A lot of pen and paper went into the creation of Metroid 5, and it pays off.
It is with sadness that Metroid fans witnessed how, in 19 years, Nintendo showed itself quite incapable of developing a sequel to the series' side-scrolling mainline. While the 3D take of Retro's Metroid Prime Trilogy was brilliant, spinoffs by both Japanese (Team Ninja's cinematic Other M) and American studios (Next Level Games' Federation Force) ended up feeling like subpar attempts, and only the remake efforts (Nintendo's own Zero Mission and MercurySteam's Samus Returns) sparked some hope for those fans. And now it is the Spanish studio, which happens to be the only true "Metroidvania" studio in the world (as in the only one that has produced both Metroid and Castlevania games), the one that finally succeeds at bringing Samus Aran back in all her original glory.
For Metroid Dread is a pure, serious Metroid experience. It's a smartly-designed 2D action-platformer that takes most of the ingredients from Metroid 1-4 and combines them with a bit of modernisation and a couple of new ideas. Some of this was introduced with the 3DS remake of the Game Boy classic, which was constrained for obvious reasons, but this seems like the best expression so far of what can be done with the labyrinthine, ability-based premise together with current narrative and progression techniques.
But first and foremost, don't expect here the immersion and scale we will demand for Metroid Prime 4. This is tight, packed in the old ways. Metroid Dread lasted me nearly 8 hours at about 40% completion, which means you can be faster and watch the credits below the 7-hour mark at first attempt and on regular difficulty. This is by no means bad news for those who love their classic Metroid, as playtime usually ranges between 6 and 10 hours, and it's welcomed when devs want to keep good pace and balance in the formula.
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The key to success was, and has always been, getting the level design right. A lot of pen and paper went into the creation of Samus's incursion into planet ZDR, and it pays off. The thing I loved the most about this game is how it tricks you into believing you're way more lost and confused than you actually are. It is not blatantly breadcrumbing your way until the next objective, as it masterfully masks the paths you cannot take for now, making you feel you ended up where you were meant to be by just instinctively exploring ahead. It is also ingenious in how you really don't feel like backtracking in the old ways. You of course visit and revisit several areas, but not once did I feel the good ol' "damn now I need to trek from A to B all over again" chore.
Part of that trick has to do with the abilities you gather. They're a ton, many more than your regular 2D Metroid experience, including a couple of fresh ideas. And a good touch is that, most of the time, you don't get the exact upgrade you were pursuing to use next for your objective, but rather one, two, or more resources you didn't think you'd need immediately. It's a fake open-ended approach, so to speak, to give a sense of more free will while at the same time masking its circuitous, but in the end linear nature. You get suggestions, and some guidance in the form of Mission Log and Adam's Briefings, but more than once you will have to rethink where to go next, without really getting stuck. If you got there somehow, there is something you can do...
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To this end, it helps when you're incredibly agile. You rush through the different rooms and zones, all while solving environmental puzzles and combat challenges. It's like an unleashed version of the coming-of-age heroine gameplay-wise we got with Samus Returns, as all the old and new moves keep piling up until you end up pressing almost all the buttons at the same time to pull off the more advanced attacks, working out your SNES-era muscle memory. You slide, shift, roll, aim, counter, move, move, move. You break the blocks, you keep enemies at bay, you feel more and more powerful by the hour, as your suit gets gradually coloured.
There are different ideas in place to break the dynamics so that it doesn't get monotonous, no matter how fun it is to basically shoot at enemies and navigate the map. These include some well thought-out scripted sequences, map-transforming events (we can't give examples of either), and the bigger enemies, including ambushing types, the seven E.M.M.I., and the main bosses.
The mechanical sentinels aren't as dreadful as they seemed at first (while I still have nightmares about Fusion's SA-X), but it is true that the zones they protect really change the way you approach the game, running from them while dreading their whistle or trying to not get spotted until you charge Samus's Omega Blaster to take them down. They keep some puzzle structure to them and, while they're nothing out of the ordinary after all, it feels great when you destroy them, knowing that you'll be granted with their signature ability.
The same happens with the bosses, which have improved greatly since Samus Returns. A couple of them peak compared to the rest (again, we can't get into specifics), but they're varied, cinematic, and even challenging to an almost infuriating level, in a couple of specific cases. A certain type, however, while different and fresh, can get a bit repetitive with time.
We're also talking about a beautiful game. Art and technology go hand in hand in a much more visually pleasing whole coming from its predecessor, with some amazing environments, elaborated animations and well-directed scenes. The arrival to areas such as Burenia almost feels as atmospheric as Metroid Prime despite the external perspective, and even if you'll find a bunch of more generic designs here and there, there are distinct places and moments to remember.
Speaking of which, it is an interesting entry in terms of narrative, including a couple of nice twists and some truly bold events impacting the canonical lore of the series. I can't tell you more, but if you're into it, it won't leave you indifferent, that's for sure.
All in all, Metroid Dread left me greatly satisfied and I'll play until I get its 100% completion. I really felt almost like when I beat Fusion almost 20 years ago. It does nothing super daring or ground-breaking in terms of gameplay, even if it's masterfully interconnected and well executed. It may throw so many abilities at you that a couple feel underused, but in the end I just love its language, the way it feels, and its pace, and Metroid fans deserved something like this.
9 / 10
Agile, feels great, suggestive progression. Concealed backtracking. Bold story. Good features to inform completion. Colours look great on the OLED. Couple of peaking bosses and moments. Evolved enemies. Top execution.
Ugly typography, a few generic designs, a couple of repetitive appearances, some unexploited upgrades.