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Metroid Dread review: One of the best action games of 2021

Metroid Dread is overly familiar, but brilliantly executed.

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Space bounty hunter Samus Aran readies for her toughest mission yet.

Nintendo

It's strange to see the Metroid series make a comeback with Metroid Dread. Though it's just as seasoned as other Nintendo stalwarts like Mario or Zelda, the space-traveling, alien-blasting saga doesn't quite match in terms of popularity. Still, Metroid's impact is almost unmatched. It practically invented its own genre: the "Metroidvania," games that focus on exploring open-ended labyrinthine dungeons where players slowly amass more abilities to unlock new areas and defeat powerful bosses.

Launching alongside the new Nintendo Switch OLED, Metroid Dread is not only a great companion game to the new hardware, but it's also a strong entry in the Metroid series. It rekindles the atmospheric sense of exploration and thrills that come with finding your way through the depths of a strange, unknown Metroid world.  

As a direct sequel to 2002's Metroid Fusion and a return to the open-ended 2D structure Metroid was initially famous for, Dread sticks close to the threads and foundations set by its predecessors over the last few decades. In Dread, we see series heroine Samus Aran travel to planet ZDR to uncover traces of a threat once thought to be defeated, unearthing an even greater menace that threatens the galaxy.

Despite this return to the series' roots, Metroid Dread has a sense of finality, tying up story threads relating to Samus' history and her connection to the lost Chozo civilization. Though Metroid Dread leaves the door open for future games, Dread's story does feel like a culmination of several stories across different games. I found it satisfying to see that play out, as someone who stuck with the series over the years.

Metroid Dread stays in tune with the formula established by the 2D games in the series. In this game, we see Samus Aran at her peak strength, which opens up fast and slick opportunities to take down alien threats and skillfully traverse hazardous environments. Playing as Samus in Dread offers a satisfying and exciting way to explore and take out foes. Alongside more accurate aiming, evasive moves and close-range options, Dread sees Samus at her most versatile.

Barreling through the various zones of ZDR, maintaining your momentum with the additions of quick melee strikes and finishers is thrilling. Taking out enemies never gets old. Seeing the different layers of the planet reveal itself, such as the decaying Chozo temple ruins and the mazelike underground laboratories, remains a satisfying aspect of the Metroid experience. Dread ups the ante by focusing on more opportunities where Samus can meet her match. She's often outgunned.

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The toughest enemies you'll face in Metroid Dread are the EMMIs, rogue AI that can only be defeated with special weapons that are hidden.

Nintendo

During the opening of the game, Metroid Dread introduces light stealth sections where you have to evade the gaze of rogue AIs known as the EMMIs, quadruped machines that can easily overpower and outpace Samus. These sections bring the game down to a slower pace, which I sometimes found disruptive, but they're the game's most tense and dread-inducing encounters. Just when you feel you've got a bead on how to outmaneuver the EMMIs with new power-ups, the game manages to add different layers that make later encounters with the machines more intense.

These encounters aren't only a great way to break up the core loop of exploration, platforming and shooting, but they also keep players grounded throughout the main story. Much like its predecessors, Metroid Dread is a challenging game, and I ended up meeting my end at several of the EMMI encounters. These large-scale fights became noticeably more difficult towards the end, which forced me to really keep my skills sharp. Aside from momentary bouts of frustrations with having to repeat battles, managing to get the best of foes with your skills while coming away unscathed was always gratifying, especially towards the back end of the story.

Switch's handheld mode genuinely enhanced my experience. Not only did it bring me back to playthroughs of Metroid Zero Mission and Fusion on Nintendo's older handheld, the Game Boy Advance, but it also allowed me to feel more invested in the game's story and atmosphere. Playing Metroid Dread was akin to bundling up with a gripping page-turner, leaving me with the feeling that I needed to see what was just up ahead, promising myself that I would save the game and take a break.

Metroid Dread also feels right at home on the new Switch OLED. The brighter screen made some of the darker areas feel more atmospheric and eerie and, conversely, added depth to the more colorful areas. It features some of the most exciting and dynamic environments the series has seen yet, letting you observe details in the background that hint at further dangers up ahead. Much of that felt more pronounced when playing on the Switch OLED, making this game a great companion title for the new hardware.

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Samus can easily take out enemies with her close-range attacks.

Nintendo

But there are a few lingering issues. While Metroid Dread is a great action game, it sticks a bit too close to its own established formula. It doesn't necessarily rock the boat when it comes to the now well-established Metroidvania subgenre. The loop of amassing power and slowly unraveling a sprawling world is compelling, but I can't deny that Metroid Dread felt safe in some regards.

The game's release is timed with a resurgence in the Metroidvania genre. Games such as Hollow Knight and Ori and the Will of the Wisps have taken their cues from Metroid but advance the formula in meaningful ways. While Metroid Dread is a worthy, well-crafted entry in a series that pioneered a subgenre, it feels like just another addition to a chorus of games that offer similar experiences.

Still, there's a lot to like about Metroid Dread, and I'm happy to see the series in good form. Though Metroid Dread will most certainly not be the last we see of Samus Aran, it is an effective capper for a particular era of the Metroid series. Metroid Dread is a terrific game, one that feels like coming home.

Metroid Dread launches alongside the Nintendo Switch OLED on Oct. 8.