The first new “mainline” Metroid game to come out in more than a decade, Dread is a direct sequel to Fusion, though I’ll spare you the plot summary — like Mario and Zelda games, the story is secondary to the moment-to-moment experience. But suffice it to say that galactic bounty hunter Samus Aran finds herself stranded on ZDR, an alien planet she has been sent to investigate, and afflicted with an inexplicable “physical amnesia” that prevents her from using all the abilities we all know by now.
Nintendo seems as unable to let go of its decades-old franchises as it is unwilling to stop reinventing them. But in Metroid: Dread the company has acknowledged that sometimes it really is better not to mess with a good thing. The game’s traditional approach may not move the genre forward like some recent standouts, but it’s a hell of a good time to play.
What follows, as far as I am permitted to say within the confines of Nintendo’s review guidelines, is a very Metroid-esque tunnel crawl through environments artificial and natural, all the while collecting new weapons and abilities that unlock new paths and generally imbue you with new power and confidence. In other words, not much has changed since 1986.
Running at a steady 60 FPS, and with a base movement speed that feels like a sprint rather than the sedate jog Samus has sometimes used, it’s clear in this game that you are meant to be both hunter and hunted, moving quickly and responding quickly. Every action is fast and at your fingertips, and the game seems to want you to play on the run, picking off enemies at speed rather than hanging back in safety. You feel reasonably powerful, but your agility is your best asset.
The first thing that must be said about Dread is that the controls and gameplay feel of Samus are wonderfully fluid and responsive. This was a big worry for me, as the feel of the main character is one of the most important parts of any game like this. In Hollow Knight, your character feels crisp and precise; in Blasphemous, he’s deliberate and weighty; in newcomer Death’s Door, smoothly maneuverable. In Metroid: Dread, Samus feels fast and agile.
That’s especially true in Dread’s signature areas where invincible hunter-killer robots known as EMMIs roam, listening for Samus’s step and pursuing doggedly if they detect her presence. Fast and able to scale walls and creep through crawl spaces, EMMIs are rather like Alien‘s xenomorphs, and like one of those, if it gets hold of you it’s all over unless you can pull off a counter with very precise timing.
Let’s be very clear on this: you will die in Metroid: Dread, and you will die a lot. Probably about half the the time it will be an EMMI, which clambers out of a chute right in front of you and snatches you up as you panic, or corners you as you’re trying to find a safe place to hide. The rest of the time it will probably as you learn the unforgiving patterns of the various bosses. The overworld doesn’t seem quite so threatening once you have an energy tank or two — but when you enter one of those special EMMI zone doors (and thank god it saves when you do), your stress levels will skyrocket. Even the cloaking ability you gain a short way into the game is alarmingly limited in preventing your capture. And your one surefire way of defeating them, paradoxically, requires you to stand your ground, which is even worse than running away!
For the most part the game is tough but fair — I doubt it will present much of a challenge to the more masochistic class of gamers who do no-hit runs of Demon’s Souls, but it provides a consistent level of danger such that you’re always relieved to reach a save room. I’ve played up to the very end of the game and while there are definitely some difficulty spikes and some hilariously difficult counter timings, generally after a few tries you’ll understand what the game requires of you. Or you’ll get lucky. You won’t be doing anything in the pause screen other than checking the map or re-checking the tutorial for a new item — there’s no inventory or loadout, every action is available by some combination of buttons, and this can get a bit unwieldy. Hold left bumper to free aim, right trigger to activate grapple, left stick to aim, jump with B and then hit Y… if you can.