Metroid Dread review: a stunning but difficult return for Samus

Nineteen years is a long time to wait for a follow up. Metroid Fusion came out for the Game Boy Advance way back in 2002, and Metroid Dread is the direct sequel to that now-ancient video game, meaning it charts the latest events in the convoluted Metroid timeline. In other words, after finding out what happened in Samus’s earlier life in the Prime series, now we finally get to see what happened after she encountered the mysterious X parasite in Metroid Fusion.

Samus is an absolute badass in Dread. By this point she has saved the Galaxy several times, very nearly died after being attacked by an X parasite, and only continues to live thanks to the Metroid DNA now fused into her body. And she is taking no shit from anybody. Her attitude is reflected in the sheer swagger imbued into her animation. The almost lazy disrespect she shows to one returning boss in particular made me gasp-laugh. And I have never seen anyone display such insouciant confidence in the simple act of getting into a lift. All traces of the obedient, order-taking, somewhat unsure of herself Samus depicted in the controversial Metroid: Other M are summarily erased by this new entry.

Combat in general is much more intense this time around. The counter move from Metroid: Samus Returns makes a welcome, ahem, return, and indeed is essential for beating some of the tougher enemies. Samus’s new slide move also makes getting around that much quicker – there’s no need to pause and crouch by a narrow passageway, you simply run forward and tap the slide button, which prompts the morph ball to trigger automatically. And speaking of the morph ball, there’s a break from tradition here in that it only appears very late in the game, which makes for a pleasing change of pace. On the other hand, a new ability that you pick up quite early is the Flash Shift, which lets you zip forward several paces in the air or on the ground, and becomes absolutely esserntial for dealing with some of the faster bosses.

Ah, the bosses. There’s at least one familar face here, but for the most part these are all new creatures, and they are absolutely hard as nails. Each one saw me dying over and over again, gradually learning attack patterns and finally triumphing by the skin of my teeth in most cases. I often found myself cursing and giving up on some of the trickier ones, only to return with fresh vigour the following day. Make no mistake – this is the hardest Metroid game yet, and completing it is no mean feat. It certainly isn’t a good place to start if you have never played a Metroid game before (or indeed a Metroidvania title at all). But then again, the difficulty is in keeping with the more brutal indie Metroidvanias we’ve seen over the past few years, like Blasphemous and Hollow Knight.

I can without doubt say I have never died so frequently when playing a Metroid game before, and a lot of those deaths were down to the new stealth sections, which feature nigh-on indestructible robots called EMMIs. When you enter an area being patrolled by an EMMI, you’ll hear its cheerful robotic beeping off in the distance – but this cheerful ditty is utterly at odds with the sheer panic-inducing fear that these robots generate. If the EMMI hears you – or worse, spots you – it will home in on you relentlessly, like some lanky, primary-coloured Terminator. And if it catches you, it’s goodbye Samus, as the poor bounty hunter is ruthlessly impaled on the EMMI’s head spike in a vicious cut scene. There IS a chance to get away here – there are two moments when you can whack the counter button to fend off the malevolent EMMI. But the counter window is outragesously small, and it’s made even harder by the fact that the animations change slightly each time you’re grabbed. I could count the number of times I managed to successfully counter an EMMI on one hand – and on some of those occasions, I was so shocked I managed to pull it off that I wasn’t prepared to resume my escape, and immediately got caught again.

Thankfully these EMMI sections only occur relatively infrequently, so they don’t become too frustrating, and the fancy stealth technology you pick up makes navigating them a bit easier. By clicking in the analogue stick you can become invisible, but with a penalty to your movement, and with a depleting bar showing how long your invisibilty will last. If the bar runs out, the stealth suit starts sapping your health instead, making for some tense moments as you wait for an EMMI to wander past, your health draining all the while. Dread is an absolutely perfect name.

So it’s difficult and remorseless, but if that doesn’t put you off, Metroid Dread is a beautifully polished game that hits all the usual highlights of the Metroid series as well as throwing in some welcome new abilities and plot twists. I won’t spoil anything here, but I will say that we get to find out more about Samus’s history with the Chozo, and the ending in particular has me intrigued as to where the series will head next.

There are some annoyances, mind. As well as the huge difficulty spikes around the bosses and EMMI sections, the controls for the grappling beam are bafflingly awful. To stand still and fire the beam at a grappling point, you have to hold L to lock Samus in place, then hold down R to activate the grappling beam, and THEN press and hold Y to fire it. I have no idea how this control system made it through playtesting, because it’s bonkers. Why can’t we just fire the grappling beam by pressing R? Wouldn’t that make more sense? Why do we have to hold down Y as well? I never got used to the grapple controls throughout my playthrough, and would regularly fail leaps across chasms because I forgot which button I should be holding.

Then there are the speed booster sections, which are comically hard in many cases. Generally these are optional, merely allowing you to grab missile boosters and the like, but you’ll need to complete them all if you want that elusive 100% rating. Once Samus gets the speed booster ability, she can charge it up by running, but if you hit down on the analogue stick once you’re at full pelt, you can store the speed energy for five seconds in a move called Shinespark. Then you can release the energy by holding down B, sending Samus blasting off in a direction of your choosing to blast through blocks hiding a power up.

The only trouble is that this move is incredibly difficult to pull off – and since the B button is also used for jumping, there were many, many times when I found myself merely hopping left or right instead of blasting at a wall, and vice versa. As with the grappling beam controls, it feels like there must be a better way to handle this, because the current control system seems bafflingly difficult and unintuitive.

Metroid Dread also commits the cardinal sin of missing out a crucial piece of information when explaining the Shinespark ability – and without that information, it’s impossible to solve some of the item puzzles. To whit, you can actually release Shinespark energy and then store it up again if you launch yourself towards a slope and quickly press down. I only found this out after becoming absolutely stuck on one of the puzzles to get a missile booster, then heading to YouTube to look up a solution. I couldn’t believe the game doesn’t explain this ability to you anywhere – I carefully combed back through all the menus and control explanations, and nope, there’s no mention whatsoever. Yet without knowing you can do this, some items are impossible to obtain.

Still, these control issues are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, and only really become a problem in a couple of sections. Overall, Metroid Dread is a very welcome (and very long awaited) sequel that serves to remind you of just why this series has generated so much love and goodwill over the past 35 years. Metroid is in safe hands with MercurySteam, and I can’t wait to play more 2D Metroids made by the Spanish studio.

Metroid Dread was developed by MercurySteam and published by Nintendo, and it’s available on Nintendo Switch.

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