Friday, September 29, 2017

Metroid: Samus Returns (3DS) Review

There is but one other day left in September. We begin the final two days of the month with a review for a recent release, Metroid: Samus Returns for the Nintendo 3DS.

Samus returns, and so has a high quality Metroid game

For consecutive years, Metroid as a franchise had a questionable future with some fans asking even if the series had any kind of future at all. After the fan backlash concerning what should have been a slam dunk of a game, the Nintendo + Team Ninja-crafted Metroid: Other M for Wii, the Metroid series went in the dark for a while. Like salt to an open wound, further pain was inflicted on the Metroid fan base with the announcement and subsequent release of Metroid Prime: Federation Force, a game that had little to do with the Metroid series other than in name and in backstory to the Galactic Federation. Add on to this that the game was announced after many years without a traditional Metroid, nor without one teased for the future, and Metroid fans got a bit into a universal tiff.

Now, the time when anger and frustration for Metroid fans was common seems like a old, distant, unpleasant memory. Last June, E3 2017 saw the debut announcements of not one, but two new Metroid games, and seemingly out of nowhere: Metroid Prime 4 and Metroid: Samus Returns. The latter game is what Nintendo is calling a reimagination of the original Game Boy game Metroid II: Return of Samus. In multiple regards, Metroid: Samus Returns strikes a balance with sticking with the old while bringing enough freshness to the original Metroid II to make for an engaging adventure.

Famed intergalactic bounty hunter Samus Aran is back on duty, and her mission this time around takes her to the planet SR388. With reports of rogue Metroids, a threat to the entire galaxy, moving about inside the depths of the planet, Samus infiltrates the planet's labyrinthine, cavernous system to eradicate the Metroid menace, all 30 of them, and return home with another mission under her proverbial belt. Of course, just saying that is easy, but the actual feat is going to be one serious test for Nintendo's most famous bounty hunter.

If you didn't notice by now, Samus has returned.
Speaking of which, you can indeed teach an old bounty hunter new tricks, as evident with Samus Returns' all-new counter system. When an enemy charges up, ready to pounce, with a correct press of the X button with proper timing, Samus will stave them off. In the enemy's daze from their failed attack, Samus can unleash a flurry of shots into them, defeating them rather easily. You can't just spam the X button either, as each counter attempt leaves Samus open for a moment or two. This is where the timing of your button presses is key. Some enemies wind up a little longer before attacking after they give the signal they're about to attempt to ram into Samus. Others do it more instantly.

The counter mechanic adds a new degree to the Metroid's series combat, but that's not the only change. By holding the R button while standing still, Samus can aim at degree and directions she needs to in order to defeat foes with better efficiency or to make the job less of a hassle. After all, those days of jumping and shooting to hope for the best in order to hit an enemy clinging to a wall or floating in the air weren't optimal. (Not to say the past 2D Metroids are any lesser of games because of Samus' ability to aim in multiple directions in Samus Returns, however.)

Free-style aiming adds something that I didn't even know I wanted in a Metroid game before now.
The final new addition to Samus' abilities this time around are four unique Aeion abilities that our hero discovers within her adventures on SR388. Samus obtains them along the course of the game, with each providing a special and helpful bonus. For instance, there is a Scan Pulse that is the first Aeion ability, which scans the surrounding area for bomb-able and breakable blocks, housing means to escape rooms or find upgrades. Then, there's the Lightning Armor, which when activated, surrounds Samus with green energy, warding off direct damage to her until the Aeion gauge empties. These Aeion abilities all have their pertinent uses, making for a beneficial and rewarding inclusion to this fresh take on Metroid II.

What I love about Metroid games is starting off with a limited arsenal of weapons and abilities. At this point, you have to take on enemies slowly and methodically, learning the ins and outs of the game's combat and controls. However, as Samus acquires upgraded weapons and abilities, what enemies were once hazards can easily be destroyed as you effortlessly march through past areas of the game. With enemies you had to counter before within Samus Returns to overtake them more easily, now you can unleash a barrage of blasts that pierce through their armor and empty their health quicker.

It goes far beyond eliminating enemies at a faster pace, too. As is traditional for the series, the acquisition of new weapons and abilities grant Samus the power to better explore areas. Doors that were once locked shut, housing hidden missile, super missile, power bomb, energy tank, etc. upgrades inside, can now be used entered with the help of a new ability or weapon.

