Metroid Dread review: The queen is back, all hail the queen
“Metroid Dread sharpens everything that makes Metroid enjoyable, while more fully realizing its horror ambitions.”
- Genuinely creepy
- Fine-tuned combat
- Tough, but fair bosses
- Rewarding exploration
- Detailed environments
- Slow start
- Some repetitive bosses
Dread has always been a driving force in the Metroid franchise. It’s what you feel in Metroid 2: Return of Samus when exiting planet SR388 in eerie silence, as the final baby of a species you’ve just eradicated lovingly follows behind. It’s a feeling that hangs in the air all through Metroid Fusion, as Samus helplessly hides from a dead-eyed parasitic doppelganger that stalks her. Metroid Dread, the first original 2D Metroid game in 19 years, doubles down on that brand of sci-fi anxiety to create a true Nintendo horror game.
The basics of the series are still entirely present. It’s an adventure game where Samus explores a mysterious planet sector by sector, gets a steady drip of power-ups, and scours every corner she can for secrets. But the backdrop is more unnerving this time. Four games worth of reckless missions come back to haunt Samus in a more story-driven game where history actually matters.
Metroid Dread reclaims the “Metroidvania”’ throne with one of Nintendo’s most difficult, haunting, and stylish games in ages. New movement and combat techniques freshen up a classic formula, but story is its real secret weapon. This is an engrossing sci-fi thriller that oozes nervous energy, bringing the series’ best qualities firmly into focus.
Hunter becomes the hunted
Samus’ story picks up right where Metroid Fusion left off 19 years ago. After wiping out the brain-sucking Metroid species and the X Parasites, she gets called to do more dirty work that the Galactic Federation is too scared to do. It turns out that an X Parasite was spotted on Planet ZDR, so the Federation sent seven robots, known as E.M.M.I., to extract it. The only problem? They’ve gone off the grid. In a horror movie, this is the moment where you plead with the hero to not step into the obviously haunted house. But a gig’s a gig for an independent contractor.
Naturally, things go south when Samus gets to ZDR, and that’s where the horror premise starts to take root. In a surprising twist, the rogue E.M.M.I. serve as the game’s primary antagonists for much of the game, as they try to hunt Samus down. It’s a bit of a mixed success that makes the game’s opening two hours feel a little slow at times. An eagerness to overexplain leads to a misfired introduction to the robots, as Samus evades one with ease, finds a powerful one-time-use Alpha Canon, and blasts the robot to bits in the span of a minute. That takes a bite out of the fear factor right off the bat. Imagine if Jaws opened with someone killing Jaws with ease, and then everyone freaked out as a second shark appeared.
Fortunately, Dread recovers from that early misstep. E.M.M.I. encounters become much more tense as the robots become more advanced. Soon, they’re able to squeeze through tight passages or run much faster, becoming much harder to evade. They’re a cross between Alien’s Xenomorphs and Boston Dynamic’s robotics — and just as unsettling as both.
When Samus finally gets the Alpha Canon, she’s still not safe. She needs to chip off an E.M.M.I. armor plating by carefully blasting it with a heated beam before charging up a shot capable of a one-hit kill. That leads to incredibly nerve-wracking sequences where players need to stand their ground and keep shooting as an E.M.M.I. gets closer and closer. If a robot grabs Samus, she’s dead unless she can hit a split-second counter, so the tension is high (even if the consequences for dying are little more than a minor inconvenience).
Metroid Dread gets into some gnarly body horror, going full David Cronenberg at times.
While the E.M.M.I. are front and center in the game’s marketing material, they actually aren’t its most effective use of fear. Metroid Dread gets into some gnarly body horror, going full David Cronenberg at times. A boss shoots slimy stones from gaping holes in its stomachs. One backdrop features a wriggling monster being stabbed and prodded by machine arms. Moments like that only amp up throughout the experience, as the story takes some harrowing turns.
What makes the game’s use of horror most effective is the fact that it’s rooted in history. Most Nintendo games tend to soft reset before a mascot’s next adventure. That’s not the case here. There are real consequences for Samus’ actions in games like Metroid Fusion. She reaps what she sows here, making Metroid Dread truly feel like a nightmarish culmination for the Metroid saga.
Super Smash Sister
The creepy story is a main draw here, but it doesn’t get in the way of what Metroid does best. Combat and exploration are as expertly intermingled as ever thanks to developer Mercury Steam. During E3, longtime series producer and director Yoshio Sakamoto noted that the decision to revive the series came after seeing how well the developer handled its Metroid 2 remake on Nintendo 3DS. That was the right call; Mercury Steam gets Metroid.
Combat has especially been improved here thanks to a whole batch of new and returning mechanics. Free-aiming returns from Metroid: Samus Returns, allowing Samus to stop and aim in all directions. That brings a level of precision to both battles and exploration, letting Mercury Steam design puzzles and fights that aren’t so rigid.
