Metroid Dread is the most fun I've had with a videogame this year.Published on 15 October 2021
Growing up, I never really had a console. My uncle had a PlayStation One, and I got to run around in Crash Bandicoot whenever it made its way into my grandparents' apartment in the summer. I got a used Gameboy Advance as a birthday present once, only for it to be sold back a couple of months later. The games were crazy expensive, and we simply couldn't afford them.
I'm not trying to pull on your emotional strings here - it is what it is. But I'll never forget that one evening when I borrowed a Metroid cartridge from a friend of mine. I can't recall which one it was (probably Fusion or Zero Mission) but as I booted it up, the atmosphere of mystery washed over me, plunging me into a weird new world that I wouldn't stop exploring all night. I remember my excitement upon discovering the morph ball and the dread when the Chozo statue turned out to be alive and very much intent on devouring my ass.
Lots of time has passed since, and I have more than compensated for my console-less-ness. Still, I can't recall the last time a game procured the same feelings I felt back then, hunched over my soon-to-be-taken-away Gameboy, basking in all its 15-bit glory.
Truth be told, it's been a while. And watching E3 this year, seeing Metroid Dread for the first time, stirred no emotions other than disappointment as, instead of the eagerly anticipated "Prime 4" (which would be a no-show anyway, according to sources, but one can hope), we got "another 2D-style Metroid", and one that didn't look the part: bland interiors, a grey-ish color palette, surfaces that looked coated in a drab, Blender-cube-like material, going back to side-scrolling after three fantastic entries in the first-person "Prime" franchise (not to speak of landing amidst a hot Metroidvania market)…
What the hell was this?
Needless to say, the game fell off my radar big time. I wasn't looking forward to it, wasn't reading any previews, just wasn't interested anymore.
Until the actual reviews dropped and extended looks at the game cropped up all over the internet. The highlights were hard to ignore: buttery-smooth 60 fps, top-notch animation work, environments that looked rich, variegated, alive.
I reluctantly picked up a copy. And after spending a fair share of time with the game, my reluctance has been replaced by relief. It feels great to be so very wrong about a piece of culture every once in a while.
The classic Metroid formula is here and very much in your face. A stripped-of-her-powers-in-the-beginning-of-the-game Samus Aran? Check. Unexplored caverns and pathways peeking from the corners of your screen as you explore the depths of an abandoned research lab on the planet ZDR? Check. Despite that, the cadence at which you receive upgrades, the hard-but-fair combat, and the sense of mystery filling every corner of the abandoned facility you've ventured into is more than enough to make you forget about these "old-school staples" of the franchise. If anything, it wears them like stripes, toying with well-entrenched habits with sleight of hand (nope, you won't get that morph-ball in the first hour of the game).
But that's nothing compared to how the game makes you feel. Running around, jumping, firing your weapon, charging your beam to smash into an enemy as a ball of lightning, only to then morph and squeeze into a small pathway on a ledge, grab an energy tank, and then blow the walls to bits to proceed. Samus Aran is badass, and by extension, so is the player. She carries herself with ease, every move of her body polished by years and years of bounty-hunting and fighting. There's confidence in her stead and posture, and you can't help but feel empowered just by pulling that joystick to the right and seeing her run effortlessly like she owns the place. The level of polish that went into the animation and responsiveness of this game is praiseworthy. I found myself thinking that I would've expected this kind of quality from a Naughty Dog or Santa Monica game, but never from a 2D-style Metroid title. Mercurysteam has gone above and beyond to deliver pure excellence on this front.
The attention to detail continues as you make your way through ZDR's many levels and witness the impressive work the artists have poured into every section you stumble into. From spacious rocky hallways to sizzling hot caverns brimming with lava, Metroid Dread keeps revealing new, unseen facets of the planet as you venture upward. The game doesn't shy away from playing with different camera angles. It constantly pulls back and forth à la God of War to reveal more space or direct your attention, rendering the whole experience more cinematic.
Outside of the "classic" Metroid enemies crawling about the walls or lunging at you mid-air, you'll encounter the E.M.M.I.: research robots turned hostile, guarding specific sections of each area. I was dubious about this part, as I don't like "surprise" roadblocks to player advancement (Alien Isolation isn't my vibe), but thankfully my fears were unfounded. The E.M.M.I. robots are by no means easy to take down, but they constitute a measured challenge with easily identifiable patterns confined to specific zones in each map. In addition to that, Samus has a few tricks up her sleeve - such as a Harry-Potter-like invisibility cloak - that she can use to outsmart the robots. Get a couple of those and running through an E.M.M.I. zone becomes a game of cat and mouse, where the mouse has to either outrun the cat using every trick up its sleeve or find a hidden Omega Cannon to blast the cat's face with. It's damn good fun.
As a result of all of the above, Metroid Dread is - hands down - one of the best games I've played this year and an excellent game in its own right. It's in my personal Top 10, and every minute I spend with it is more than worth it. Frankly, I don't want to put it down. I am amazed, entertained, hooked, and as I feel the game is coming to a close, I find myself thinking that I can't wait to see what "Prime 4" got in store for us.
The bar has been raised high.
~ Fin ~