Samus Aran shows Duke Nukem how it’s done.
***Minor Spoilers ahead for Metroid Dread!***
A few months ago I was worried that Metroid Dread would be a linear, annoyingly difficult mess. A confusing, disjointed puddle of conflicting ideas and design philosophies accumulated over two decades of development. A spiritual cousin to Duke Nukem Forever. It was not. Dread isn’t a masterpiece, it has a few vestigial elements that could have been pruned. It’s no disasterpiece either. As of writing, the game has been out for about a week and I just finished my first playthrough. I was still worried for the first two or three hours of the game. I was seeing and hearing some of my worst fears come to life in the gameplay (or lack thereof). Then by about the five hour mark, I stopped caring and was just having fun. It took a little over ten hours for my first playthrough and by the end, It didn’t matter that some of the bosses are Dark Souls-iene nightmares and there are a few finger-sprainingly hard power ups to get. I want to do it all again in hard mode.
The thing I love about any Metroidvania is the exploration and Dread does not disappoint. The map is enormous and fun to make your way around. Though, I don’t feel like it truly opened up for me until about ⅔ of the way through. Early on I would try to explore, and while there were a few opportunities to back track and poke about, I felt herded by the constant effects my traversal was having on the scenery. Rocks would collapse at my passing, blocking the way back or I would fall though some pit. At the same time, it was a blast to permanently alter the map in visceral ways (I’m looking at you exploding hallway sequence). After being turned off backtracking with one way passages in the early game, I stopped trying and just let the natural course of exploration guide me. It wasn’t until there were only 2 of the 7 E.M.M.I.’s left that I stopped and realized I had no clue where to go.
I just got through saying how linear the path towards the endgame is, but Dread does something clever to hide that linearity. It bounces Samus around between areas constantly while also feeding her powerups like Pacman pellets. There was a point where I got three different upgrades within five minutes. Two of them within three rooms of one another. Trams, tubes, trains, and teleporters transport Samus to and fro on planet ZDR each with its own unique loading animation. This brings me to the first of Dread's shortcomings. The framerate on the loading screens dips noticeably. Whether in handheld or console mode, there’s a significant drop. It’s a minor gripe on the loading screen, but when hit with that same drop at several of the more beautiful points in the game I was sorely disappointed. I was trying to enjoy the rainfall and floating majesty of some iridescent butterfly creatures but the game kept stuttering and jerking. I guess it really only bothers me because the game is so pretty.
The art and aesthetic of Dread is visually stunning from start to finish. There are plenty of callbacks to earlier titles hidden around (or in plain sight) for eagle eyed explorers to find. Unlike its predecessors though, Dread doesn’t do much to make the areas feel distinct in and of themselves. It seems like the developers viewed the map as the planet ZDR itself. They added sections of machinery, infrastructure, research, etc. Spread them out, added natural caverns to complement them, then connected them thematically with E.M.M.I. zones all over. All the E.M.M.I. corridors look and feel the same. Which is good.
There's a distinct sense of danger when you first enter the pixelated barrier that denotes the E.M.M.I. zone. The music dies down so you can hear the mechanical beeping and scanning of your adversary. The light gets washed out and a dim grain hazes the screen. Then it hears you and the chase music begins. The E.M.M.I. zones are designed to let Samus hop around like a spider monkey to evade the otherworldly fluidity of her pursuers. She will probably get caught a lot, though. Each time the E.M.M.I. grabs Samus, you have a chance to counter it and escape death. Each E.M.M.I. seems to have it’s own set of animations with different timings, which makes it very difficult to consistently escape.
It was after my first encounter with the E.M.M.I. that the game made me most afraid it would be terrible. I had just spent the last few minutes in heart pounding terror, running for my life and narrowly escaping. When I happened upon a network room and connected to ADAM, Samus’ computer aide. It proceeded to tell me, in detail, what I had just been shown through game play. The E.M.M.I.'s are scary... I can’t kill them through conventional means... They want to harvest my DNA... Blah, blah, blah. It made me shake my head in disappointment. In the next area, I found another network room and it was the same, a recap of what I already know. Plus the computer trash talking me, telling me I'm not good enough… Thanks.