Tuesday, September 26, 2023

How Good Is Metroid Dread Really?

The Nintendo Watchers Review The First New 2D Metroid Game In Almost 20 Years

You’ve read all the reviews. You’ve seen the freakouts. You’ve heard all the hot-takes. And they all say the same thing: Metroid Dread is good. Really good. Maybe even better than the 1994 SNES classic Super Metroid.

But how good is Metroid Dread really?

If we’re just comparing it to previous installments in the Metroid franchise, it should be the best, right? Samus Aran controls better than ever, the 2D graphics really pop, and the combat feels great.

Side-scrolling Samus hasn’t graced a home console since Super Metroid, and in those intervening 25+ years, there have been a lot of really, really good Metroidvanias.

To put an even finer point on it (and state the obvious), gaming has come a long way since the early ‘90s. Virtually every game was 2D — the closest thing we had to 3D on a home console was probably 1993’s Star Fox. Today, we expect Triple-A games to be huge 3D adventures.

All of that to say, in 2021, Metroid Dread can’t just be a good Metroid game. Hell, it can’t just be a good Metroidvania.

Dread came out the same year as Hitman 3, Deathloop, Resident Evil Village, Tales of Arise, Bowser’s Fury, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, and Monster Hunter Rise — it has to be a good game.

No caveats.

With all that in mind, how good is Metroid Dread really?

To help answer that question, we’ve teamed up to bring you this no-holds-barred review of Metroid Dread.

Building on the Metroid Story

JUSTIN: The Metroid story is a long and winding one, but for the most part, the series has relied on various comics and manga to tell Samus’s story. Metroid games, on the other hand, have been based on the titular threat — eliminating the threat of the Metroids. In the games, the developers have gone out of their way to cut down on distractions and get straight to the action.

Dread takes a similar approach, but it does a lot of conventional storytelling at the beginning, the middle, and the end, giving you long stretches of playtime between the cinematics.

Dread continues Samus’s story, dispatching her to the Planet ZDR where a mysterious transmission showed evidence of the X Parasite, the shapeshifting organisms that led the Chozo to create Metroid species in the first place.

Here’s a quick synopsis.

After arriving on Planet ZDR, a Chozo — later revealed to be Raven Beak — attacks Samus, leaving her without her familiar armor and weapons. As you move through the planet, you realize that the X Parasite transmission was a trap to lure Samus to the planet. You have to unravel Raven Beak’s plan to extract Samus’s DNA and use it to build an army of Metroids. At the end, Samus defeats Raven Beak and destroys Planet ZDR, along with the X Parasites.

For me, the story felt a little rushed toward the end. I think there were many more opportunities to uncover Raven Beak’s plan and build up to the big twist — Raven Beak is kind of Samus’s father — throughout the game. Unfortunately, it’s all jammed into a couple of relatively quick cutscenes at the end. I didn’t have time to absorb the impact of learning about Samus’s Chozo DNA before I was thrown into the final battle with Raven Beak. Then, during that battle, you find out that Samus has gone full-on Metroid. Neither one of those had the emotional impact they deserved.

And now that I’ve completed the game, I’m wondering what’s the deal with Corpious? Why was Kraid on ZDR? How about Experiment Z-57? They weren’t really used as plot devices — as opposed to the E.M.M.I. that were trying to steal Samus’s DNA — they were just obstacles.

Thoughts on the Dread story, Matthew?

MATTHEW: This is a tough one. Dread moves at such a steady clip that there is not a lot of time to really take in the events of the narrative as they are unfolding.

In the immediate aftermath of my playthrough, I was certainly underwhelmed by Raven Beak’s plot and the Luke/Vader reveal. However, that was more a byproduct of how chaotic the final fight and escape sequence felt, but having had some time to reflect on the experience, I realize all the subtle ways that MercurySteam previews this final revelation and really earns the payoff they were going for.

