I figured I’d give it another go, after having done a few more metroidvanias on Switch. While some opinions are similar, others certainly have become stronger.
Perhaps it’s best to recognized what Metroid Dread is not, and that’s a game developed by fans of the genre. Where other games take a scalpel to the genre, and focus on refinement of systems, Dread is instead a game that leans heavily on its predecessors and its lore. Morph ball, bombs, missiles, varia suit and nearly every other gizmo you collect comes from a prior game – it’s focused on nostalgia as the selling point. It’s also quite short as compared to pretty much everything else in the genre, but again, this is par for the course for Metroid.
The high point is the Nintendo polish. The game plays smoothly, and the visuals are crisp. Movement is still the chief highlight of Metroid. I have a fundamental dislike to any dbl jump that is input limited (i.e. it won’t work if you press too fast/too late), but that quirk aside the game feels fluid. There’s enemy variety and the enemies who may have posed a challenge at the start are like tissues in the wind by the end. The “core” bosses are good challenges as well, with the need to react defensively to attacks. It feels like you either ace or fail a boss, which is new for this series. Rarely do you need to focus on more than 1 attack at a time, which is simplistic when compared to the rest of the genre. Excluding the low points mentioned below, the game feels good.
The mid-point is the secret / unlock portions. The more equipment you have, the more access to upgrades you have throughout the zones. Maybe you need a morph ball to get into a nook, or a spin jump to reach the height. Shinespark puzzles (think a chargeable dash) are interesting, but the controls are quite finicky. It adds some optional length to the game. You don’t need any of it, as there are no “challenges” to be found, but it’s good padding.
The “miss” here is the lack of variety in content. There’s a single story, with lore that only makes sense at the final boss. There is only 1 ending. There’s no secret areas or quests along the way. To boil it to a theme; Dread lacks any concept of choice, which is fundamental to the genre today.
The low point continues to be the EMMI sections. They are RNG loaded in the enemy pathing, and often 1 hit kills. Even as you get stronger, it has zero impact on these sections, which remain insanely frustrating. The “puzzles” to defeat each are gated behind multiple gates between zones, and then finding enough runway to pepper them with special bullets. The good news here is that these zones are limited in size and when the EMMI dies, become “normal”. The greatest joy in this game is traversing an EMMI free zone, as they are often large and sprawling.
Which gets me to my largest of all gripes, and that’s zone design. A metroidvania operates on a trunk/root system, where there is a main channel with multiple offshoots. You will hit gates that you simply cannot bypass due to lack of equipment/skills, and there are going to be shortcuts that link up zones as you go through. What they all focus on is exploration.
Dread is linear through teleportation. You’ll be in a zone, need to reach the other side, but have to leave that zone, transverse another, and then come back to the original one. There are multiple “zoning” areas, which give you a good 10 second loading screen. I am still amazed to be writing that sentence in 2022. For a game that highlights speed of traversal, you’re put into these areas of nothing happening. It’s bonkers.
The 2nd playthrough of Dread made me appreciate the foundations of the game more, but the execution on the ideas even less. It brings few ideas to the table, and EMMIs in particular can be put back in a corner. You can get Hollow Knight, Blasphemous, Dead Cells, Guacamelee 2, and Bloodstained combined for the price of Dread. All of which are better games.