Bottom line: Strong gameplay, visuals and audio propel Metroid Dread to be the best 2D game in the series, though dated map design and lack of accessibility bring the experience down a bit.
Good soundtrack and audio design
Map design is subpar
Lack of accessibility options
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Metroid Dread is here. Those words feel surreal to write, even after I've finished my first playthrough. The very fact that Metroid Dread exists is incredible, with an long, arduous history behind its development. That story alone makes this game interesting, but I'm also happy to say it also earns its place among the best Nintendo Switch games available right now.
Strong art direction, visuals and audio design back up the controls, which provide some of the best gameplay in the series so far. Samus wields every single ability with poise and power, providing a sandbox puzzle of destruction to play around in as she makes her way through the regions of ZDR. This is only let down by the map design, which feels distinctly dated and makes progress much more of a chore than it needs to be.
Metroid games have not traditionally been huge hits, so I'm definitely curious where it'll fall in my Metroid retrospective once the dust settles. For me, it's a standout of the series and one that Metroid fans, newcomers and veterans alike, shouldn't miss.
Disclaimer: This review was made possible by a review code provided by Nintendo. The company did not see the contents of the review before publishing.
Metroid Dread: What I liked
Metroid Dread opens with the story finally moving things forward after the events of Metroid Fusion. On what should've been your standard too-dangerous-for-everyone-but-Samus mission, the bounty hunter is stranded on the planet ZDR. Worse yet, near-unstoppable machines called E.M.M.I are after her for unknown reasons.
|Developer||MercurySteam, Nintendo EPD|
|Game Size||4.1 GB|
|Play Time||11 hours|
While I, unfortunately, did not get the chance to play Metroid Dread on a Nintendo Switch OLED model — though our gaming editor Rebecca Spear has some comparisons up — the game still looks gorgeous on the regular Nintendo Switch. Developer MercurySteam has utilized every bit of the Nintendo Switch's processing power for this 2D outing and it was hard to stop taking screenshots in several places.
Samus herself is decked out in slick armor, the green highlights of which provide an especially great contrast to the darker regions of the game. Over the course of her journey, you'll see icy labs, lava-flooded generators, lush jungle overgrowth, and more. The map also changes over time, so it evolves not just visually but in gameplay as well. As you turn on a generator to thaw things out, a frozen section might let you go underwater, opening the game up in appearance and function.
That solid visual direction is backed up by the audio design. Every plasma blast, every roaring alien monstrosity, every electric hum from machines, it all sounds great. Even more importantly, however, Metroid Dread just feels good to play. As Samus picks up her iconic abilities — alongside a few new ones — you'll slowly, steadily conquer every threat on ZDR. Every single ability feels good to use and to control, even if a few like the Shinespark definitely take more practice to get right.
Combat never got old and it was always thrilling to go back and test out a cannon upgrade or new move against an enemy that previously gave me lots of trouble. I never felt like I was being intentionally hampered or forced to play a way I didn't want. Instead, the upgrades all naturally layer themselves one after another, evolving the way I played and took on enemies in a very natural way.
The big boss fight spectacles are few and far between, but each one leaves a lasting impression, with some seriously impressive setpieces. The final boss in particular takes every single trick you've learned and upgrade you've acquired if you want to have a shred of hope at beating it.
My first playthrough took just over 11 hours, though I did get lost at a couple of points — more on that below — and tried to collect the majority of the items in each region. Depending on whether you manage not to get lost or want to go for a 100% completion, I can see someone finishing a bit faster or taking a fair bit longer.
It's very clear that Mercury Steam, the developer behind Metroid Dread, understands Samus Aran, as she displays personality through every single action, showing instead of telling her intent throughout the game. From her powerful strut as she's charging up her weapons to her non-plussed reaction at the arrival of threats new and old, this is easily the best that Samus has ever been portrayed.
Touching on the narrative, I don't think longtime fans will be disappointed, as there's a great mystery that slowly unravels as huge plots are revealed across ZDR. Story has never been the biggest focus of these games but Metroid Dread doesn't let down there either, with some big revelations that carry huge consequences for Samus in future games. I don't want to spoil anything, so let it suffice to say I'm fascinated by where things might go from here.
Metroid Dread: What I didn't like
This is a minor annoyance overall, but I don't think the E.M.M.I. create a sense of dread so much as one of annoyance outside of your first couple of encounters. The lack of options for dealing with them mean that instead of frantically avoiding a super-persistent predator, you instead rapidly learn to clear through the zones they patrol and not get caught. I don't think the game suffers for it overall given the limited zones in which the E.M.M.I operate but it's a letdown all the same.
What keeps Metroid Dread just shy of perfection is its map design. While it's fine for the most part, the lack of any objective markers whatsoever means that whenever you're stuck, you'll be roaming about trying to figure out what tiny hidden block you somehow missed destroying. This wouldn't normally be too bad except that the flow of the map and going between regions changes as you play.
As a result, if you get stuck, you might end up taking 20 minutes to backtrack between locations you've already visited. Individually, the map design and lack of fast travel could work but together, they harm the pacing. This is something that can be very frustrating, as you're stuck pixel-hunting across the in-game map trying to find some indication of where to go. Even then, this doesn't always reveal where a secret path is hidden. A late-game ability does aid with this navigation but it's still easily the biggest blemish on the otherwise mostly-fantastic game design.
It's also worth mentioning the lack of accessibility options. The game is fairly generous with save points and checkpoints before boss fights, but the gameplay itself is unrelentingly difficult. There's no easy option and while I was able to progress without issue, I know some players might have more trouble. If you find the Joy-Con controllers uncomfortable to use, I strongly recommend playing with the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller instead to avoid cramping your hands.
Metroid Dread: Should you play it?
Overall, Metroid Dread is excellent. It's a great-looking and sounding game, easily one of the highlights for the Nintendo Switch library, not just in 2021 but in its entire history so far. The story, while it isn't the main point of the game by any means, is actually fairly interesting, with some neat twists that bode well for the future of Metroid. The gameplay feels fantastic at every moment and despite the lack of accessibility, the generous checkpoint and save stations mean that it never gets too frustrating.
That being said, the in-game map and lack of direction feels like a throwback, and not in a great way, as it keeps Metroid Dread from being truly perfect. If you get easily annoyed at that sort of thing, that's something you should know. Be ready to scour every corner of every map to figure out where to go.
Whether you're a relative newcomer to the saga of Samus or a long-time fan who's been waiting for thing game since Metroid Fusion, I highly recommend picking up Metroid Dread.
Samuel Tolbert is a freelance gaming writer who started working for iMore and its sister sites Windows Central and Android Central in July 2019. He handles news, previews, reviews, and exclusive original reporting, and has also been featured on TechRadar.
With a background studying engineering before he shifted his focus to gaming journalism, he's skilled at identifying technical advantages and disadvantages provided by different hardware. If he’s not writing something, he’s off playing video games, spending time with his pets, exercising, or reading. He's also fond of trying to draw things with his iPad.