Metroid Dread is the type of game you wish you could forget everything about and play again with no knowledge. It is also the type of game that is perfect for replaying over and over again. How is this possible? Check the name of the game again: Dread.
That picture above sums up the atmosphere of the first playthrough of Metroid Dread. You are helpless, alone, and running for your life from something you don’t understand with your only goal being survival. It is oppressive. There are terrifying enemies that will instantly kill you if they detect you, and they were built to detect things. There are numerous signs of previous civilizations in ruins. There is the best sound design I’ve ever seen in a game purposely mixed to instill fear. All you have on your side is an AI that can do nothing to support you except to order you to go from one hostile part of the environment to the next.
My first playthrough of Dread was genuinely the most tense and scared of a game I’ve ever been. Well, except for when I was trying to beat my friends in Mario Party. Every time I entered an EMMI zone, I felt my heart rate shoot up. Every time I put the game down, my heart rate stayed boosted like Samus after using the Speed Booster for at least a couple of minutes. I didn’t notice how hard I was gripping the Joy Cons while playing, but I saw my knuckles were getting white once stopping. The game perfectly builds the atmosphere of dread.
However, 90% of the way through the game, I found myself feeling… very undreadful. I found myself carving through the planet ZDR and not worrying about the enemies as anything but a roadblock. I found myself fighting a miniboss and feeling extremely confident since I had fought him before and had learned the pattern. I found myself feeling unstoppable as I navigated through terrain and locations that once pushed me through cumbersome detours and endless obstacles. I felt strong. And that is the biggest tragedy, and biggest genius, of Dread.
Now that I know that I become strong, the atmosphere of the earlygame is no longer as oppressive. I will no longer grip onto my Joy Con while trying to dash past EMMIs, nor get nervous about fighting a boss I didn’t expect because I have this foreknowledge. And that makes me sad! It is very rare for me to play any sort of scary game. I often play tense games that I want to win, like Super Mario Strikers, but I’m not actively afraid of anything in those games (except for the Super Team; oh god, are they EMMIs?). It is a little sad for me to realize that I will never be quite as tense ever again playing Metroid Dread.
But, if you remember, that is part of what makes Metroid Dread an incredibly good game. Not only does building up to that moment where you feel invincible in your first playthrough feel extremely earned because you’ve run the gauntlet and the game has story moments that reinforce that feeling of strength, but replays of the game will reveal that you were always this capable. This is due to the absolutely perfect controls in Metroid Dread. Samus is fast. She can aim wherever you want. She can destroy a boss in two hits instead of 30 missiles. But you don’t know that on your first playthrough. It takes multiple playthroughs to learn all the hidden tricks and skips that are possible to master Dread completely.
I cannot think of a game released by a AAA gaming studio these past ten years that manages to nail this evolution of game experience. Some games can create a terrifying atmosphere that makes you feel helpless as a character. Some games can create an experience that makes you feel like an unstoppable monster carving your way through things. Few are able to do both in the same game. Metroid Dread is an insanely good game and is able to do both. I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone either looking for a very tense time, or for a game with an insanely high skill ceiling that has lots of replayability.
There are a few things I’d like to mention before ending my review. First up, the graphics are beautiful. Some people initially complained that the game being 2D gameplay with 3D graphics instead of 3D gameplay and graphics would immensely limit how it looks. I’m happy to say that the game is breathtaking. Every single room has some detail to it that makes it feel part of the planet, whether it’s a dismantled scientific lab, a breeding nest in the background, or some kind of crashed ship, there’s always something, and it’s great. I’m not a graphics kind of guy, but this game makes graphics worth commenting on. That said, the EMMI labs are very gray, monotone, and boring… when you revisit them looking for items–during the chase sequences, it was very smart thinking of the developers to keep them as uncluttered as possible to let the player focus on escape.
I briefly mentioned the sound design, which is perfect. The EMMI chirps combined with their foreboding and oppressive patrol theme stayed in my brain after I turned the game off. The music is sparse and not very memorable, but it does its job to add to the tense atmosphere. Just don’t expect it to fit when you’re going on item cleanup.
There are a ton of bosses. Most of them are very good and fun to fight. The game has a perfect checkpoint system that will let you retry extremely quickly should you die. And, in your first playthrough, expect to die a ton. Even as you find energy tanks to increase your health, you’ll find yourself dying in a few hits. My only real complaint is that you fight the miniboss a few more times than what feels necessary. Otherwise, all of them are really neat fights that will test your skills. Especially that second boss. They’re also extremely satisfying when you beat them. The final boss took me three tries, and I thought I’d never beat it after my first attempt. Just awesome stuff.
Finally, just my brief thoughts on the game’s length. It can easily be beaten under 8 hours on your first playthrough if you aren’t going for 100%. And if you’re the type of gamer who only views video games as only being worth the amount of hours per dollar you spend on them, that can feel like a ripoff for $60. I can somewhat understand, but you are not really the audience for the game. It is meant to be a short game. It is not possible to keep the intensity for longer than it does. And the game itself knows that based on how it handles the 7th and final EMMI you meet. As all rulers know, there’s only so long that fear can work on someone.
Bottom line, Metroid Dread is a beautiful game in many ways that ends up just being fun. It’s really strange that a game in which I died over 50 times managed to make me feel as strong as it does, or make dying itself fun. But thanks to the extremely generous checkpoints and progression from weakling to strongest thing in the galaxy, it does exactly that. I apologize for the dry video game review, but sometimes you just gotta tell the world that there’s a really good video game out there that you don’t want to miss.