After a good decade of rumor, hearsay and even being straight-up forgotten by many fans, Metroid Dread is finally here, and it’s just as good as everyone was hoping it’d be. More than that, it’s good in a way that manages to simultaneously satisfy both the traditional strong lone warrior image of Samus and bring out the full feeling of dread directly referenced in its title. Samus is both hunter and hunted in Metroid Dread, and the game balances two in the best way.
Taking a character known for stoicism and skill and making them more vulnerable is almost always a risky maneuver. Do it well and the character can become much more nuanced and interesting, but do it poorly and fans either simply won’t accept it or they’ll find themselves frustrated by tension they feel shouldn’t even be there in the first place. This is why the Metriod Dread’s core idea was likely worrisome for some fans. While Samus is indeed de-powered at the start of nearly every Metroid game, she’s always more or less remained the top of the food chain anyway (notable exceptions notwithstanding).
This isn’t quite the case in Metroid Dread, as it establishes rather early on the roaming E.M.M.I. units can easily overpower Samus at her best. In any other game, this would be the setup for an experience wherein the player is constantly hunted throughout the game (a la Alien: Isolation), but this would have interfered with the normal Metroid formula. One can’t exactly enjoy their time exploring an alien world while they’re being persistently stalked after all. So thankfully, Nintendo and Mercury Steam took this idea in a more limited direction.
The possible exception of bosses aside, the E.M.M.I. units are the most dangerous enemies in Metroid Dread. They are extremely mobile, capable of detecting Samus at moderate distance (and even from other rooms), are invulnerable to all of Samus’ normal armaments and are nearly impossible to escape from should they ever corner the intrepid bounty hunter. It’s an enemy that could dominate the enter experience if left to its own devices, but fortunately it isn’t.
Instead of allowing the E.M.M.I.s to wander freely as either a constant source of fear or just an annoying random encounter, Metroid Dread follows the example of Metroid Fusion and its SA-X. It doesn’t go so far as to relegate the bots to a handful of scripted encounters, but it does confine each E.M.M.I. to its own zone. They are still the undisputed masters of these zones though, so Samus must do everything she can to avoid discovery while passing through them. To enter an E.M.M.I. zone is to immediately ratchet up the tension and shift roles from powerful hunter to powerless hunted. There’s no engaging the E.M.M.I.; running and hiding are the only options.
It’s a drastic change that’s smartly entirely under the player’s control. This maintains the feeling of exploration while also preventing the change in roles/tone from feeling jarring or unwanted. It also has the added benefit of preserving the E.M.M.I.’s status as an intimidating threat since encounters are limited and the player is really given the chance to get used to seeing them.
Another advantage of the E.M.M.I. zones is that they also feed into Metroid Dread’s progression system. The player’s initial experiences with each zone are all rushed affairs, with the emphasis being on acting as quickly and quietly as possible. The focus is entirely on the E.M.M.I., where it is, what it’s doing and whether or not it’s detected Samus. After defeating it, though, the area takes on a completely different feel.
Where it was once a hostile space meant to be quickly dashed through, now it’s explorable, and that change is a direct result of the players own skills, actions and choices. In overcoming the dreaded area guardian, they unlock a new within which to ferret out new paths and upgrades. So, because the trepidation is confined to only these zones instead of the entirety of the map, Metroid Dread is able to regularly deliver both the menace of a stalking über enemy and also the thrill of overcoming it.
Metroid Dread does well to live up to both halves of its name. Its foundation is made up of all the elements that have come to define Metroid over the past 35 years; those being ideas such as isolation, exploration, cool power ups and powerful enemies. On top of all that is this new feeling of being hunted by an invulnerable enemy, one that inspires terror with every encounter and apprehension every time one enters its area. Rather than allowing this new element to overshadow everything else, Metroid Dread instead confines it and uses it to feed back into the core experience.
The result is an even stronger game capable of giving its players the best of both the metroidvania and horror-thriller genres. Most fans are probably still eagerly awaiting Metroid Prime 4 after playing this, but after getting a game of this caliber, perhaps that wait isn’t such a big deal anymore. In fact, it may be that Metroid Prime 4 will actually have to step it up in order to match what’s been accomplished here.