The real strength of Dread’s narrative lies in the interactions between Samus and ADAM. We’ve talked at length about our issues with ADAM in the previous games, but his role in Dread really works. ADAM’s primary function is to warn Samus away from Raven Beak and keep her apprised of the threats facing her on ZDR.

I felt these scenes really helped build suspense throughout the entire game, and the final interaction between Samus and ADAM is nothing short of cathartic.

Of course, it is impossible to write about Dread’s story without accounting for all of the games that came before.

If this was your first encounter with a Metroid game, then of course the ending is going to feel rushed and undeserved in places. However, Dread is very much Metroid 5, and talking about it as anything but a continuation of the events that unfold in Metroid Fusion just doesn’t cut it.

I felt that the reveal of Samus as the last Metroid in the universe was really the only direction they could have taken her character in the aftermath of Fusion. We already knew that her Metroid DNA was the only reason she could defeat and absorb the X without dying, so I didn’t even flinch when she fully awakened to her Metroid DNA.

Fleshing Out Samus’s Character

JUSTIN: In our podcast on Dread, you mentioned that the developers were really intentional about building Samus’s character in this game, giving her the space and opportunity to become the intergalactic badass bounty hunter we’re always told that she is.

What were some of the character-defining moments that stuck out to you?

MATTHEW: I thought that MercurySteam did a fantastic job with Samus’s characterization this time around.

This was certainly the most emotive Samus we have ever seen, and her interactions with the various threats found on ZDR reinforce what we have been told since the beginning: Samus is an intergalactically renowned bounty hunter of significant prowess.

A lot has been said about the way Samus approaches her encounter with Kraid. The nonchalant way she preps a Charge Beam while standing her ground as he lunges towards her speaks of their long history, and scenes like this really drive home the idea that Samus has been around the galaxy a time or two.

But while scenes like these depict Samus as a cold, hardened veteran, the interactions with Raven Beak and the E.M.M.I.s remind us that Samus has earned her confidence but also knows her limits and doesn’t take undue risks. Dread works hard to remove the bad taste left by Other M’s depiction of Samus.

What about you? Are there any scenes that stood out to you? Moments that really drove home how Samus has grown over the course of the series?

JUSTIN: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more about Samus’s body language during the Kraid scene.

We’ve talked about the disappointment that is Other M. The entire game is a study in how not to write a strong protagonist, but there’s one particular scene in that game that really bothers me.

When the Ridley clone appears in Other M, Samus’s eyes open wide. She staggers back. And the way she says, “Ridley?!”

At this point, she’s already defeated Ridley several times. Why is she so scared of him? Why is she so surprised to see him again? It doesn’t make sense for her character at that point in the series or fit into her arc.

The scene is infamous. In case you’ve never seen it, I’ll drop it here. The offensive bit starts around 1:56.

I bring up that scene from Other M to compare it with the Dread scene you’re talking about with Kraid. In Dread when Samus saw Kraid — once again — there was no fear. She knew she could defeat him.

Apart from that scene, I think Samus’s interactions with the E.M.M.I. were really telling. She knew that they were virtually indestructible robots that could rip her apart, but when the first E.M.M.I. makes its appearance, Samus doesn’t even flinch. She holds her ground and aims her arm cannon at its face. Obviously, she can’t take on the E.M.M.I. yet, but she doesn’t back down either. She stuns it, slides underneath, and starts looking for a way to kill it.

I think your characterization is right — Samus is colder. She’s seen (and defeated) so much, she’s learned to trust herself and control her emotions in stressful situations. I think Dread gives us our best insight so far into who Samus really is at this point in the series.

Jumping into the Power Suit Again

MATTHEW: I was shocked when I was about an hour into Dread and still had not found the Morph Ball.

Since the original Metroid, the Morph Ball has been one of the first and most ubiquitous abilities in the franchise. And yet, despite its glaring omission from the opening hours, I did not miss the Morph Ball in the slightest. Perhaps that was due to the inclusion of the new slide ability that Samus is rocking from the outset and which lends itself well to the sense of momentum this game encourages.

