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Metroid Dread (Switch) artwork

Metroid Dread (Switch) review

"And Loving It"

How do you top a game like Super Metroid? It's not just one of the best games on the SNES, its status among Metroidvania fans is legendary. It practically created the genre and yet is still considered one of, if not THE best example of it, and fans will opine forever on its atmosphere, its level design, and just how perfect it is. And to top it all off, it was the last console 2D Metroid for 27 years. After 27 years (or 19 since Metroid Fusion), how can you come back to it without feeling like a shallow ripoff, without being stuck in the shadow, without the inevitable comparisons? Oddly enough, the answer is to ignore Super Metroid entirely!

It sounds odd at first; after all, everything looks Metroid enough. You once again control the famed galactic bounty hunter Samus Aran, who is (once again) dealing with a pest from Planet SR388. This time, there's an anonymous tip (that is TOTALLY not a trap) that an X parasite has been seen on a random planet, so off she goes on a nonlinear side-scrolling adventure. You have your standards, your blaster and missiles and energy tanks and eventually practically every upgrade from the classic games you can think of. And you will need these upgrades, not only for improved combat but also to reach new areas. This can be via improved movement (such as extra jumping height) or doors being unlocked with the new weapons. There are no real puzzles, no experience points, just ledges, winding paths, monsters, and bosses. If you are a veteran of the series, everything will seem normal and intuitive when you first start you new game, finding your first few upgrades and seeking out your first boss or so.

Metroid Dread (Switch) image

Oh, there's some new stuff, most notably the EMMIs. These are robotic hunter seekers that are impossible to destroy and are practically an instadeath if they catch you. Fortunately, they only roam certain areas, so it's basically a mad dash through said area until you can finally find the control unit and find a way to strike back. There's flashier combat moves and movement (Samus can slide now!), including a running counter move similar to the standing one introduced in Samus Returns. Coupled with the flashier combat is some fancy 3D moments in boss fights that can also have quick time events, potentially resulting in massive damage to your opponent if you pull it off. Oh, and instead of starting at your ship and working your way down, you now start at the bottom and work your way back to the ship.

Pfft, where you start? That doesn't sound like a significant difference...

Well, the significant differences are in combat and exploration. While Super Metroid is considered a masterclass in nonlinear explorative design, Dread is surprisingly very linear. Sure, there's always been a set path and order of obtaining powerups, but if you have even a moderate level of experience with Metroid games you will never be lost here. Very little backtracking is required, relatively speaking, and you aren't going to find yourself going through old areas hunting for new optional powerups like you would in Super Metroid. That feeling of returning to upper Brinstar after your long sojourn in Norfair? That surprise when you drop a powerbomb in a random location and end up near the very beginning of the game? Don't expect to see any of that here. Meanwhile, combat was fairly basic in the past, something that was part of the game but didn't drive it. Yet in Dread, it almost seems like combat is the only thing, as some of the latter areas of the game can be practically a boss rush. Is this really what Metroid is about?

Well, whether it's Metroid or not, it's definitely Dread. The word means fear of the future, anticipation of an upcoming calamity. Sure, the main element of this is supposedly the EMMIs with their one-hit kills, but honestly this feeling permeates throughout the game. In Super Metroid, you are the hunter. You are invading Zebes and moving through it to defeat the enemy. But here? You are told, over and over, your objective is just to survive, that you are in over your head. And this comes into play with the game being more action-oriented. Every enemy packs a huge punch, and every boss is much, much stronger than you. You will die, multiple times, against every boss. And it is to hammer home that feeling that you are weaker.

Weaker, but more skilled. These are pattern-based bosses, albeit with multiple attacks that are randomly mixed together and often with several stages, but because they are patterns you will always be able to learn them, learn when and how to dodge, and learn when and how to attack. You may have heard that this game is challenging, and it is true that it demands you respect it and will offer you no respite if you don't. But at the same time, NO boss requires complex, ultra-precise inputs, a perfect memory of your entire movesets, or frame-perfect dodging. So while it demands you respect it, patience, respect, and observation are ALL it demands. Your typical pattern is die, die, die, die, win with 80% of your health remaining. You have become Samus and demonstrated the skill she has.

