Metroid Dread is a game that absolutely lives up to its name, which is saying something for a series that has always had an isolated, chilling atmosphere. Just as in Metroid Fusion – the Game Boy Advance game that this is a narrative sequel to – you’ll often find yourself hunted, cautiously exploring the unfamiliar until being forced to race and hide or escape when discovered by a nigh on indestructible enemy.
The game opens with a healthy dose of exposition, catching you up on the events of a game that is now almost 19 years old before setting out the new situation. The X parasite has been reported as having survived on another desolate planet somewhere in the galaxy and, while the Federation sent it’s most advanced E.M.M.I. robots to scout and investigate, Samus is once again called into action to go and investigate.
Almost immediately, things go very wrong, Samus is attacked in a very slickly produced cutscene and wakes up to find herself almost completely stripped of all her abilities. Nintendo have dubbed it “Physical Amnesia” this time around, which is a nice little nod and wink to how daft and predictable it always is. You’re also deep under the surface of the planet and need to figure out how to get back up to your ship as a priority.
Setting out, it’s great to see how refined this game looks. No, it’s obviously not going to rival something like Ratchet & Clank for fidelity, but there’s a pleasing depth to the 3D backdrops to the side-scrolling action. they’re detailed and have plenty of little points of animation and life to them. There’s also neat little touches elsewhere, like when you run-up to a gap in a wall and Samus puts a steadying hand on the wall while aiming her gun down the hole. The 3D engine also allows to a much more dynamic camera and dramatic interactive cutscenes when you trigger powerful attacks on bosses, for example.
The opening hour is a flurry of activity, as you find computer terminals, encounter different local wildlife (which is invariably hostile), find some early upgrades and remember the Metroid mantra of shooting literally everything to see if solid-looking walls hide secret passages – hint: they do.
In other areas, Metroid Dread clearly draws upon Metroid: Samus Returns, the remake of Metroid II that released on Nintendo 3DS. There’s a good reason for that, with developer MercuryStream working on both. Most noticeable is the melee counter that you need to master in order to deal with some onrushing enemies.
That melee counter can be a last-ditch lifeline when you discover what’s happened to the E.M.M.I. robots. For some reason, they’re very hostile toward you, which is a real problem when they’re also impervious to all of your weapons. Thankfully, while they will hunt you down, they will only do so within their particular territories. You will dread going into them.
As soon as you step through the gateways to an E.M.M.I. patrolled area, the tone of the game shifts. The image becomes darker and with a pulsing vignette and environments that look as though they’re swimming in dry ice – cold is now potentially harmful to Samus and her spliced Metroid DNA. What makes it even creepier is the way the audio design shifts, the E.M.M.I. robot putting out an endless trickle of different pitched beeps and boops as they search, and moving with unsettling and unnatural animations when they come into view.
They take the X Parasite copycat of Samus from Metroid Fusion to another level in how actively they hunt you down. They will roam their areas with wide detection radii, rapidly scuttling along floors and walls to reach Samus when she’s found. There’s a real fear that sets in as you’re spotted and marked on the screen, knowing that you simply need to run. That could be to try and race through the area to get to an exit, or to try and take a circuitous route back around, hoping to force E.M.M.I. to take a longer path to buy yourself some time. Later E.M.M.I. will be more powerful and flexible, but then Samus earns some key new abilities of her own to aid in avoiding them. If you’re caught, you have just two very tight windows through the attack animation to counter and stun the robot.
The only way to destroy an E.M.M.I. is to find the Omega Cannon upgrade, a temporary enhancement to Samus’ suit. Even then, it needs accuracy and timing to use effectively. Triggering the free aim with the Omega Cannon shifts the camera in for a pseudo over-the-shoulder view, immediately making it feel more dynamic. You need that view as well, because it takes time to first break through the E.M.M.I. bot’s armour plating, and then charge up the powerful shot that can actually take it out. All the while, it’s stalking you down the long corridor you’ve chosen.
It’s great to have Metroid back in such a stylish fashion, but if there’s one immediate complaint I have, it’s of the rigidity to the control scheme that I found immediately restrictive. Not being able to free aim unless stood still, having to use a button combo for missiles instead of just having a missile button, and not being able to fiddle with presets or remap buttons. They even leave the ZR trigger completely unused. You get accustomed to it, but I just wish it had a slightly more modern approach and feel in this regard.
While we might have quite some time to wait before Metroid Prime 4 is finished, Metroid Dread gives us something just as good. Maybe even better, if you prefer the classic side-scrolling Metroid games of old. It looks great, there’s a rapid pace to the game’s opening, before settling into the more suspenseful and tense exploration of planet ZDR, and there’s mysteries to unfold while dodging past the fearsome E.M.M.I. robots. I can’t wait to play more.