Review and Overview by Mike Finkelstein
When Metroid: Samus Returns came out in 2017 I don't think any Metroid fans honestly expected that game to become the face of the series. Nintendo had revisited its games before, most specifically with Metroid: Zero Mission in 2014, and while the remakes and re-releases certainly added interesting spins to the old formula they weren't earth shaking. The series seemed to have a sense of continuity about it and any changes simply brought everything to the same relative position, game play wise.
Samus Returns, though, changed a lot about the formula of the series. Despite being a 2D game, like the classic titles of yore, this Metroid II remake was built with 3D graphics. Additionally it added in features not only new to Metroid II but the whole series: active counter melee attacks, Aeion-based special abilities, and QTE-based boss fights. Players familiar with Samus Returns won't be surprised to see these again -- these were all hallmarks of developer MercurySteam's games, not only Samus Returns but also the whole of the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow series -- but to see if officialized in the latest, newest (and possibly last) 2D Metroid game feels a tad jarring. Is this the true face of the Metroid series now?
I don't want to make it sound like I hated Metroid Dread as there's actually a lot to like in this fifth mainline Metroid game, but when it comes to preserving a sense of overall flow and continuity to the series carrying over these updates from Samus Returns into Metroid Dread implies that we have to consider where these features went in the interim games, Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion. Did Samus forget how to perform melee attacks and Aeion abilities when she left SR-388? Are these abilities somehow tied to the Metroids, or the X-Parasites? And if so, why couldn't Samus tap into all that in Fusion, a game all about Metroids and X-Parasites? I have more questions because of Metroid Dread than I care to admit.
Assuming you don't overthink things the way I do, much of Metroid Dread is honestly a pretty smooth ride. Considering that this game was announced for development nearly 15 years ago, was canceled and then revived years later after the relative success of the 3DS-based Samus Returns, it actually is surprising how solid the game is. Of course, Nintendo doesn't generally put out half-assed product so the fact that the game was canceled and then revived when the time is right speaks more to Nintendo' general approach with their flagship games. Samus, despite not being as popular as Mario and his cohorts, is still a flagship character and her games are events when they come out, at least among th faithful. Nintendo has to treat her right and this game does a pretty solid job of giving fans most of what they want, even if the overall package isn't necessarily perfect.
The first thing that needs to be discussed, really, is just how linear this game is. The Metroid series has always battled between the needs of a story and the bounds of it's "limitless" open game play. Considering the first title, 1986's Metroid set the tone for the series -- an open underground network of caverns and rooms, all set for Samus to explore without much direction or hints as to what to do -- fans have always balked when the series has put guide rails on its adventures. Super Metroid follows the general setup and tone of the original title but Metroid II was a more linear affair, gating your progress each step of the way until you met certain goals. Fusion took an even more linear tack, forcing Samus through a series of zones on a space station, always directed and guided by the computer voice of Adam, before the game finally opened up in its last passages.
What fans want is an open game with less hand-holding. Sadly, that's not what Dread provides. Instead, the game actively resists any time you want to get out and explore the planet. Each time you get a new ability, a new way to open up the world, you are forcibly funneled to the next section of the game. Want to take your new beam for a spin, or try out the Aeion abilities to get around obstacles? Too bad, as a rock has fallen behind you or you're forced through a one-way passage and can't go back. You have to keep pushing forward along he designated path through the world of ZDR, gathering your abilities are predetermined times so that you're ready for the next set of challenges and encounters. Fans of the series expecting something more akin to Super Metroid will be left out in the cold by this style of "exploration".
That said, I will note that it was nice not worrying as much about getting lost. Hell, i can get lost in the early sections of Super Metroid, so being able to trust that the game wasn't just dumping me in the deep end, that there was actually a plan and I didn't have to spend hours trying to figure out what I missed, that was really nice. Even then, though, it all did feel a little too constricting eventually. By the third time I've been blocked off from going back the way I came, from jut experimenting a little so I could enjoy my new-found power, I really wished the game would let off the reins some so I could have some fun.