Never before has a Metroid game felt so good to control. There has always been a heavy emphasis on movement in these games, but in previous entries I often found the timings on certain abilities to be a little too unforgiving. I may be outing myself as a bad Metroid player, but I never enjoyed using the Space Jump in previous entries. In theory it was a fascinating movement option, but it always felt clunky and unresponsive.

This is not the case in Dread. Movement is always tight and responsive. Pulling off a satisfying Shinespark to unlock a particularly complicated upgrade was endlessly satisfying, and the level design really encourages players to mess around with their entire arsenal of movement options.

I do think it is worth noting that the controls in Dread take some getting used to. As someone who played the game almost entirely docked with a Pro Controller, I found this to be a minor annoyance that went away after a short time. However, when playing in handheld, I found that the Joy-Cons were just way too cramped to comfortably pull off all the inputs required for Samus’s more complicated movements.

JUSTIN: Both of us recently played through all the 2D Metroid games to get ready for Dread, and during my playthrough of MercurySteam’s Samus Returns, I remember thinking that controlling Samus felt really natural for me. Aiming, firing, dodging — it all felt great.

And with Dread, the developers — somehow — made the controls feel even better. Samus is more responsive than ever.

It’s not surprising that the exploration and combat feel as tight as they do, but the fluidity of the stealth segments did surprise me. When you enter one of the game’s E.M.M.I. sections, you go from typical Metroid running and gunning to very slow, contemplative, and careful gameplay. And Samus adapts really well.

(Matthew here: If you, like me, are the kind of player that prefers to avoid stealth: the E.M.M.I. segments work equally well as miniature amusement parks for you to play around with all of the fantastic traversal options at Samus’s disposal. I found outmaneuvering the E.M.M.I to be far more enjoyable than trying to stealth my way through.)

Thankfully, the E.M.M.I. sections are relatively small segments of the world map — you wouldn’t want too much stealth play in a Metroid game — but these slow, quiet parts of the game do a great job of diversifying the gameplay and letting players control Samus in a new way in a new environment.

Rage-Quit Boss Fights

MATTHEW: I know that I have had almost nothing but praise for Dread so far, and that is not going to change here. Simply put: the bosses in Metroid Dread are the best in the series and some of the finest in any Metroidvania.

And these bosses are tough.

Despite that, they never feel unfair and learning their patterns is one of the greatest joys in Dread. In my first playthrough, I died to each boss at least once with several pushing the kill count near double digits (Raven Beak, I am looking at you).

However, victory over these foes is not a matter of finding a missing upgrade and returning when you are more powerful. It is entirely possible to make it through each of these encounters without taking a single point of damage, and every defeat helps build the muscle memory needed to hit your timings and come out victorious.

JUSTIN: Agreed. The boss fights were some of my favorite parts of Dread. I think the boss fights — and the mini-bosses — kept the game progressing really smoothly.

With that said, these boss fights are tough. I don’t remember being truly frustrated, though. Sometimes when a boss killed me, I found myself laughing about it. The bosses telegraph their attacks well ahead of time, and when you miss them, you have to laugh at yourself.

I probably died at least half a dozen times with each boss. I’d work really hard to get through the first phase just to be annihilated by new attacks in the second phase. Dread boss fights are all about trial and error. It comes down to, how fast can you learn the patterns and are you skilled enough with Samus’s controls to avoid the attacks?

Exploring Planet ZDR

MATTHEW: I want to talk for a bit about the environments of ZDR. As with any good Metroid game, exploration makes up a significant portion of the runtime.

In order for this to be an enjoyable experience for the player, the environments need to be varied, engaging, and intuitive. While I certainly felt that Dread benefited significantly from MercurySteam’s attention to fleshing out the backgrounds and making sure that each of the eight major sectors were fully realized, I did find the early zones a bit too familiar.

This feeling was exaggerated by the E.M.M.I. zones which I found largely indistinguishable from one another and which occupy a significant chunk of each environment.

