Monday, November 29, 2021

Metroid Dread (NSW) Review

Rounding out this penultimate month of 2021 is the penultimate review for the month as well. These last two reviews are exciting, as they're not just for excellent games: they're for games that could be GotY contenders this year. First, we have Metroid Dread from publisher Nintendo and developer MercurySteam. Let's delve into the depths of Planet ZDR with SuperPhillip Central's Metroid Dread review!

Samus delivers an EMMI-award-deserving performance.

Fans of the Metroid series haven't really been feasting lately. Between a lengthy hiatus caused by the sales failure of Metroid: Other M and a less than well received spin-off in Metroid Prime: Federation Force, it seemed like the best days were behind the franchise. However, with the recent excellent remake of Metroid 2 releasing on the Nintendo 3DS, things are indeed looking up. 

Meanwhile, it has been 19 years since the last wholly new 2D Metroid game, so you could say that there is a lot riding on the latest game in the franchise: Metroid Dread. Dread not, however, Metroid fans, as this final entry in the current Metroid saga ends things on a fantastic note, offering one of the best games in franchise history. 

When the Galactic Federation receives footage that the X parasite (from Metroid Fusion) is alive and well on Planet ZDR, they send a group of seven robots known as EMMI to dispatch the threat. However, contact between the EMMI is broken, and thus, the Galactic Federation sends their best bounty hunter, Samus Aran, to investigate. Almost immediately upon landing on ZDR, a mysterious beaked being siphons Samus' powers and abilities, leaving her less than fully capable of the mission at hand. Therefore, in true Metroidvania fashion, it's up to Samus to reacquire her skills and gain some new ones along the way to solve the mystery of what happened to the EMMI and discover the truth of the X parasite.

A bounty hunter ready to rock and roll, Samus Aran is ready to complete her latest (and potentially greatest) mission.

Plot-wise, Metroid Dread ties up a fair amount of loose ends within the Metroid saga, while also bringing forth new ideas to make for a satisfying conclusion to the current story. A generous helping of cutscenes break up the tried and true Metroid action, making for some equally gorgeous eye candy and a means to tell the tale. Not only is the story told through spoken dialogue, whether in English or the Chozo language, but a lot is shown rather than directly told for players to piece together things for themselves. 

Foreboding beasts and unfriendly creatures of all types await Samus in any
other Metroid game, and Metroid Dread's Planet ZDR is no different.

Metroid Dread takes the foundation laid by Metroid: Samus Returns on the Nintendo 3DS, the aforementioned Metroid 2 remake, and runs with it. There's the return of the much needed counter maneuver, where players can press a button to perform a counter with the proper timing. This dazes foes, leaving them temporarily vulnerable to deliver some damage to them, if not completely obliterate them. Controlling where Samus's arm cannon aims also makes a comeback from Samus Returns, making controlling where Samus's shots end up all the more easier to ascertain. 

Samus's ability to aim in all directions (not just at 45 degree angles), a feature originating from Samus Returns,
comes back as a great aid to take down enemies of all shapes and sizes.

Samus sees herself obtaining plenty abilities that return from past Metroid games, such as the Morph Ball that comes handy in squeezing (and rolling) through tight spaces, the Super Missiles that of course deal stronger damage than the regular ballistic variety, as well as the Space Jump, allowing Samus to essentially double jump. However, Samus also has some new abilities, showing that you can teach an old bounty hunter new tricks. For one, Samus can slide into narrow spaces that she'd in past games require the Morph Ball for, which opens up the level design considerably. New abilities such as the Spider Magnet allows Samus to cling to specially marked walls and climb them, while the return of Aeion Abilities like the Dash and Cloak grants deft dodging and hiding from a certain enemy within the game respectively.

These certain enemies--and no worries, this reveal happens early in the game and is even presented on the box art--are the EMMI sentry robots. A new mechanic introduced in Metroid Dread has certain sections of the game where Samus must either elude or otherwise avoid detection from one of seven EMMI robots throughout ZDR. When alerted by nearby noise or simply Samus is caught in their direct sights, EMMIs rush towards Samus. It's indeed possible to retreat, but difficult. What's more so difficult is the act of escaping their clutches when Samus has been captured by one. The player has two absurdly small windows of opportunity to counter an EMMI when in their clutches, or else it's game over. Fortunately, the player is placed back at the start of the EMMI zone to try again, rather than some other more frustrating and utterly demotivating punishment. 

An EMMI? Drat. I was hoping for an Oscar instead.

