Metroid Dread Review: Fear and legacy franchises

Metroid Dread is a game I thought I might never play, let alone review.

For years, the Metroid franchise has sat among several other older Nintendo franchises, like F-Zero and Mother/EarthBound, gathering dust. For fans of the series, their own personal dread was real. Was their favourite Ninty franchise dead? As the wait dragged on, a running joke among fan communities became “you can’t spell Metroid Prime without “retired IP”.

Finally, a ray of hope — Nintendo announced Metroid Prime 4 at E3 back in 2017. But even that appears to have disappeared off the radar. Rumours of an in-development game called Metroid Dread have circulated for years, with the game only getting a formal announcement at E3 this year. Now, at last, Samus is back — and in 2D, no less.

It Came From Space

Metroid Dread is set canonically after the events of fan-favourite GBA title Metroid Fusion. CCTV footage from Planet ZDR has captured what appears to be a strange, indistinct parasite. It’s not a Metroid. But it might be something even more dangerous. Its existence is troubling to the Galactic Federation, who fear an old foe may have somehow survived a planetary annihilation.

E.M.M.I. robots, an army of powerful androids owned and operated by the Federation, are sent to gather data. None return and all communication with the robots cease quickly. The Federation deploys Samus to ZDR to find out what has become of the E.M.M.I. androids, identify the parasite and, if it presents a threat, destroy it before it can spread to any further worlds.

I’m bound by the terms of the review embargo from spoiling the story, but I can say this: if you’re a starving Metroid lorehound, suffice it to say Dread does a lot to make sure you’re eating well.

Poke around, see what you can find

The core of any Metroid game, and indeed the Metroidvania genre that it spawned, is exploration. Released alone into a labyrinthine world map, you spend a lot of time poking at the edges, trying to find your next path forward. The Metroid series has always been largely about The Tease, of stumbling upon an area you can’t access yet or an item just out of reach, and filing that information away for later.

Because it’s been a while between drinks, some may have forgotten the Metroid series’ other primary trait — fear. The title Metroid Dread is appropriate. Dread, the fear of what may be lurking in the shadows, pervades the entire series. What lurks in the shadows on ZDR are the E.M.M.I.’s, the missing survey robots sent by the Federation. The E.M.M.I.’s only seem to recognise Samus as a threat and stalk her through specific sections of the map. They track her through sound and movement, trying to catch her in their field of view. Initially, Samus has no way to dispatch an E.M.M.I., leaving you with no choice but run from each encounter. If caught, instant death is almost assured.

This makes exploration treacherous, particularly in the early part of the game. You never know when you’re about to stumble onto another E.M.M.I. zone and have to sneak around until you’re forced to run for your life. Samus plies her trade as a bounty hunter, but in Dread, you become the prey.

Hunted

Players will start the game with limited armament and slowly flesh your kit out. New weapons and moves are added as you progress, allowing you to backtrack and enter previously inaccessible map sectors. This isn’t just the hallmark of the Metroid series, it’s the hallmark of the entire Metroidvania genre. What makes Metroid Dread different to other contemporary Metroidvanias like Hollow Knight or Axiom Verge is that it is perfectly happy to start handing upgrades over quite quickly.

The Metroidvania genre has become a haven for people who crave challenge with their exploration. Metroid Dread isn’t so much a challenge to play, certainly not when placed against something as swift and brutal as Hollow Knight, as much as it is a pleasure to play. Even when in its spookiest and most atmospheric franchise, Nintendo still wants the player to enjoy themselves.

Samus feels very easy to control. Her movement is set at a satisfying pace, her jumps are higher than you expect, and her weapons are quick and deadly. Though some especially powerful weapons require what I feel to be an excessive amount of button holds to fire, everything else feels fast and fluid.

If I have a complaint about the overall movement it’s that Metroid Dread does away with the aim-up, aim-down controls on the L and R bumpers from earlier games. Instead, you use the left control stick to aim up and down while using the same stick to move Samus around. It’s inaccurate and feels a bit sloppy. What I wound up doing more often was stopping Samus in her tracks and aiming manually for greater accuracy. It’s a little thing, unlikely to bother many players, but it bugged me.

Claustrophobia and you

One final point I wanted to hit before wrapping this review up is Metroid Dread‘s art direction. It’s a shame that Nintendo doesn’t often release new games in this franchise because the art design is always some of the best in any of Nintendo’s first-party library. Samus’ model looks great and looks cooler with every new upgrade she bolts to her suit. Each environment is as cramped and isolated as they are unique from one another. You’ll always know where you are because each environment is so wholly different from any other.

Performance was solid for us, though it must be made clear we reviewed this title on a brand new Nintendo Switch OLED that we were reviewing at the same time. The upgraded battery within that unit does a lot to keep the game running steadily. I can’t speak to how my tired old launch model Switch would have handled the game, but I think it would be fair to expect it wouldn’t run quite as well on the older hardware.

Final thoughts

It’s just so good to have Metroid back. Metroid Dread is a fantastic new game and a great new chapter in a series unique among Nintendo’s library. It’s creepy, and it’s addictive. It invites you to venture further into the bowels of its bizarre and claustrophobic world, and it rewards inquisitiveness with new toys. I hope that it isn’t long before we see this series grace our screens again. For longtime fans, the dread is over. Confirmation that their favourite series is alive and well will be the greatest comfort of all.

FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Highlights: Metroid is back; Great level design; Satisfying progression
Lowlights: Who knows when we’ll see the series again; Some minor aiming irritations
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Available: 8 October 2021

Review conducted on a pre-release Nintendo Switch OLED using pre-release code provided by the publisher.

David Smith

David Smith is the former games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.

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