The melee counter is back, too, and more fine-tuned this time around. Samus can parry enemies at the right moment, resulting in a satisfying thwack. The melee isn’t just contained to counters this time, though. Players can hit it at any point to knock an enemy back, giving them more space to fight and deepening the standard arm cannon fights.
Mobility and combat go hand-in-hand here, as many techniques serve a dual purpose. Performing a running melee isn’t only a good way to hit an enemy, but also an effective way to hop across platforms. Samus can slide here, allowing her to dash through narrow spaces, but it’s more exciting as a battle option. Usually, if there’s an enemy floating low to the ground, you’d have to stop and shoot it before moving forward. Instead, Samus can dash under it, shooting up at it as she slides.
It’s a much more active experience this time, one that makes me feel like I’m controlling the Super Smash Bros. version of Samus, acrobatics and all. [/[ullquote]
The improved battles are especially noticeable in boss fights, which are some of the toughest I’ve played in a Nintendo game in quite some time. Big battles require a mastery of Samus’ entire move set. In an early fight, she needs to slide under a monster’s legs to avoid an attack, carefully aim at its waving tail, and counter it at the right second to initiate a thrilling cinematic sequence where players still control the action by shooting missiles. Some bosses chewed me up and spit me back out in seconds, forcing me to spend a dozen attempts slowly learning their patterns and figuring out how my arsenal could counter each move. A few sub-bosses get recycled one too many times, but every milestone encounter feels entirely different from the others.
Metroid Dread’s battles feel classic and modern in the same breath. I’m taken back to the original Metroid, where I’d need to pump dozens of missiles into Kraid to win. But it’s a much more active experience this time, one that makes me feel like I’m controlling the Super Smash Bros. version of Samus, acrobatics and all.
Exploration is core to Metroid’s DNA, and that’s preserved here, too, though it takes a bit to get going. The first few hours railroad players with more roadblocks than usual in an attempt to keep the story moving forward. It’s a slow burn, but fortunately, the game opens up in a big way after giving players a few key tools in rapid succession.
As soon as I was able to go off the beaten path, I was reminded of why Metroid is especially good at what it does. Many of its secrets feel legitimately secret, hiding behind tricky puzzles or out of view entirely. As I entered my usual late game collection hunt, I started realizing that there were unusual gaps on my map. Sure enough, I’d start hunting around, only to find a hidden entrance on a wall I’d passed over that took me to an entire series of hidden puzzle rooms.
Metroid Dread gives players a few tools to make the process easier, such as a way to scan for hidden blocks and a map that gives a general shape of the whole area, but getting to 100% still requires some thorough investigation and problem solving. There are still items I can’t quite reach, because I’ve yet to crack their code.
It fully realizes some of its strengths to create a game that feels like the most complete vision of a Metroid game yet.
It helps that the game really invites players to explore and soak in its atmosphere. Planet ZDR features visually striking biomes, from lush alien landscapes to hauntingly sterile E.M.M.I. zones. Rather than feeling like a vague collection of corridors, each room actually feels like a living space. Tons of attention has gone into creating detailed backdrops in every room, to the point where I can’t help but stop and observe. In one room early on, I catch some sort of cloaked enemy dashing through water in the distance, signaling an impending fight. In another, I watch a giant plant seemingly swallow a creature whole. That last one isn’t even foreshadowing; it’s just there to give the biome character.
Most Metroidvania games tend to pick a side when it comes to combat and exploration. Axiom Verge 2 features genius traversal tools that top Metroid’s, but its battle system feels comparatively shallow. Metroid Dread makes no such compromises. It doubles down on everything the series has been known for. More importantly, it fully realizes some of its strengths to create a game that feels like the most complete vision of a Metroid game yet. Let’s just hope it’s not another 19 years until the next adventure.
Metroid Dread is the exact jolt of energy the Metroid series needed. What’s 19 years old feels new again thanks to sharp gameplay additions that enhance both battles and exploration. It especially excels in its atmosphere and storytelling, creating an Alien-esque sci-fi horror story that takes the franchise’s space opera to eerie new heights. The queen is back to remind us who puts the Metroid in Metroidvania.
Is there a better alternative?
Indies like Axiom Verge and Hollow Knight are strong cheaper options, but Metroid Dread is the best title at this scale aside from Ori and the Will of the Wisps.
How long will it last?
I hit 67% completion in eight and a half hours. A 100% playthrough will take between 10 and 15 hours, making it comparable to Metroid: Samus Returns in length.
Should you buy it?
Yes. Metroid Dread is an exceptional entry in the series that’s tougher (and far creepier) than your average Nintendo game.