Generally, the first time through a given EMMI zone, Samus needs to just pass through either undetected or without getting caught by an EMMI. The second time around, Samus will have the abilities required to reach the region's control unit, be able to destroy it, and that will give her the Omega Cannon, a devastating weapon that, with enough time to charge, allows Samus the firepower to pierce through an EMMI's defenses and ultimately destroy it. Thus, this allows the zone to be explored at the player's leisure with usually a new ability learned from the obliterated EMMI. 

The EMMI encounters are sometimes tense, sometimes tedious, but they never, ever overstay their welcome. There's always a strategy for dealing with each, such as using the Aeion Cloak when an EMMI is nearby to obscure Samus from their vision, for instance, giving Samus the prime opportunity to escape with her life intact. Plus, they're over so quickly and the punishment for failure isn't obnoxiously severe that even if you dislike these sections, they don't make up the majority of the Metroid Dread experience. 

Rather than starting at the surface as is typical of traditional Metroid games, in Metroid Dread, Samus finds herself at the bottom of the map, needing to reach the top where her Gunship rests. The world of ZDR itself is split up in between various interconnected zones, which are transferred between through different transporters and trams. Here lies where the most obvious and lengthiest loading times present themselves, as players move between areas, but it's nothing overly obnoxious.

How about a trio of beams in your eyes, bat-brain?

ZDR sports cavernous complexes, lava-laden lairs, foliage-filled forests and jungles, as well as arctic areas. Despite being a maze of corridors and rooms of all shapes and sizes, the map in Metroid Dread seldom made me feel lost. That's because the game does an excellent job of guiding the player to where they need to go next without flat out telling them. This is done through blocking passages that require abilities that Samus doesn't have access to yet, as well as providing what are essentially signposts for Samus and the player themselves. One such signpost is that of item power-ups that are placed in plain sight in an attempt to goad the player to acquire them, thus getting the player to follow the path the game desires of them. 

Getting lost isn't too terribly much of a problem in this latest Metroid game, at least in my experience. Dying a bunch, however, at least at first, certainly is. Metroid Dread is easily one of the most difficult games in the series, whether we're talking 2D or 3D, even with Samus's increased move set and mobility. Enemies deal a great amount of damage, and bosses are even more challenging, delivering heavy helpings of hurt to Samus and players who don't pick up on each boss's attack patters and tells. 

The earliest boss in Metroid Dread sets the tone of the rest of the encounters in the game:
tough, intense, but all in all incredibly enjoyable to endure.

That said, it's these boss encounters that Metroid Dread delivers some serious and oftentimes intense action. Though isn't to say that the downtime that is exploration and platforming isn't full of action itself! Bosses demand a high degree of learning their patterns and tells, and really, my first several attempts at some bosses were practically trial runs to educate myself on the bosses. I learned what to expect, what moves a boss used, when to attack, when to simply dodge, etc. Even then, the practice of actually performing well when it mattered was still rather tough of a task! However, there is nothing more exhilarating than banging your head against the wall that is a seemingly unbeatable boss and then finally triumphing!

Of course, there are avenues to make the game easier for players, such as finding and acquiring Missile Tanks and life-increasing Energy Tanks, all optional and all helping to make Samus an even bigger bad ass than she already is. However, even with discovering the locations of these items and acquiring them (yes, even those that require some fancy Shine-sparking, something that the game goofily doesn't even really teach you how to do in a tutorial), the bosses and the game itself are still rather challenging to beat. 

Metroid Dread may not put the Switch hardware through its paces, but it's still quite the looker!

Metroid Dread isn't the most technologically amazing game on the Switch--it won't blow you away with overly fancy visuals or wow you with an immense number of polygons per model--but it runs beautifully on the Switch. It's super smooth running on the Switch at 60 frames-per-second, and seldom if ever dipping below that, even when the action is at its most intense. Areas are gorgeous to look at, offering impressive geometry and plenty of superb sights to marvel at. Less amazing is the soundtrack. While it definitely works and lends an incredible amount of ambiance to areas, it really doesn't offer too many memorable tunes, especially ones I'd want to listen to outside of the game. Generally, that isn't the case with the Metroid series, at least for me. 

At the end of the day and at the end of this particular chapter of the Metroid saga, Metroid Dread was a title well worth waiting for. It offers an ingeniously designed and organized world that is an utter delight to explore, it delivers Samus at her most mobile and fun to control, and it brings with it a stellar amount of awesome action. While the challenge and EMMI sections featured in the game might put off some players, for me, Metroid Dread offered just the right amount of difficulty to make for one memorable, masterful, and magnificent Metroid title--one that I can't wait to play through over and over again.

[SPC Says: A]

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