Metroid Dread Review: Nintendo's Sci-Fi Masterpiece

A deathly gray glow filling the room flickers, while the pulsing orb at its center speaks. The sound it emits is flat, cold, impersonal, but even that's a welcome respite from the horrors you left behind. Silence falls as the voice fades. Your only way forward is into perilous depths of your enemy’s stronghold, but the ever-present threat of death won’t stop you. You’re determined. You’re capable.

You’re Samus Aran.

You’re also isolated on a planet where everything is hellbent on destroying you and will probably succeed, dozens of times.

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Balancing these two identities, the capable space hero and sense of overwhelming danger, is just one facet of Metroid Dread’s near-perfect juggling act. It’s a classic Metroid experience that still forges a new series identity, with its smart approach to action and pacing. Dread’s also one of Nintendo’s best games in years, thrilling, brilliantly designed, and a fantastic culmination of Samus’ decades-long 2D saga.

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Old Sins, Long Shadows

Metroid Dread X
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Metroid Dread begins by recapping the four previous adventures in this branch of Samus’ saga, and it’s an important one. Most Metroid games leave their storytelling to optional lore pickups or short explications at the beginning and end of Samus’ commission. Dread is surprisingly story heavy, weaving important narrative points through cutscenes and conversations with Adam, Samus' navigation AI.

Dread starts with a message. An unknown sender transmits a video showing a lone X parasite, the same species Samus thought she destroyed at the end of Metroid Fusion. Off she goes to investigate, but what she finds shatters all expectations for her and the series itself.

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Metroid Dread Chozo
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Without going too far into spoilers, Metroid Dread’s story is a strong one that reshapes how we view the previous four games, and it helps that Dread focuses almost entirely on Samus. Yes, the galaxy’s fate is always at risk , but Dread's a personal story about her actions and a deadly grudge that rose up from them.

Placing her at the narrative’s center and having things actually happen to Samus, instead of just around her, makes Dread feel more intimate and immersive. There’s a stronger connection with Samus - significantly helped by Dread’s excellent production values and slick cutscenes - that makes you feel every struggle and victory more intensely than usual.

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Fast and Deadly

Metroid Dread Kraid
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With MercurySteam in charge, there’s plenty of each in Dread. Faithfulness limited what MercurySteam could do with Samus Returns, and its fast-paced take could only ever seem at odds with Metroid's classic, methodical level design. Not so with Dread. There were several times where I had to remind myself I was even playing a Metroid game, particularly in later boss fights that demand almost every tool in Samus' arsenal.

Letting MercurySteam loose with a brand-new Metroid might have changed the series forever, just as Samus absorbing Metroid DNA and the X parasite altered her fundamentally. It’s still Metroid at its core — just more stylish and exhilarating.

Unlike Samus Returns, Dread makes full use of this new identity at every chance in Samus’ seamless movements, incredible Aeion abilities, and vicious bosses. It's the fulfillment of Metroid in several ways, reminiscent of how you felt like a badass space warrior fighting Mother Brain and Ridley all those years ago, even though you knew it was technically slow and clunky.

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Metroid Dread maps
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These new E.M.M.I. robots are key to Dread’s personality, and I suspect it’s impossible to have a mild opinion on them and the Zones they occupy. Personally, I think they’re both brilliant twists on the Metroidvania formula and the essence of MercurySteam’s design philosophy. Metroidvanias teach you to carefully observe your surroundings and figure out how best to use your upgrades.

The way E.M.M.I. Zones force you to engage with your surroundings means navigating them almost turns into muscle memory. Using your latest fancy gadget is less a moment of triumph, more a last-ditch attempt at survival.

Dread's process for defeating the E.M.M.I. is a bit repetitive for much of the experience, perhaps a carryover from the series’ original design. However, the threat they pose even with Samus’ ultimate weapon enabled keeps these fights fraught with tension and creates a palpable sense of relief once Samus leaves the E.M.M.I. behind as a pile of defunct scrap.

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Fear at Every Turn

Metroid Dread upgrades
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E.M.M.I. are just a small part of the game’s tension, though. Dread does a splendid job of infusing, well, dread at almost every turn.

It delights in toying with your expectations as well, such as thrusting you into a boss battle with little warning, making every step forward feel dangerous, usually because it is. Even when you've powered up enough to sweep an area's basic enemies, Dread throws some other deadly foe at you, or even more effectively, the idea of that foe popping up unexpectedly again.

ZDR’s environments play a significant role in creating this tension. Dread uses a zoomed out camera, unlike previous games focused on Samus and her immediate surroundings, and the effect is surprisingly strong.

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Metroid Dread graphics
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Artaria’s dank, bloody underground, glimmers of sunlight on the decaying grandeur of Elun, Burenia’s eerie laboratories where unspeakable experiments take place — all these dwarf Samus and emphasize the enormity of the task ahead of her. Even save rooms are ominous and foreboding, and that's without taking the game's latter half into consideration, where nearly every enemy encountered is a twisted mutation of its usual self, while the planet's literally falling apart.

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Of course, ZDR is a puzzle and a set of interconnected rooms before it's an actual research lab or Chozo fortress. I'd like to see more organic map designs with an actual sense of place in future games, much as I love Dread's maps. Still, there’s a welcome additional layer of environmental storytelling that kept Dread feeling fresh and exciting, even while adhering to the Metroid formula.

Samus’ path through ZDR is less straightforward than earlier Metroid games, and even when it's linear, there’s unpredictability that makes you question if what you’re doing is the right choice. Imagine that Super Metroid moment where your power bomb shatters both the glass pathway and your ideas of progress. That’s (almost) Dread's entirety, and it's difficult to overstate how effective this approach is in elevating it beyond recent Metroidvanias and its own predecessors.

The problem is how set Dread is in its ways from a technical perspective. This is a demanding and difficult game in several ways, yet it has no accessibility options, no assistance in pulling off some of its necessary, but difficult move combos in key fights. It’s a disappointing choice that places this superb game out of reach for many.

Metroid Dread: Is It Worth It?

While it may not win over every fan of classic 2D Metroid, MercurySteam’s approach keeps Dread from feeling like a rehash of what we’ve grown accustomed to. The map design and pacing have never been better, and Dread’s stellar combat justifies MercurySteam’s action-heavy overhaul to the series. Ultimately, Dread was worth waiting two decades for. If this is the way forward for Samus — and, with additional accessibility options, I sincerely hope it is — Metroid has a bright future ahead.

Score: 4.5/5

Disclaimer: Nintendo of America provided the copy of Metroid Dread used for this review.