I have been anticipating this game a lot. I know I’m behind the curve with regards to it: it came out last year after all, but I didn’t want to spent $60 on a metroidvania, even if it is coming from the same series that coined the first half of that term. When Metroid Dread dropped to $40 for this past Black Friday, it became an instant grab for me. While I’d say that it is better than average, I’m not sure the game really lives up to its expensive price tag.
I will further preface this by saying/reminding that I don’t favor the Metroid side of the metroidvania as much. While I have liked games that adhere more to that formula (Axiom Verge and Iconoclasts both come to mind), I often prefer those that use more of Castlevania’s mechanics. I’ve also only played one Metroid game prior to Dread: Super Metroid, as opposed to seven Castlevania games (I think I’ve played every one that involves the action exploration playstyle, as well as Bloodstained).
Dread starts with Samus piloting her ship above planet ZDR, which is apparently the hotbed of Metroid activity. She lands, only to end up facing against a Chozo Warrior (this is a big deal because the Chozo gave Samus her impressive armor and I believe raised her as a child?). The Warrior, who we later learn is named Raven Beak, handily defeats Samus, sending her to the depths of the planet.
After she recovers, Samus finds that all her usual upgrades have been removed, so she’s going to have to explore the planet to find them. Her AI Adam tells her that she doesn’t have a chance at besting Raven Beak, even at her strongest. Thus Samus sets off to explore.
She doesn’t get far before she runs into these terrifying robots called E.M.M.I.s, which have been created to contain the Metroids. As Samus has a lot of Metroid DNA (circumstances of an earlier game), she counts as one in the robots’ eyes. Thus on top of dealing with Raven Beak, Samus must also content with the robots and the planet’s defenses.
I want to start by mentioning what got me the most: the graphics. I’m not someone who’s big into how a game looks, and I usually prefer sprite based graphics over the more 3D models, but this game absolutely wows in that regard. No where did this feel more like a AAA game then when it was showing off the absolutely impressive graphics.
They also used those graphics to build environments fairly well. Planet ZDR does feel like an actual planet with some research centers and biomes built into it. Yes, those biomes often were exactly what you’d expect: a water area, a lava area, a secret lab, a jungle, etc. But the game does this awesome job at making them feel alive. Plus there are events that happen later on which alter how older areas are set up. That really adds to the exploration, as you’re going back to find out what’s going on.
Samus also controls incredibly well. From the beginning she moves with incredible speed, easily dwarfing most other metroidvania protagonists. As I got more powers, I got to be even more mobile, and the game nails that feeling of empowerment that later stages of a metroidvania should give a player. I felt like I had worked hard and become a true force to be reckoned with. That’s also where the return to earlier environments really worked to the game’s favor: it meant I was zooming past areas I struggled with hours before. It gives me a great sense of accomplishment.
Yet for me there are still a few elements that really bog the game down. The first is what I see as a major failing of the game: the bosses.
Some of the bosses are awesome. You fight some series standards throughout the course of your journey, and they often feel highly engaging. When the bosses are “on” they’re really on. The fights are dynamic, quick, often requiring a player to work their way through a situation using the tool kit Samus has at hand. I found some of the fights to be as difficult if not more so than some of the “Soulslike” games I’ve played, and those are supposed to rely on boss difficulty.
Contrasting sharply with that are the E.M.M.I.s, which were supposed to be a major selling point of the game. These robots are invincible the first time you encounter them. And if they so much as graze Samus, it’s an instant kill. The game’s generous with checkpoints, but it is incredibly frustrating and disheartening to have your powerful protagonist continually killed because you didn’t quite get the distance of a jump right or you were stuck in water while the killer robot went at top speed. I almost threw my controller in frustration.
It’s anti-player game design. The goal here is to strip you of agency, and the developers simply didn’t build enough into Samus’ toolkit to counter it. You do get a stealth ability later on that allows you to avoid them. But that’s the only ability, and frankly that doesn’t make any sense. Why can’t I use my ice missiles to slow them down? Or why can’t I use my grapple to throw one off? They weren’t thinking enough about building these encounters, and there are seven of them throughout the game. They made me groan every time I had to encounter them (at least beyond the first couple).
On top of that, there’s not really enough variation to how you beat them. You go, fight the exact same floating eyeball boss (pictured below). Absorb its power. Then you use the super cannon to one-shot the E.M.M.Is. That’s it. No variation, nothing new. Same thing. Seven times.
They have a similar issue with the Chozo Soldier bosses. These are sort of mini-bosses that you run into a few times. The first encounter is great: they’re dynamic fights and it’s cool to face something that’s small and mobile like Samus. Later on you have to do double-fights where you take on two, and while that encounter was challenging, it was the good kind of challenging. It made me feel alive and like I’d accomplished something.
Now, that being said, I was nearly rage-quitting at that first duo encounter. See, prior to that, I had just used most of my energy (Samus’ health) to get past an E.M.M.I that was incredibly frustrating, and I had to clear a semi-tricky room. I went into the fight lacking resources, and it felt like the game hadn’t prepared me for it. That is partly my fault, but adding a health restorer before that mid-boss would’ve been great.
Even still, those were two successful encounters out of something like six or seven. It feels almost lazy, as the enemy is thrown at you again and again. Even the final boss, which, yes, is obviously Raven Beak, is a Chozo Soldier. Admittedly Raven Beak is drastically different than the rest. He was one of the harder bosses I’ve faced in a metroidvania game, until I figured out his pattern, then I felt like a champion as I easily defeated him (that was something like my twentieth try).
There is one more element that dragged the game down, but it’s likely mostly for me. Part of why I don’t care as much for Metroid-flavored games is that they don’t do as good a job of rewarding the exploration aspect. Yes, you can get powerups and some real satisfaction figuring some exploration sections out; again, the designers are pretty clever in that. But the powerups in this game often felt inconsequential. Time and time again it was “add two more missiles to your max” or “add another power bomb” (which I used maybe four times throughout the game, though one of those times was a semi-triumphant moment during the final boss fight).
This just doesn’t give me enough of a reward for exploration. On top of that, defeating enemies only sometimes gives you energy or missiles. There’s no reason for me to really go around exploring and defeating stuff beyond my own satisfaction, and I’m not going to do that here when there are other games that do a better job of presenting and rewarding exploration.
I realize and acknowledge that may be mostly something that’s my issue with the game, and it comes down to some of what you’re looking for in the experience. I like RPGs and that progression system more, so I generally tend to like games that use it more (though I’ve found a few games that use Metroid elements that I still tended to enjoy; often those mixed in some lore).
That being said, there are still just bad game design elements here. The E.M.M.Is, which are supposed to be a selling point, drag down the experience. The repeated use of bosses, with the eyeball guards, with the variants of the Chozo, are just tiresome and show a lack of imagination. It feels like padding, like repeating the same experience will somehow make the game better. Even with those I still beat the game in about 8-10 hours (my final time said 8, but I don’t know if it counted my repeated deaths).
7 an above average game with excellent controls and graphics, hampered by grossly uneven boss design and unrewarding exploration