Nearly two decades after the release of Fusion, the Metroid franchise is finally back with another all-new 2D entry. Metroid Dread is a game that series producer Yoshio Sakamoto has wanted to make for 15 years, and development has started and stopped twice in the past. With the help of Samus Returns developer MercurySteam, that vision has finally been realized on Nintendo Switch. Is this highly-anticipated sequel worth the wait and worthy of the legacy of Metroid? Let’s dive in!
The sights and sounds of ZDR
I’m typically not a big fan of games with a 2.5D aesthetic, as I almost always prefer hand-drawn 2D art or pixel art. That said, Dread’s environments look fantastic. There’s so much depth and detail to the backgrounds, and the game makes the most of it with environmental storytelling. I found myself stopping to soak up the scenery quite often.
There are a few hiccups with the frame rate, but it usually doesn’t last for too long or significantly impact combat. There was one mini-boss with particularly noticeable slowdown, but it wasn’t severe enough to disrupt my timing. A few monsters have a low detail, goopy look to them, but the majority of enemies and especially bosses looked great. There’s also a teleporter animation that’s bizarrely choppy, but it’s just a loading screen. Overall, the art direction is strong, and the world looks and feels incredible in motion, despite a few shortcomings.
Nintendo has a history of consistently nailing sound design, and Dread is certainly no exception. From footsteps to explosions, every sound effect is satisfying. HD Rumble sweetens the deal with some of the best-executed vibrations in a Nintendo game. The soundtrack is a more subtle affair, although it does a great job of setting the mood for each region. It’s good music, it’s just not likely to get stuck in your head like some of the more iconic tracks in games past. That said, some of those classic songs have been remixed, and there are one or two new ones that stick out above the rest as well.
Plot, pacing, and progression in Metroid Dread
Metroid Dread is the fifth main entry in the 2D series, picking up after the events of Fusion. Nintendo marketed it as the “conclusion of the uncanny relationship between Samus and Metroids,” wrapping up a plot 35 years in the making. That’s a tall order, but I believe Dread fully delivered. The story is interesting and full of lore and twists without being overbearing. There are major cutscenes around the beginning, middle, and end, and the plot largely stays out of your way the rest of the time. You’ll check in with Adam at communications rooms ala Fusion, but he’s far less restrictive in his suggestions. And if you’re worried about any influence from Other M, I can assure you that Samus is a calm, cool killer with no interest in long-winded monologues.
Exploration is one of the cornerstones of the Metroid formula, and Dread has been marketed as having the most open game world since Super. This is true in some respects, but that openness comes with some caveats. The game alternates between funneling you down largely linear paths towards key progression points and then opening back up again to allow for exploration. The level design does a pretty good job of guiding you towards the intended route without giving exact directions, and following this path keeps things fast-paced and engaging. The pacing is also helped by just how fast and smooth Samus moves in this game. The controls feel great, and new item pick-ups improve your traversal (and combat) options at a steady pace.
If taking things slow and exploring is more your speed, that’s an option too. At several points, you’ll have considerable freedom to backtrack and investigate old areas with new items. Dread features the most robust map system in the series by far, so you can carefully plan your route while keeping track of which areas are currently accessible. However, if you happen to stumble on the “right” path while exploring, you might end up locked into the next linear sequence. On a few occasions, I found myself frustrated at a door locking behind me as I entered a room. I was also disappointed that a certain item can be collected early on with enough skill but then remains inactive until a late-game cutscene.
However, MercurySteam has also gone to great lengths to include intentional sequence breaks. They’re well hidden and often difficult to execute, but if you can find these secret paths it can drastically change what’s possible in terms of exploration and progression. I found one such break on my first playthrough and armed with a greater knowledge of the map, I’ve found several more on my second. People often forget that Super Metroid’s myriad of alternate paths took years to discover, and some were clearly unintended. I have a feeling we’ll continue learning a lot more about what’s possible in this world in the coming months.
Dread also excels when it comes to one of the more underrated features of Metroid games: the Speedbooster. It’s been redesigned with new features, such as carrying your boost even while jumping over gaps, wall jumping, or sliding. Past features (like regaining your Speedboost by Shinesparking into an incline) are back too, making it more versatile than ever. It’s great for maneuvering around the game world at lightning speed, but I was even more impressed by its incorporation into puzzles. Mastering Shinespark tricks was a highlight in the GBA games for me, and Dread lives up to the high bar they set.
Metroid Dread combat and boss fights
Metroid Dread has some of the most intense and engaging boss fights in the history of the franchise. Some of them are hard, and death feels like a necessary part of the trial and error process. But I never felt discouraged. It’s the kind of “Git Gud” difficulty that rewards the player for paying attention to enemy patterns, adapting and improving with each attempt. As a result, it’s intensely satisfying when everything clicks and you’re suddenly executing a deadly dance, dodging and firing with perfect timing.
I can’t stress enough how important the game’s respawn points are in this process. Hard bosses can be frustrating and tedious if you have to make the long walk of shame back to the room to try again. When you die to a boss (or an EMMI) in Dread, you respawn right outside the room after a short loading screen. You can jump back into the fight immediately with your blood still pumping and get back into a rhythm right away. I found the difficulty level to be nearly perfect, and the final fight was the most exhilarating video game boss I’ve fought in years. That said, I’m a series veteran, and newcomers might find the difficulty intimidating. An easier difficulty setting would be a welcome addition for less experienced players.
There was also a ceratin mini-boss fight that got recycled several times with little difference between iterations. They’re not bad fights at all (quite the opposite), but they overstayed their welcome a bit. The Central Units (callbacks to Mother Brain) shown off in the trailers were similarly underwhelming due to repetition. Repeat encounters change very little, just adding more turrets and Rinkas. It’s fitting that a Chozo planet would have Mother-esque supercomputers, but they could have been utilized in a more meaningful way. These small gripes aside, Dread easily has the best overall boss fights in Metroid history.
Dread’s biggest shakeup to the Metroid formula is the inclusion of the new EMMI bots. Most of ZDR’s regions have a large designated EMMI zone with easily distinguishable entrances. Enter one of these zones, and you’ll be hunted down by a killer robot with a nasty one-hit KO attack. If an EMMI spots you all, the doors lock down, and you’ll need to find a way to get out of sight for several seconds to open them back up. It’s an interesting premise, but as someone who’s not generally a fan of stealth, I wasn’t looking forward to it going in. However, I was pleasantly surprised.
Each EMMI zone is a carefully crafted parkour course where your movement skills are put to the test. Run, wall jump, and slide to maneuver through the obstacles, carefully avoiding the EMMI’s line of sight. I worried that these sections would be too slow-paced for my liking, but that was almost never the case. I felt rewarded for staying in motion as much as possible, quickly reacting to my surroundings and using them to my advantage. The Phantom Cloak also exists as a stealthy option, but I found that I didn’t have to rely on it excessively. However, when cornered, it came in handy, and it made for some intense moments. You can also counter the EMMI’s one-hit KO during the kill animation, but it’s an extremely narrow window. The timing is tough, but with enough practice, I was hitting it around half the time.
A review code for Metroid Dread was provided by the publisher.