This element is a necessity to convey that sense of Dread, that sense that you need to focus on survival alone. And naturally, that element means a deeper focus on action. And, for better or worse, it also necessitates a reduction in exploration. Compare this to Super Metroid, where you are slower, less agile, and it is far harder to dodge attacks with their minimal "tells". And yet, late stage bosses like Ridley or Mother Brain are a cakewalk if you found enough energy tanks and missiles. Just stand still and shoot, and their health bar will deplete before yours. This is a common theme in many open world or exploration heavy games - they are hard in the beginning but get easier over time (whether through overwhelming powerups or level grinding for experience or whatever). Your reward for exploring Zebes is to turn these terrifying creatures into mindless slugfests that can be won via attrition alone. But Dread demands you win through skill, so all of the energy tanks and missiles in the world can only provide you with a modest boost. So the reward for exploration is only extrinsic, your own personal desire to find items. Hence why the exploration is minimized in the game.

That's not to say that this becomes a purely "left to right" game. The map layout certainly looks Metroidvania-ish, and it always SEEMS like you have multiple options and multiple paths to explore. In reality, the game is subtly guiding you through a complex maze, never actually telling you where to go but essentially making it obvious for the skilled player (and even allowing the novice to find their way without too much work). Like with the bosses, the game demands you pay attention in order to move forward, but helps you out enough that you have to really work to get lost. You'll end up having paths close behind you at various points to shrink the amount of space you can explore (helping you find the way forward), and new transports or elevators are often found right after a powerup to provide a huge hint that you are ready to move on. No, it isn't as open as Super Metroid or some other games. But it's honestly clever how much the game hides its critical path while keeping you on it. The path is incredibly winding, but always easy to spot. It's enough to give you the illusion of freedom, an illusion that only breaks down when you actively try to pay attention to it. It's at least a nod towards Metroid's nonlinear past, which is a nice gesture if we aren't able to fully engage with it.

Oh, but it's more than just a nice nod; for it ALSO ties back into the "Dread" of the game in two ways. First, exploration-based games always allow backtracking, always allow returning to safer zones when you feel you pushed too far. But remember, this game is often trapping you, whether by locking doors or having the floor collapse and falling down a chute or whatever. Did you forget to pick up something important? Are you going to be trapped? As you were falling, you saw a missile expansion and couldn't adapt in time to get it; did you need it and will you ever be able to get it back? Of course, the game is smart; you will never be "softlocked" out of finishing the game from these events. But the safety of backtracking has been hardcoded into your brain from so many other games that these events always create a moment of panic, a moment of fear that you did something wrong... Oh, and remember how I seemed to mock the idea that starting at the bottom and working your way up was a minor change from Super Metroid? It's NOT! Since you can see your goal, and since you have a singular goal of escaping, every time you move DOWN in the game it feels like a failure, a step back (even though it's part of the linear path, of course). This is heightened by the fact that you seem to clear out the first area entirely in one go before moving on to the next, subtly priming you into believing that is how the game works. But then the pattern breaks, you have to leave an area, it seems like you are sliding away from your goal. It's a little psychological trick, but it helps keep that feeling of tension, that feeling of dread, something absolutely impossible with the slow exploration of Zebes in Super Metroid.

Interestingly enough, this heavy action/light exploration approach happens to have yet another benefit - a strong tempo and difficulty curve from beginning to end. Early on, when you have few items and thus only face basic enemies, the focus is more on getting a handle on your surroundings and moving around. Even though the exploration is fairly linear, slowly uncovering your starting area is the goal rather than non-stop action. As you expand your abilities, there is the twin curse of Metroidvanias: movement is expanded and there is less challenge or question in reaching tall places or crossing large gaps, but the amount of land you can explore also increases dramatically. The last third of an exploration-heavy game can drag at times if your skills have surpassed the environmental and enemy challenges but you still have a lot of land to cover. Dread solves this problem by slowly ramping up the action, shrinking the time between upgrades and pushing more and more miniboss and boss fights your way. Not only does it feel like a crescendo rising to your final battle (again, feeding into dread), but it keeps your interest and keeps you focused on the next challenge, preventing you from getting bored. Yes, you can backtrack and explore at your leisure if you want, but the game ensures you are constantly on your toes if you prefer to keep pushing forward. The end result is I never felt a lull while playing the game; I never had a Maridia moment where I felt a huge section of the game was simply dragging on (if you played Super Metroid, you should know what I mean here). There's a smooth transition from tentative exploration with limited moveset to sleek, fast action with an expanded moveset that keeps you interested.

