Metroid Dread: The Weight of Legacy

The “metroidvania” genre owes much more to Metroid than Castlevania, even if the namesake includes both. The labyrinthine maps and power-ups that peel back said maps’ layers have been present since the beginning of Metroid, and the series built on these ideas, even successfully bringing them to 3D with Metroid Prime, one of the finest games of its generation. But in recent years, the king has been quiet. The last decade gave us only Samus Returns, a remake, and Federation Force, of which the less is said the better. Yet while Metroid slept, others rose to take up the mantle. The defining modern metroidvanias are neither Metroid nor Castlevania, but Ori, which blended in the joy of movement found in the best platformers, and Hollow Knight, which built on Dark Souls’ stylistic foundations to weave a masterful aesthetic and narrative experience. Ori and Hollow Knight both mastered the fundamentals of the genre and added to it, not only with their unique takes but with numerous gameplay and quality of life improvements.

With Metroid Dread, the first completely new 2D Metroid in almost 20 years, the king awakes from his slumber. And Dread still understands the fundamentals, perhaps more so than even its most worthy competitors. But it also feels in some ways like a game time left behind, unwieldy when trying new ideas and weighed down by a stubborn loyalty to the idiosyncratic traditions of the Metroid series.

A Familiar Beginning

Metroid Dread’s opening cutscene sees Samus land on yet another hostile alien planet, this time called ZDR, after a Federation-deployed team of nigh-indestructible robotic EMMI units sent to investigate alien life vanishes without a trace. Though advised by her ship’s computer the bounty is too low for the potentially extreme danger, Samus nevertheless presses on. A typical introduction for Metroid’s minimalist approach to storytelling.

Metroid has always had a tinge of eeriness. In the early days, this was driven by grotesque foes, hostile environments, and unsettling music. Metroid Prime added the claustrophobia of stepping inside Samus’ power suit alongside environments and foes designed to deceive your senses. Exploring a dimly lit derelict or trekking through a whiteout blizzard leaves Samus exposed. Metroid never has the feeling of helplessness often found in horror though. Even when it’s eerie, you know in the back of your mind Samus is an absolute powerhouse who can blast her way through anything space can throw at her. That is, until Metroid Dread.

In Dread, Samus isn’t the conquering hero. This is a mission to survive, as your computer constantly reminds you. The nigh-indestructible EMMIs on ZDR are hunting Samus. Her weapons are useless against them and getting caught means almost certain death. All she can do is run and hide. This is Metroid Dread’s bid to add a unique flavor to the experience, to make you feel hunted, helpless, and afraid.

We’ve seen similar elements used effectively in other metroidvania games. Ori has both stealth and chase/escape sequences, the latter of which are some of its highlights. Metroid Dread goes for something a bit different though. Where Ori’s stealth feels like treading on forbidden ground, Dread plays up the hide-and-seek element. Nowhere is safe because you’re the quarry. It’s a distinctive idea to bring to Metroid, and I admire Dread for attempting it. Nintendo could have made a high-quality facsimile of Fusion and most people, myself included, would have been happy to play it. Unfortunately, Dread’s efforts to bring something new to the genre and live up to the legacy of its descendants fall flat.

The Face of Fear

Effective horror depends on a good monster. Maybe not on the individual level, but at least conceptually. A single zombie might not inspire fear, but a horde can because of the idea it represents. In this regard, the EMMIs are among the emptiest monsters I’ve encountered. You know nothing about them except what Samus’ computer tells you. When you meet them, they’re nondescript, largely indistinct killer robots with no connection to anything, let alone the themes of Metroid. Their gait is creepy, but that’s about it.

You’d think too that each encounter with an EMMI would be expertly crafted to be tense and memorable. Metroid has always excelled at that sort of subtle craftsmanship, tuning things to perfection with a touch so light it’s nearly invisible. Instead, Dread offers minor variations on a single insipid experience. There’s some terrain to play with, more so as you gain abilities, but for the most part you can easily avoid the mindless EMMIs by simply running in circles and jumping over them. Only in the underwater segment did I ever feel like I had to tread carefully, since the EMMI can outrun you before you get the gravity suit. There’s no spark of (artificial) intelligence, no striking set pieces, and too little of the ingenious use of space Metroid is so known for.

The EMMI encounters also have some technical laziness that’s surprising coming from a series usually as fine-tuned as Metroid. EMMI don’t attack. Rather, they touch you and initiate a cutscene. This is fine when the EMMI walks into you, but it’s jarring when you slightly graze the EMMI’s heel while jumping over it only to appear in its grasp a moment later. Occasionally you’ll get caught because the EMMI spawns on you when you enter its zone. And the zones themselves are a contrivance, albeit one that is necessary from a technical standpoint. But why couldn’t Dread have woven these in organically, as Ori did when you flee from Kuro?

The biggest problem though is that Dread simply doesn’t commit to its purported vision. It’s a matter of about a minute between encountering your first “invincible” EMMI and leaving it a smoldering pile of scrap metal. Overcoming the supposedly insurmountable is a routine, one you’ll repeat seven times, and Samus is back from helpless to conquering hero before Dread even finds its footing. The EMMIs, which could have been truly different and the signature contribution of Dread to the franchise, are relegated to a detour riddled with arbitrary tedium.

