This is more of a personal reflection on Metroid: Dread rather than a review.
I mention this off the top because I’m not claiming any sort of objectivity — my critiques of the game are firmly rooted in my ongoing love for Super Metroid and Metroid: Fusion. To put in bluntly: I’m judging Dread in comparison to two of the series strongest entries, which is unfair for innumerable reasons.
As most of this post is fairly critical, I will lead off by saying there is quite a bit to like about Metroid: Dread. The controls work well despite the limitations of the Switch Joy-Con Controllers, and the game introduces a number of mechanics (effective melee counters!) and upgrades (lock-on missiles!) that really round out Samus’ bag of tricks. Offensively, Samus feels more versatile than ever before, and I really enjoyed how quickly she bounces off of walls and zips around the screen. This is an agility that hasn’t really been seen in past titles, where the intergalactic bounty hunter is slower and more methodical in her movements.
The trade-off to these changes is what I’d like to dwell on a bit in this post. Although Samus is nimbler in Dread, she has also become quite fragile. Throughout her adventure, she is granted little opportunity to meaningfully upgrade her durability and damage output, making her perpetually vulnerable to almost all of the game’s challenges. This is a design lineage that stretches back to Metroid: Fusion, but Dread really doubles down on enforcing a predictable power curve. This has major implications for both exploration and combat — arguably the two main pillars of the Metroid series.
Exploration: “An unknown resource has been acquired.”
About halfway through Metroid: Dread, I stopped caring about exploration. The precise moment occurred when I discovered a Power Bomb upgrade tucked way in the ceiling of a large chamber and, upon acquiring it, I was informed it was an “unknown resource” that I could not yet utilize. A mystery weapon was added to my inventory and I had to accept the fiction that Samus Aran, someone who had liberally used Power Bombs in her prior two missions, had totally forgotten what they looked like and how to set them off.
Of course, series canon wasn’t really the reason this faux item acquisition annoyed me. Rather, it was the realisation of how little the game rewarded exploration. Prior to the Power Bomb mishap, I had spent a good hour hunting for other items, with little more to show for it than a dozen extra missiles and three quarters of an energy tank. Although Dread’s Planet ZDR is chock full of secrets and power-ups, the efficacy of each one has been greatly diminished when compared to series standards. Missile Tanks only increase Samus’ carrying capacity by two and most Energy Tank upgrades are Energy Parts — which function similarly to Zelda’s Pieces of the Heart, in that four are required to increase Samus’ health by one increment. This dilution of the power-up pool makes exploration less rewarding, especially considering that the game’s main challenges are not made substantially easier with small health or ammunition increases. The fact that some upgrades are essentially “duds” if discovered out-of-sequence further discourages extensive treasure hunting.
This frustration is compounded by the fact that every major item in Metroid: Dread is mandatory (barring sequence breaks). This may seem like a strange gripe, but one of the joys of Super Metroid was that exploration could reward you with cool, unique power-ups that meaningfully affected gameplay. The X-ray Visor, Spring Ball, Spazer, Plasma Beam, and Reserve Tanks are all not required to complete the game, but rather serve as potent rewards for those who take the time to plumb the depths of Planet Zebes. Dread, instead, takes a decidedly more controlled approach. Exploration is really more of something you do “along the way” and does not allow you to affect the game’s difficulty curve.
Combat: Tank, Glass Cannon, or Something Else?
Borrowing from TTRPG nomenclature, Aidan Moher poses that Samus’ role in Metroid: Dread is similar to that of a “glass cannon” — a character with high damage output and little ability to absorb blows — which is a pivot from her more “tanky” portrayal in past Metroid games. Most bosses will fell Samus in just a handful of blows and even mundane enemies can inflict terrible amounts of damage. Moher notes that instead of engaging in drawn-out wars of attrition with her foes, Samus must instead dodge attacks with extreme precision in order to survive, making her feel more fragile than ever before.
While I think this comparison is mostly correct, I will say that the “cannon” part of the glass cannon is a bit understated in Dread. Up until the final sequences of the game, Samus’ blaster feels underwhelming, with most enemies requiring sustained barrages to put down for good. Instead of ranged attacks, Dread’s developers have heavily favoured melee counter-attacks as the ultimate combat option. Many alien beasts require 5-10 shots to take down, buta single counter is usually enough to finish them off.