Beyond all of the basics, though, lies some crazy depth for those who want it. As I said before, the game demands you respect it, both in combat and exploration, but never demands much more than that. So even though the game could be considered "hard", it is still achievable for practically anyone. And yet, in both combat AND exploration, there are rewards for those who want to move beyond just that limited threshold. Yes, you can defeat all bosses with a basic, simple moveset if you are patient enough. But if you are skilled enough to pull off advanced moves or quick-action counters, the bosses will fall much faster. You are thoroughly rewarded for skilled play, even if it isn't absolutely required. Likewise, while the game does essentially lead you through its linear maze, the potential for sequence breaking is immense for those who refuse to follow the road more traveled, and the game rewards you handsomely for doing so. And all those collectible items that are normally used to make the game easier, but don't do as much here? The game will fairly provide most of them for you, but to get 100% will require insane feats of skill with shinesparking, and also provides specific rewards for item completion. Again, it should be emphasized that none of this is required to enjoy the game; I didn't do any of it. But I fully appreciate how well-tuned the difficulty is: there is no hand holding, the game is fair enough that most people can feel the sense of accomplishment that comes with overcoming the obstacles themselves, and the game has a high skill ceiling with intrinsic coolness for those that want more.

Really, that's just how I feel about everything here, a masterclass in game design. Looking at the different parts in isolation - the difficulty, the action focus, the feel of exploration, the tempo - and you may see some parts you like and some parts you wish were different. But everything is connected, and changing one part could potentially unravel the tapestry of the game. Some may find it sacrilege that a Metroid game would de-emphasize exploration; frankly, I probably would have agreed with that statement the day before I played this! But every part of this game comes together, every piece fits so well, and led to the most fluid, most fun game I have played this year. I will not lament what this game is not when it is so perfectly created. It may be the first big budget successor to Super Metroid in 27 years, but it chose its own path. And, in doing so, may have surpassed it.

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Featured community review by mariner (November 19, 2021)

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dagoss posted November 20, 2021:

Great review. How did you feel about the 2.5D? In other games that had a lot of action, 2.5D felt imprecise and unfair. Does it get in the way here?

I love Metroid, but outside of the first game, I think most of them are very linear with a set order for the main upgrades, with the illusion of being nonlinear. Sequence breaking usually requires uses a glitch or an aability in an unintended way.
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bwv_639 posted November 24, 2021:

there is no hand holding, the game is fair enough that most people can feel the sense of accomplishment that comes with overcoming the obstacles themselves, and the game has a high skill ceiling with intrinsic coolness for those that want more

That's one historical virtue of Nintendo games, and one I prize the most among their set of historical virtues.

Where they haven't done that, and focused only upon the mid-to-bottom tier players, they lost me, and quite some of my respect: unfortunately they have done this a lot of times over the last two decades.

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mariner posted November 24, 2021:

I didn't really have a problem with the 2.5D. It felt pretty natural, and I never blamed the controls for my failings. I'm not into the whole shinespark puzzle thing though, so maybe it doesn't work well there since precision is required. Can't tell you one way or another with that part of the game.

As for the nonlinearity, Super Metroid definitely has gates to progress in a specific order, but the game feels very open and not always clear what order to go in. If you don't know what you're doing, you're going to feel lost. And there are lots of surprising shortcuts or new paths opening up to you as you go along. That is what Dread is missing, although again, I think it's fine that it misses it.

And yeah, I like this type of difficulty best. It's so much more natural than the "Easy Normal Hard" settings you get. OK, so Dread has a hard mode too, but whatever. I was playing one of the throwback Bloodstained games recently, and it was frustratingly annoying. So tried the easy mode, but then it was frustratingly boring. Getting difficulty just right is, well, difficult, but this game nails it.

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