The Grim Brightness of the Far Future
I’ve been orbiting the Metroid series for a while now, but it wasn’t until this most recent offering that I finally hit the boosters and made planetfall. Metroid Dread is an immaculately polished space adventure in a classic, retro style. Nintendo’s artistry is abundantly evident in the way they’ve brought the side-scrolling action to life with detailed, 3D graphics, flawless animation, and a great sense of consistency, atmosphere and depth to the environments. The story is told through environmental changes and subtle, background elements as much as it is through cut-scenes, and, from what I’ve read, there are countless fascinating links to the larger Metroid universe for the eagle-eyed fan to find. All this makes for an excellent, expertly presented sci-fi narrative experience.
The gameplay is refined and precise. Silent bounty hunter Samus Aran controls with pinpoint smoothness, and dashing through caverns and corridors, latching on to ledges and blasting the local fauna is immensely satisfying. The immersion increases as progress is made and new skills and weapons are unlocked. These skills and weapons also provide the main means of travelling to new areas. Double jumps, weapon upgrades and the ability to roll up into a ball and squeeze through gaps all open up new places to explore and new dangers to face.
The game can be difficult, but this difficulty is mostly limited to the E.M.M.I. encounters, certain boss fights, and the uncovering of secret areas. Even when things do get tricky, it’s never down to fiddly controls or unfair level design. Metroid Dread gives you the tools you need to succeed, you just have to figure out how to use them. Bosses that seem insurmountable at first will be felled eventually once weaknesses and patterns reveal themselves. The learning curve is natural and satisfying, if you’re willing to stick with it.
The most controversial sticking points are the encounters with the E.M.M.I. machines. Samus’ standard weapons are useless against these contorting arrangements of metallic sinew. They stalk through quiet, eerie areas sealed off from the rest of the level, and can form and reform in order to pursue Samus across any surface and through any gap. Their inquisitive bleeps and bloops haunt the areas they patrol, and once one catches sight of its prey, a quick exit is the only way to avoid a nasty demise. These relentless automatons are almost at odds with the rest of the game in terms of visual design. While most of the other enemies are indigenous life-forms or fleshy abominations, these E.M.M.I. creatures look like they were dreamed up by a focus group in an Apple laboratory.
Speaking of laboratories, Samus will be exploring a few of them, many with life-forms on display in an apparent state of mid-autopsy. One especially effecting area has a huge creature suspended by probe-like machinery, its hideous visage gaping open in the background as its muscles spasm and jolt. There’s a definite sci-fi horror vibe, sprinkled with a seasoning of gross body-horror for flavour. These dark themes juxtapose strangely with that trademark Nintendo brightness, like a coat of bright paint over rusted metal. Or like Aliens if it was directed by Michael Bay. No, scratch that, that’s a horrible thought…
Metroid Dread is an expertly crafted, exquisitely balanced game. Samus is a joy to control and the world is a fascinating one to explore. The E.M.M.I. enemies have divided opinion, and there is certainly a line beyond which being one-shotted by the same invincible horror over and over again goes beyond tense and terrifying and becomes annoying, Alien: Isolation style. In my view, however, the E.M.M.I. encounters just about stay on the right side of the line throughout, and add to a great experience. All of this put together means that Metroid Dread is modern, old-school gaming at its best. Also, Samus is a girl. I know, I couldn’t believe it either.