As for the actual traversal, while I appreciated the inversion of the traditional top-down approach, simply playing with the orientation of Samus’s journey wasn’t really enough to make the experience feel new.

However, I did feel that traversing the map was always satisfying and intuitive. While Metroid has always been a series to get lost in, I never found myself frustrated by the experience. Dread does a fantastic job of ushering you towards your next objective without deliberately telling you where to go.

Small touches like a conspicuously placed enemy pathing over destructible terrain or the tiny blue butterflies that appear along critical paths always give you just enough of a hint of how to overcome the environment without the need for immersion destroying waymarks.

What about you? Did you manage to make it back to Samus’s ship without circling the block too many times?

JUSTIN: Oh, I circled the block many, many, many times.

This is how I play Metroid games — “Oh, wow! Look at this cool new ability I just got! I bet I can open that door from the beginning with this!”

That’s to say, I’m an idiot.

I waste so much time backtracking because I can’t leave stones unturned. Most of the time, there’s nothing really that interesting behind the doors, but not knowing drives me crazy.

Even with all my backtracking, I enjoyed exploring ZDR. You’re right, though, the early zones are a little too similar, but I like how the environments develop as you get closer to the surface. But that brings me to the graphics.

But What About the Graphics?

JUSTIN: I played about 75% of my time on my Switch Lite, and I was extremely impressed with the game’s graphics. Some of the menu text was a little small, but once I adjusted to it, it didn’t bother me.

The detailed backgrounds did a fair amount of foreshadowing, giving you an idea of what kind of threats await you as you progress through the area. But on a strictly practical level, the backgrounds also dressed things up. After all, this is a 2D platformer. Without such stylized backgrounds, a lot of the rooms would look a little too similar.

MATTHEW: I am on record as preferring to play my Switch in docked mode. Having messed around a little with Metroid Dread in handheld, I stand by my preferred method of play even though I will admit that the game looks better in handheld.

While the graphics do look a little stretched or washed-out on the big screen, the frame rate holds at a steady 60 FPS and the beautifully rendered backgrounds really get the chance to shine that they deserve. In the little time I spent playing the game in handheld mode, I noticed that the graphics were noticeably sharper and can really see why this game is being sold as an OLED seller. However, with my heavy reliance on Dread’s fantastic world map and all the time I spent messing around in menus, I found the Switch’s screen causing some minor eye strain after a while.

Is Metroid Dread Worth Your Time (and $60)?

MATTHEW: I know that my answer to this question is going to be obvious, but you should absolutely spend the $60 and pick up Metroid Dread if you are at all interested. As of now, this leads the pack for my Game of the Year.

That being said, this game is not for everyone. The difficulty can be a turn-off for some players and a single playthrough might not even push ten hours. However, if you aren’t deterred by shorter games or challenging boss battles, there is a fantastic experience here that no fan of the genre should miss.
While someone interested in Metroid might wish to check out Super Metroid on the NSO first, I firmly believe that Dread is a fantastic entry-point into the series, and you don’t need to have played the previous titles to enjoy your time here.

JUSTIN: Is Dread worth $60? Literally, no. If you buy the physical version, you’re buying a little plastic cartridge that costs — what? — $5?

Okay, that’s a little tongue-in-cheek, but that’s the point. A game’s worth is intrinsic. It’s about how much you value it. For me, yeah, Metroid Dread is worth $60. It’s fun. It’s nostalgic. And I like playing it. I can’t even begin to tell you how many $60 games I’ve bought and hated. (Looking at you Balan Wonderworld.)

With that said, I mean, Breath of the Wild is $60. Super Mario Odyssey is $60. Metroid Dread isn’t the same kind of huge game as those. It’s shorter. Tighter. And also 2D.

It’s different.

I think if you’ve enjoyed the 2D Metroid series so far, the $60 price tag isn’t going to shock you or scare you away. There are many, many more great Metroidvanias that are less than $60 — you even wrote about a handful of them, Matthew — but I think it’s hard to find one that does the Metroidvania as well as Metroid Dread.

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