Renowned bounty hunter Samus Aran has finally unlocked the powerful Omega Cannon.
She can now seek revenge on one of the horrifying Extraplanetary Multiform Mobile Identifier (E.M.M.I.) robots that has been terrorizing her. Samus takes aim from a distance and peppers it with other projectiles to wear down its fortified armor. The E.M.M.I. gets close — too close — and Samus lets loose a blast from the Omega Cannon: a giant neon ball of plasma crashes into the E.M.M.I.’s power core, and that sinister red light finally goes dim.
One down, five to go.
Metroid Dread places us in Samus’ shoes as she travels to Planet ZDR to investigate the presence of the deadly X Parasite. The last original 2D entry in the series, Metroid Fusion, was released in 2002. Metroid Dread picks up right after that, but it’s been 19 years for us. And it’s an extraordinary experience that is well worth the wait.
As the name suggests, dread is an oppressive theme in Metroid Dread. Whenever you spot a room with a glowing pixelated door, you know the area beyond is patrolled by an E.M.M.I, so you can’t help but anxiously avoid exploring it until you’ve exhausted all other options. There are few surprises to be had in Metroid Dread, particularly when it telegraphs its most challenging encounters so clearly, but that only adds to the feeling of tension.
That feeling of dread washes away with each obstacle you overcome. The incredible gameplay loop — which involves exploring and collecting items/power-ups that grant you access to new, previously inaccessible areas — rewards your accomplishments while almost never handing you any answers.
Dread expands upon the 2D action platformer formula in nearly every way. The setting, Planet ZDR, offers a diverse array of environments with a variety of collectibles and power-ups to discover. Along the way, you encounter some of the best-designed bosses to ever appear in a 2D action game.
You start Dread with little to no powers. Your only defense is your basic arm cannon and your wits, leaving you ill-equipped to handle such overwhelming threats. Along the way, you’ll battle enemies, explore, and uncover new powers. Returning to an area with more powerful gear in Metroid Dread is commonplace, but it never stops feeling satisfying. You feel a rush of relief upon collecting a new item, a fleeting sensation of dopamine that you desperately need to push through the terror that lurks around nearly every corner. It’s the driving force of the genre that Metroid helped define decades ago, and Dread is its peak.
While Metroid Dread isn’t necessarily a horror game, it feels like one when an E.M.M.I. stalks you like a Xenomorph, and you’re its snack. The E.M.M.I. can insta-kill Samus if they get too close, making the trek through their hunting grounds all the more terrifying. It’s reminiscent of games like Resident Evil, harkening back to foes such as Mr. X or Nemesis -- wherein your only means for survival is to outrun them. The horror is amplified by flickering lights and malfunctioning machinery in these E.M.M.I. sections. Gameplay is never impeded, but it adds a flair of sinister ambiance to the experience.
These sections lean into stealth, horror, and quick platforming more so than action. For the most part, they’re successful. It can be frustrating to be taken out instantly by an E.M.M.I., but fortunately, you can pick up right at the start of each encounter instead of the last save point. In Dread, you can technically counter the E.M.M.I. to narrowly save your skin, but doing so requires pinpoint accuracy and practice. Running is always a better, safer option.
That’s why it’s so satisfying to come back and destroy these enemies with the Omega Cannon, which depletes after every major use. The feeling of finally taking down an E.M.M.I. is cathartic, like finally killing a Big Daddy in Bioshock. We couldn’t get enough of it. There are six main E.M.M.I. in the game (excluding the first damaged unit from the tutorial), and you have to find a way to recharge the Omega Cannon each time.
Of course, Metroid Dread has its fair share of other boss fights as well, and they make up some of the game’s best moments. The bosses are challenging — as they should be — but each one is far more than a mere bullet sponge. Each feels like a puzzle, wherein you must carefully learn their patterns and use the environment or your newfound powers to take them out.
The Drogyga boss fight midway through Metroid Dread is seemingly invincible. That is until you drain the water in the stage that leaves it invulnerable to attacks. Some bosses, particularly the game’s final encounter, might be a little too punishing — especially for newcomers — but for the most part, no battle feels insurmountable.
By the end of the game, Samus is a total powerhouse with the ability to literally flip through all the stages with ease. But reaching this point isn’t easy. Each powerup unlocked is a slight upgrade that eventually amounts to Samus reaching her full potential.
Atmospheric storytelling at its best
Dread does a great job of calling back to previous entries. You don’t need to play the other games in the series to enjoy this one, but if you have, Dread rewards you for doing so. There are many references to Fusion with regards to the X Parasite. Without spoiling it too much, the X Parasite makes an appearance in Dread, and the way it’s handled is smart and satisfying, especially for returning fans.
Towards the end of the story, a surprising reveal occurs, and while it’s not mind-blowing, it does complicate things while giving more backstory on Samus’ origins. For the most part, Metroid has always relied on environmental storytelling to reward those who seek more depth. It’s similar to Dark Souls in that there’s plenty of lore sprinkled throughout. You just have to know where to look.
Speaking of atmosphere, Metroid Dread takes a “less is more” approach to its music. Music is often subtle, featuring ambient sounds that evoke curiosity and fear. Then, during the boss fights, the music is amplified, often incorporating sound effects from the battle itself in a rhythmic way. The sounds of the Kraid boss’ shrieks seem to fit with the orchestral piece going on in the background, which is unexpected, yet welcome.
Metroid Dread will leave you in awe at times thanks to its satisfying gameplay and moody atmosphere while telling a subtle, engaging story. We’ve seen Metroidvania games like Hollow Knight nail the formula in recent years, but Metroid Dread proves there’s nothing better than the franchise that started it all.
Metroid Dread is available exclusively for Nintendo Switch, and Inverse reviewed it on the Switch OLED.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: When it comes to video games, Inverse values a few qualities that other sites may not. For instance, we care about hours over money. Many new AAA games have similar costs, which is why we value the experience of playing more than price comparisons. We don’t value grinding and fetch quests as much as games that make the most out of every level. We also care about the in-game narrative more than most. If the world of a video game is rich enough to foster sociological theories about its government and character backstories, it’s a game we won’t be able to stop thinking about, no matter its price or popularity. We won’t punch down. We won’t evaluate an indie game in the same way we will evaluate a AAA game that’s produced by a team of thousands. We review games based on what’s available in our consoles at the time. And finally, we have very little tolerance for junk science. (Magic is always OK.)