Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Metroid Dread Review

Developer: Mercury Steam
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Price: $60

Metroid Dread is that sinking feeling I've had in the back of my mind since playing Samus Returns. This game was all but announced in the Chozo Memories in Samus Returns, so its announcement at E3 2021 was no surprise to me. I knew it was coming. I just hoped that by some turn of events Mercury Steam wouldn't be involved because Samus Returns was one of the worst Metroid games I've ever played. They are the developers, though, and sadly, they didn't learn much from Samus Returns’ failures. Metroid Dread doubles down on all the questionable design choices from Samus Returns and piles on Metroid Fusion's on top of them.

The way Metroid Dread is structured is by far my biggest problem with the game. Metroid Dread feels like a game made by people who really wanted to remake Metroid Fusion. It's very linear, constricting, restricting, and segmented. It’s all the worst things about Metroid Fusion times a hundred. Every zone in the game is off on an island by itself and it’s only connected to the others by teleports, subways, and elevators. There isn't even a central hub area. These zones don't play like your usual Metroidvania dungeon or Fusion's zones either. You only get to play in a small chunk of each zone at a time. After beating the boss or getting the item in that area, you're allowed to leave. But not before the game closes off areas so you can't explore them with the new item you probably just got.
It feels like the game is funneling you down a path. The game is constantly locking the door behind you, closing off parts of the environment you've already been to, and sending you through one way doors. You’re confined to one small section of a zone throughout most of the game, so if you ever get stuck, you’re not only stuck, you’re also trapped. You only get to freely explore a few times in between zones towards the end of the game and at the very end of the game. It’s very frustrating as a fan of older Metroid games, and Metroidvanias in general, which give you the freedom to go wherever your items can take you. I will say that running around collecting all the items after beating the game is pretty fun. It’s just too bad the game takes so long to get there.
OK, the real reason why this game is called Dread is because of the EMMIs. They’re the big robots all over the game’s art and marketing. They are unkillable by normal means, and if they catch you, you have to pass a fairly difficult QTE sequence to get away. I guess you’re supposed to dread running into them. Well, they’re not as big of a deal as they were made out to be. They are mild annoyances at best. They are confined to small sections of the map, so it’s not like they’re always hunting you. They're also pretty easy to outrun, and if they do catch and kill you, you’ll only be sent back to the entrance of their zone and not to your last save. The QTE is also not impossible to learn. The timing is super strict, but it is possible and it gets easier and easier to do it as the game goes on. At least it did for me. EMMIs are not a super fun mechanic, but I don’t think they ruin the game either.
One of my biggest complaints about Samus Returns was the controls, and while they have been improved upon in Dread, I still don’t think they’re right for a Metroid, or most 2D action platformers for that matter. They feel very loose, unresponsive, and overly complicated. It feels like they're trying to make controls that feel familiar to people who only play modern 3D games. The most annoying thing about them is that they still force you to use the analog stick to move and aim. There isn't even analog movement in the game. Samus always runs at full speed. The only thing that actually uses the analog stick's sensitivity is the 360° aiming. So, we’re giving up the responsiveness, accuracy, and ease of use of the d-pad so we can aim in any direction? Doesn’t seem like a good tradeoff to me. Somebody at Mercury Steam obviously knows the analog stick doesn’t work as well as a d-pad. That's why wall jumping doesn't require any directional input anymore and why they give you a button to quickly use the Morph Ball on ZL. You can still double tap the analog stick down to use the Morph Ball, but it’s nowhere near as quick and responsive as it was with a d-pad in older games.
Metroid Dread also has no control options of any kind. Or any options aside from brightness and rumble for that matter. If you have a problem with the awkward use of the shoulder buttons, I guess you can change them in the system settings, but that's not going to change the in-game button prompts.
If it were up to me, Samus would never punch anything outside of Smash Bros games. Not after Other M. Melee counters are back again in Dread, though, and they still suck. They’ve removed smaller enemies that require melee counters to kill, and you can get past some bosses without doing their melee counter QTE sequences, but you’re really handicapping yourself by not using them because they’re the most powerful attacks in the game and enemies have a ton of HP. That’s another thing that bothers me about this game. Samus never feels like the walking weapon of mass destruction she was at the end of Super Metroid because almost every enemy in the game is a giant bullet sponge.
Another baffling thing they’ve carried over from Metroid II and Samus Returns is the scattered stations. Teleports, recharge, and save stations are all separate and scattered all over the place. There is no excuse for this. This is a Metroid II problem that has already been solved. I don't know why they're bringing this back for the second time.
Mercury Steam really tried to do something different with Samus’ abilities in this game. I’ll give them credit for that. Samus gets new abilities that let her climb on special walls, turn invisible like the Predator, and a blink move that’s basically a dash/air dash. They also gave her a slide because they didn't want to give you the Morph Ball too early and Metroid can't crawl. They’re cool looking moves, but they are overshadowed and mostly made irrelevant by Samus’ returning moves, like the Morph Ball, Screw Attack, and Space Jump, by the end of the game.
Metroid Dread is the last game in the Metroid timeline and is supposed to wrap up the story of Samus and the Metroids. That’s a pretty big deal, so I was hoping the story would answer all my questions and pay everything off, but like the rest of the game, it was a big letdown. I think they paid off the story they set up in the Chozo Memories in Samus Returns, but I don’t think it’s a satisfying ending to the Metroid saga or a satisfying sequel to Metroid Fusion. I still have questions about the Federation, Metroids, Chozo, and Samus herself. This also obviously isn’t the end of the Metroids if Samus has Metroid DNA within her. The storytelling itself is also pretty bad. Most of it is told through a couple of huge story dumps near the end of the game. There is a little bit of environmental storytelling, but nothing like Super Metroid. I don’t need Metroid to have a bunch of cutscenes or anything, but they really didn’t deliver on what they built up.
I think Metroid Dread is a great looking game. You won’t find many Metroidvanias with 3D graphics that look better than Dread on any system. It runs at 60FPS most of the time, it’s not 1080p, but it runs above 720p while docked, the lighting looks great, and the environments are full of little details and animations. The planet of ZDR is constantly changing. Areas freeze, flood, and break as you progress through the game, changing the look of the environments as well as where you can go. I just wish the game had some more variety in the environment designs.
Metroid Dread’s soundtrack is incredibly underwhelming. The best tracks on it are just worse remixes of songs from previous Metroid games. A lot of songs are more like ambient sounds than music. Like howling winds with scattered sounds of tree branches hitting metal. When it does try to do something original, it sounds like a sad imitation of Metroid Prime's music.

Metroid Dread is not the worst Metroid game, at least? Metroid II still holds that title. I also like Dread better than Samus Returns. That’s about the highest praise I can give it. Nice graphics can only get you so far. There were moments when I thought that if the game kept up the level of fun, it could end up being great, but the way the game is structured just kept bringing it back down.