That being said, figuring out an enemy’s attack patterns and decking them in the shnozz feels really good, the novelty does wear thin after a while. This is exacerbated by the game’s level design, which tends to force Samus into close quarters with enemies that are intent on dive-bombing her face. Melee counters are not just the most potent option but sometimes the only viable one.
Samus’s overall squishiness and reliance on counters are on full display when fighting Dread’s bosses, who hit like a truck and often expand melee counters into full-blown quicktime events. One of the things I enjoyed about earlier Metroid titles is that there were multiple approaches to killing a boss monster. You could encounter them with fewer resources at-hand, memorising attack patterns and simply outmanoeuvring them (watch a Super Metroid speedrun to see this on full display). You could spend a couple hours exploring beforehand, only facing the boss once you secured superior resources, essentially overpowering them. Or, you could cheese the bosses, using a hidden technique to eliminate them almost instantly.
With a few rare exceptions, Dread has a very specific way it wants you to fight its bosses. It is generally impossible to over-prepare for them, as hours of item collection may only result in Samus being able to take a couple extra hits or fire a few more missiles. Instead, Dread focuses on pattern memorization and quick reflexes, with the player progressing through multiple boss phases before succeeding. While many favourably compare these battles to those found in modern metroidvanias such as Hollow Knight, they feel much more finicky and less improvisational. The general strategy is to spam missiles during short attack windows, while repeatedly dodging telegraphed boss attacks. Most of these attacks are difficult to avoid without at least a couple rounds of practice, meaning that no major boss is realistically beatable on the first try. Dread forces you to master a boss’ attacks phase-by-phase, dying dozens of times along the way.
I know a lot of people really love this style of combat but, as someone who is historically mediocre at action titles, I really do miss having the option to explore, power-up, and confront bosses on my own terms. Dread seems intent on portraying Samus as perpetually reactive rather than proactive. Instead of slamming into a boss like a wrecking ball, she must scamper around hails of bullets and monstrous appendages while waiting for her enemies to give her the opportunity to attack. It ends up feeling more theatrical than anything else, as you frantically bide your time until the boss decides to flash the “attack me now” signal. After beating a boss, I generally felt more relieved than triumphant, annoyed at the temporary movement patterns I had to master in order to progress.
I’d like to close with a short rumination on Dread’s E.M.M.I. sequences, which are perhaps the most widely advertised aspect of the game and really exemplify its core design philosophy. E.M.M.I.’s are nigh-invulnerable robotic foes that Samus encounters at numerous points during her adventure, each capable of one-shotting her if she happens to make contact with them. E.M.M.I. zones are simultaneously set pieces and obstacle courses. Samus must navigate them in specific ways in order to progress, and they generally conclude with a finale where she vanquishes her robotic pursuer using a temporary deus ex machina weapon upgrade.
These sequences are certainly intense but, much like the boss fights, rely quite a bit on trial-and-error and practice. E.M.M.I.s pursue Samus in a straightforward, but not always predictable, fashion, and the slightest mistake can force a restart. Ironically, these sequences generally inspired me with more annoyance than dread. Unlike the pursuit sequences in Metroid: Fusion, in which Samus is hunted down by a deadly doppelganger, they don’t really do much narrative work in establishing a greater villain or a persistent threat. You are informed exactly what E.M.M.I.s are at the start of the adventure and how to deal with them, and traversing their zones is an irritation above all else.
The virtual invincibility of the E.M.M.I.s — alongside their violently penetrative attacks — further contribute to the game’s efforts to emphasise Samus’ vulnerability. The slightest touch from these robotic pursuers will more-than-likely lead to a game over (only avoidable through an exceptionally difficult quicktime event), regardless of how powerful Samus has become. Like most other major opponents in the game, no amount of preparation can overcome the power gap, and Samus remains fragile until the plot dictates otherwise.
And that is, perhaps, the core of my frustration with Metroid: Dread. Where previous Metroid entries allowed for more varied explorations and difficulty curves, Dread is a much more controlled experience. Samus is perpetually fragile, bosses have to be defeated in particular ways, and the world is less rewarding to explore. While there is still a lot to like about the game, it feels like a stark design pivot when compared to the Metroids of days past.