The Metroid series has been a long and slow burn with achingly long waits between each new game. Sure, there was the Metroid Prime trilogy, and there have been a few remakes to tide people over, but if you wanted a continuation of the original narrative arc? You’ve been waiting ever since 2002’s Metroid Fusion. Metroid Dread picks up those narrative threads and forges ahead.
Given the time between these games, it’s no surprise that Metroid Dread opens with an info dump to get you back up to speed. Samus is now infused with Metroid DNA having used this to defeat the galaxy-threatening outbreak of X parasite on a space station. Except that wasn’t the end of the threat, and she has now been lured to the planet ZDR by the reappearance of the X parasite. However, Metroid Dread also builds on the greater emphasis that was placed on the Chozo legacy through Metroid: Samus Returns, the remake of Metroid II by MercurySteam.
You can immediately see how Metroid Dread is indebted to Metroid: Samus Returns for its gameplay and design. MercurySteam has infused Samus with a great deal of fluidity to her motion, even in an unpowered state, and there’s some nice touches to her animation as you explore planet ZDR. The biggest factor that they have in common, however, is the melee counter mechanic. Enemies will glint just as they’re about to attack, and timing a button press opens them up to a devastating counter. It can dispatch many enemies in a single blow or, in the case of bosses, let you deal massive amounts of damage while they’re stunned. It does, however, change some of the pacing compared to earlier games in the series, forcing you to wait for the counter on tougher world enemies.
It wouldn’t be a Metroid game if Samus wasn’t stripped of all her abilities at the start of the game, and that’s exactly what happens in Metroid Dread. As soon as she sets foot on ZDR, she’s confronted by a mysterious warrior that bests her in combat, but then, instead of killing her, causes her to forget all her abilities through “physical amnesia”. As you explore the planet, you’ll often encounter doors, paths and environments that are coded and locked to prevent your progress. You’ll be funnelled through the world’s different areas, before unlocking abilities like the morph ball, triple shot more powerful missiles that can then open up paths for you as you backtrack.
MercurySteam has done a fantastic job of making this feel naturalistic. Every upgrade you find sparks memories of routes and areas that you couldn’t reach before, and you’ll be scouring the map to see what secrets you had to skip past before. Backtracking can often be a chore in Metroidvanias, but with different routes to take, teleporters to unlock and more, Metroid Dread finds a nice balance in this area and the main path flows in a nice and intuitive fashion.
It also helps that the world map is fantastic. You can easily scan around it, placing markers for things you think you want to check out later, and that’s defined in part by the ability to select doors and items and have all of them highlighted for you on the map. If you’ve just unlocked a more powerful charge beam, that makes it a breeze to find out if there’s room two areas back that you want to visit.
Metroid Dread’s most defining moments come from the E.M.M.I. robots, who have mysteriously turned from their original mission and now hunt Samus through their patrolled zones. They’re the SA-X from Metroid Fusion amped up and multiplied. Utterly impervious to your regular weapons, they race to hunt you down whenever they detect your movement across the game’s large rooms, doing so with eerily alien movements that twist and reconfigure to get through small gaps. The game’s tone shifts dramatically in these regions, overlaying a grainy filter, muting the colours and applying a pulsing vignette when in these areas, not to mention having the unsettling beeps and boops that the E.M.M.I. emit as they patrol. They help Metroid Dread live up to its name.
Initially, the only thing you can do is run away to escape the area, because when an E.M.M.I. catches you, you have a slim melee counter window in order to escape. Abilities you earn help you more actively evade or hide within the E.M.M.I. zone, but each E.M.M.I. is faster, better equipped to chase you, track and stun you. This provided a real difficulty spike later in the game that took trial, error and sheer luck to overcome a gruelling section.
The ultimate goal is to find the temporary Omega Cannon upgrade that is able to break through the robot’s tough armour and then shoot out its core. The camera shifts to Samus’ shoulder for added drama, the time it takes to pull off the kill adding a huge amount of tension to these encounters. Arbitrarily, you lose the Omega Cannon once the robot is defeated.
Thankfully, Metroid Dread is forgiving with a mixture of both save points and checkpoints that trigger prior to E.M.M.I. zones and boss battles. Those fights are sprinkled throughout, and are rather fun, especially with the cinematic melee counter attacks you get to pull off at times, and the fearless badassery that Samus exhibits during the bookending cutscenes.
Another hurdle I found when playing the game was getting used to the control scheme that MercurySteam has settled on. It takes a bit of getting used to, especially as the free aim forces you to stay completely motionless. The incremental additions of each ability does mean that you have time to get used to some button combos, but there’s always the potential to get your fingers and thumbs in a tangle trying to pull out a specific ability and things like the grapple hook don’t mesh too well with the control scheme.