Thanks to my parents, I was introduced to Monty Python pretty young. And the family that watches absurdist British comedy together… has a lot of in-jokes. For example, Any time we’re, say, outside when it starts raining and we all scurry for shelter, someone in my family is bound to scream in a silly voice, “Run away! Run away!” That person was me while playing Metroid Dread, not just because it’s a fun thing to say: it’s the only way to survive that game for the first hour or so.
Metroid Dread is the fifth of the 2D adventures (not counting remakes) and the first new 2D installment in 19 years, since Metroid Fusion in 2002. And yet, I probably haven’t played a Metroid game since the ‘80s or ‘90s, so I was happy to see that the basic formula hasn’t changed. It’s still an exploration game where you’re trapped in a series of underground facilities and must find your way out by destroying enemies, blowing up walls, and squeezing through tight passages. That last one has been upgraded at least; while you’ll still eventually gain Samus’ famous morph ball technique, at the start of the game you can instead do a crouch-slide through tunnels by hitting L1. It’s kind of fun, except that there’s a bit of a learning curve in figuring out which passages are for sliding and which are for rolling. As you unlock new abilities, you can, of course, revisit old locations to attain items you couldn’t reach the first time around.
The story kicks off a little while after the end of Metroid Fusion, with Samus Aran once more being called upon to track down and destroy the parasitic creatures known as “X.” Familiarity with the previous game isn’t vital to understanding Dread, except that Samus can still absorb X nuclei to recharge her energy, and she remains susceptible to cold. Both of these traits come into play rather early in the game. Early on Samus is attacked by what appears to be a super-strong Chozo, losing her old equipment and abilities in the process (as is tradition). This puts her and the player back to square one, which certainly draws out the story but may frustrate long-time players. I understand why the game does this, but I still get annoyed because it’s a huge cliché at this point. I can only hope the payoff to the mystery of who this huge, unstoppable enemy is ends up being worth it.
In fairness it doesn’t seem any of those old tools would help with the new stealth elements of the game. You see, the facility is guarded by gangly giant robots called EMMI (“Extraplanetary Multiform Mobile Identifier”) that will stab you in the neck if they catch you. It’s a pretty visceral bit of animation, even if it cuts out before anything particularly gory. You can attempt a melee attack to knock them off, but in my dozen close encounters with the robots I never got that tactic to work once.
Instead, the game debuts a few new tools as you play that will help, like a spider magnet that lets you cling to ceilings and other high surfaces. The most valuable ability we’ve seen in previews so far is a cloaking field that will hide you from an EMMI while draining your energy (and eventually, life) bar. But both of these, along with more powerful weaponry, have to be picked up later in the game.
When you’ve just arrived on the planet, however, the biggest survival tactic in your arsenal will be running. Lots and lots of running and jumping and getting the hell out of there. The game will sort of warn you when one of the robots is nearby, and you can attempt to stay just out of range. A blue field means it’s just sort of around, yellow means it’s aware of your presence, and on red you better run like hell. Your best bet is to stay unnoticed, a task somewhat made somewhat trickier by the fact that this stealth game lacks a lot of stealth game mechanics. Crouching behind boxes does nothing, and you can’t slide up against the wall to go unnoticed. Nor do the EMMI subscribe to the “out of sight, out of mind” philosophy: They will follow you into another room and, if you slip into an area where they cannot follow, they will try to find a way in.
The EMMI are quite fast, which makes the game itself quite ruthless. A few of my untimely deaths were due to being chased by one of the robots and not knowing where to go next. This game can be very unforgiving when you’ve just started exploring.
Still, despite being a Metroid newbie I found it engaging. Even as I got stabbed in the neck repeatedly I was always scanning the environment before the game blacked out, looking for the point where I screwed up and could do better. I only had 90 or so minutes with the game, so I didn’t have the luxury of slamming my head up against the wall to figure it all out. But when Metroid Dread comes out on October 8th, I am looking forward to having all the time to scream my head off and… run, run, run.
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