Buzz off, bug. Samus has no time for you. It's Metroid season.
However, that does enter into one of the problems with Metroid: Samus Returns' design. In pretty much every other Metroid game, the map Samus explores is full of interconnected areas that possesses multiple pathways for Samus to reach other sectors to a greater ability. Following the Metroid II design, Samus Returns a similar nonlinear course for Samus to travel. The individual areas of planet SR388 are all connected in a strict order and you go through one after the other, eliminating all Metroids in each before being able to explore the next area. It makes for an uncharacteristically disjointed feeling in the world. While fast travel transportation chambers allow swift movement around areas and sections of areas, it makes the overall adventure less enjoyable for those like me who enjoy a more complicated world.

This goes back to finding item upgrades because there will be a seemingly endless number of times where you'll see an upgrade marked on the map or in plain sight and not have the proper ability to nab it. You might readily have the knowledge required to get it, even knowing what ability you need, but the point still remains that you cannot acquire it yet. Go ahead -- laugh at me, you no good, dirty upgrade! This issue is made greater by the fact that you can't even collect all of the upgrades in the game before acquiring one final, severely late-game "ability" within Samus Returns. Hence, the game makes it so it actively discourages backtracking until you get to that notable end-game point. Otherwise you're merely wasting your time, searching through areas to merely meet roadblock after roadblock of "Don't have this ability needed to acquire this upgrade? Don't mind planet SR388, it's just mocking you."

An otherwise difficult situation to grapple with is overcome by Samus.
I talked before about how Samus' mission is to eradicate the Metroid menace from SR388. As Metroids are eliminated in each area of the planet, Samus gains access to other areas and portions of the planet. The amount of destroyed Metroids required to move on to the next area/section varies. Metroid II offered a basic lineup of Metroid types, all pretty much easily defeated. However, the repetition and tedium in facing the same enemy types over and over grew tiring. Unfortunately, this is one aspect from the original Metroid II that Samus Returns retains.

A well timed button press results in a well executed counterattack.
There are but a handful of Metroid types to take care of and eliminate, but with 30 total, you'll face them all and probably more times than you'll like. Sure, with upgraded weapons and abilities, taking on these horrific creatures becomes easier as you play through the game, but for Metroid species that take a while to beat no matter what, seeing Samus be required to take on her fifth one becomes taxing on the player. And don't even get me started on the Metroid battles where they are programmed to escape and Samus must chase them from nearby room to room. Those just seem like padding to me, which is odd because the entirety of Samus Returns is a lengthy and otherwise adventure, clocking in at over 10 hours for most players on their first time through.

Fortunately, there are more evolved boss encounters within Metroid: Samus Returns, and these are fantastic battles, some with completely new baddies to face, such as one that stalks Samus for most of the game, even involving her in one of the rare set pieces of the game, an epic and hectic chase sequence. These new encounter inclusions are satisfying, and the ones that were previously in the original Metroid II have been updated for maximum enjoyment.

Control-wise, Samus Returns was a little painful and troublesome for me to play, which isn't anything routine or normal when I'm playing on my New Nintendo 3DS XL. With Samus Returns, things like holding the left shoulder button to stay attached to walls in Morph Ball form was quite difficult for me, and ended many times with Samus becoming unattached to a high up ceiling or wall because the L button was to challenging to hold in for a significant period of time. Other than that and the need to change between missile types via the touch screen, Samus otherwise felt as great as ever to play as.

Visually, Samus Returns is one stunning game, at least from the perspective of being a Nintendo 3DS game in 2017. The models are superb, the environments are sublime, and when the 3D slider is turned on, the depth of areas becomes absolutely stunning in how far back in the distance they extend. From a musical point of view, Samus Returns features plenty of remixed Metroid tunes while offering some new and engaging melodic tunes, but most of the unique musical content is all ambient and atmospheric.

When in SR388, do what the fire-spewing faces do.
From the subtitle, one might think that it's just Samus Aran who has returned, but in fact, it's much greater of a moment than that, it's the return of the Metroid franchise as a whole. After years of doubt and uncertainty surrounding the series and its fans, Metroid isn't just back in name, with Metroid: Samus Returns, it's back in a desirable quality worthy of the franchise's name.

[SPC Says: B+]

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