Honestly, fun is something I felt was really missing from this game, especially once I settled in and really got into the meat of the game. Part of the issue was, of course, that I really hate the style of combat MercurySteam pushes in their games. MS really loves to put their heroes up against over-powered foes with complex patterns that will destroy the hero for just a couple of missteps. Worse, it always boils down to a series of Quick Time Events -- blast away for a while against a boss and then wait for that right moment where a tiny flash tells you to hit your counter. Then watch a quick cut-scene where you have to interact at key button presses to continue the scene towards your glory. It's 2021 (when this game came out) and we're still doing QTEs to push battle progress along? Please stop.
Outside of the bosses the combat felt fairly satisfying. The game doles out its power-ups pretty frequently and gives you enough to be good and beefy early game, at least when you are up against minor enemies. Between the Aeion-powered invincible dash, and the variety of weapons, missiles, and moves, Samus feels just as strong as she always does, once you get the game rolling. It's in the boss fights hat things get bad. The combat isn't great, as I noted, but it doesn't help that the bosses (and sub-bosses) can also do a ludicrous amount of damage to you. Miss an E-tank and go in with less health than the game expects? Be prepared to die because some bosses will take off two or three health tanks worth of energy per attack, even with all the armor upgrades in the game. It's stupid.
The issues I had with the game don't take away from the fine artistic work the team did on this game. While I'm a hard advocate for classic pixel sprites for games that started in that format -- and that's especially the case for Metroid which has always pushed the artistry of sprites in its 2D games -- this game certainly made me rethink that opinion for at least this game. The graphics are really quite lovely with large caverns, water-filled backgrounds, and finely detailed rooms. This game does a great job of showing up the artistic power of the Switch, making it a must-play simply to see all that this system can do in the right artistic hands.
Story-wise, the game is a bit more of a mixed bag. On the one hand I did appreciate that this game doesn't try to soft-reboot any of the details from Metroid Fusion away. Samus is still now part Metroid (as she is also part Chozo, apparently), causing her issues in extreme cold. her abilities may get stripped away at the start of this game (of course) but upgrades from Fusion, lice Diffusion blasts and the Ice Missiles, do make their return here. There's a nice sense of continuity there.
The stuff brought over from Samus Returns honestly work better here as well. The Aeion abilities didn't really feel refined in that game, and having to do melee to gain Aeion to recharge your abilities made hording the precious substance (and not using the abilities) a must. Now Samus's Aeion bar automatically recharges and the game does a better job of getting you to use here Aeion abilities. The dodge-dash and invisibility cloak that Samus will get are very useful, but even the Pulse Scan is a nice returning ability (and so much better than the X-Ray scope).
At the same time, the game does try to retcon a lot of other stuff into the game. Samus's past is modified, tribes of Chozo are introduced, and the ending is confusing for reason I don't think he devs intended. There's a huge plot-twist late game (that I won't spoil) but once it comes out (and it tries to remake Samus's past) I just sat there going, "really?" it feels like the game needed another writing pass, that someone needed to pull back and say, "you've put in one too many contradictory details, one too many twists. Ease it back there, hoss." But then, I felt the same thing about Lords of Shadow so, once again, this is par for the course with MercurySteam.
Frankly, in most respects the game feels like it's pulling in two different directions. One half wants to be a "proper" Metroid with a giant world to explore, abilities to find, and dangers to eventually overpower. On the other side we have MercurySteam trying to make a very linear, very detailed story and guiding the whole game on rails through it. Either game probably would have been find (although the latter doesn't really feel like Metroid) but the two forces working against each other make this game more confounding than magical.
End of the day I didn't hate Metroid Dread but it also didn't change my opinions about anything either. I still think MercurySteam is more interesting in making their kind of game, no matter what property they're given, and so far it's always an odd fit for each franchise they work in. They can make very smooth, very playable, very pretty games but their their own worst instincts always take over. This is a very MercurySteam kind of game, for all the good and bad that implies. If you like their games then you will absolutely enjoy Metroid Dread. For anyone looking for the classic style of play from Super Metroid, this game has no interest in your tastes. You'd be better served going back and playing the classics instead.