defeating bosses who had them. It’s a bit more subtle in this game, but if you look closely, most of the bosses employ a power like the one you get from defeating them. From the EMMI, you obtain ice missiles and wave beam, and those EMMI can freeze you and shoot at you ignoring walls. And so on with most (if not all?) of the other bosses, as well. Even Corpius has a stealth cloak ability that you seem to extract from its corpse as it disintegrates after you defeat it.