Ok, Shut Up Computer

Metroid has always had a story, but it’s traditionally lurked in the background, most often in the environment itself. Exploring the wreckage of a space cruiser gives you a good idea of what happened to it. The lore of the Chozo is expressed through their ornate statues and murals. Sometimes, as in Prime, there were logs if you wanted to dig deeper, but many details are left shrouded in mystery. Direct narrative is difficult to use effectively in metroidvanias due to the freedom the player has with respect to pace and direction. Metroid understood this.

As did its descendants. Both Ori and Hollow Knight drove powerful stories, but neither uses much direct narrative. Ori will occasionally, but only after masterfully tying it in with the kinetic action, and often chooses to remain wordless. Hollow Knight follows Dark Souls in lifting its lore off the page and placing it living and breathing in front of you. You see glimpses of what the world once was superimposed on what it has become and what you might make it.

Dread takes one of the most ambitious Metroid stories and executes it with some of the series’ clumsiest storytelling. Frankly, it’s the worst aspect of the game. Your computer tells Samus what she has just seen or is about to see. There are some huge reveals, but there’s zero buildup or weight to the scenes. Not to mention the plot is rather convoluted and referential for the amount of time Dread devotes to the story. At times I felt like I was watching some half-baked anime. Dread gets less out of its environment too because while it’s a good-looking game, it doesn’t have a striking aesthetic like Ori, Hollow Knight, or even earlier Metroid games. With all the blocks and doors in the foreground over detailed backgrounds, your eyes are rarely drawn to any particular artistic feature.

Dread doesn’t need a story to be a worthwhile game, but if it chooses to tell one, it’s reasonable to ask that it do so effectively. Earlier Metroid games did much more with much less, and Dread probably should have stuck with that approach. Or else taken something from the other metroidvanias that have advanced the genre’s storytelling in a way Dread, for all its narrative ambitions, doesn’t grasp.

The Metroid Experience

You might think given what I’ve written so far that I believe Metroid Dread is garbage. In fact, just the opposite. I think it’s quite good, perhaps the best 2D Metroid. Dread is still as sharp as ever when it comes to the fundamentals the series set out so long ago. The map design, the heart of a metroidvania, might be the best the genre has ever seen. There’s freedom to explore and backtrack with new abilities as always, but also an incredible sense of momentum. Dread subtly guides you onward without needing to spell things out for you and without wasting your time. In fact, I’ve heard some complaints that Dread feels too linear because it opts to open up new routes over asking you to constantly backtrack. This is different than previous Metroid games, but I think Dread is a better experience for it.

The combat too is razor-sharp, with all the abilities you know and love making their appearances. Enemies are alive. Predators hunt you down while other fauna defend their turf or see an opportunity when you wander into view. Bosses are challenging and varied. You’ll need to make good use of your abilities to emerge victorious, but Dread’s combat rewards mastery and feels fair. If this were a traditional review, I’d dig more into Dread’s strengths in this regard, which are myriad and impressive. This is the king we’re talking about though. If you want to vie for the crown, it’s a given that you’ve mastered the fundamentals, as Dread has.

At the same time, Dread’s stubborn adherence to Metroid traditions sometimes makes it feel outdated. You have incredible control over Samus—once you master the unintuitive and unergonomic control scheme (and if you can avoid carpal tunnel). Dread has a lot going on, so it’s hard to say what the best way to do things would have been. Let’s just say twin-stick controls became standard for a reason. You get a double jump, but a finicky one where you need enough horizontal momentum and the correct timing to use it. You grapple with Y instead of a shoulder button like almost every other game with a grappling hook. Dread opts for continuity with earlier Metroid games in these choices when I think there was room for modernization.

Likewise, the Estus flasks from Dark Souls and the channeled healing used by both Ori and Hollow Knight are great management systems that utilize risk/reward while reducing tedium that didn’t exist in the days of Fusion. Dread instead keeps to the Metroid tradition of collecting energy orbs and missiles from defeated enemies. Said enemies (especially bosses) can be spongy, and sometimes derive their difficulty from that and hitting like trucks more than their interesting and varied movesets, though this is not universally true. Even small details like Samus’ energy display are needlessly obtuse. Displaying a number modulo 100 with additional ticks for hundreds is harder to read than a single number, gauge, or bar, especially in the heat of battle with enemies that can hit you for over 100 damage in a single attack. None of these small things take away from Dread’s excellent core, but I sometimes hear the creaking of age.

Final Thoughts

Metroid Dread is an outstanding 2D Metroid game. But in a world that’s been without Metroid for so long, in which others have taken up the mantle and infused the genre with new and exciting ideas, where does that place it? To me, Dread starts to look the wizened elder, a master of the old ways who’s grown a little long in the tooth. There will always be room in my library for another Metroid. Yet I wonder if it’s not time for Metroid to craft its Breath of the Wild. To take a bold and invigorating step into lands unknown. To bring the core of Metroid into a new vision rather than add piecemeal to an increasingly ossifying legacy. I trust the king to boldly lead us where no bounty hunter has gone before.

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