Killer Robots, Wet Trousers and Metroid Dread
Updated: Mar 21, 2022
By Graeme Sutherland
Image Courtesy of Metroid Dread Press Kit via IGDB
Game Length: 10 hours
Developer: Mercury Steam
Before going into Dread, I had never played a Metroidvania. Make of that what you will. I spent half an hour trying to work out why I was being sent to the third area before I had finished the second. It felt like I was being affronted, the structure designed to wound my lizard brain. You mean progression is non-linear? Ugh, you sound like my therapist.
This was not helped by the inclusion of the ‘EMMI-Zones’. These sections are patrolled by robots (Extraplanetary Multiform Mobile Identifiers, apparently) that break up the gameplay by being, more or less, indestructible. They track Samus’ movement, chase her down and kill her in a single motion. There is a small chance to parry their strike if you do manage to get caught, but this is so hard to pull off that it actually serves to increase the tension rather than relieve it. And the atmosphere is incredible. Now, it’s worth noting that I’m a little bitch when it comes to anything horror-related (which is probably made self-evident by the mention of horror in a review about Metroid) but these sections had me tense for almost the entire time I moved through them. Instead of the typical lively colour-palette, the player is met with a faded, nearly monochromatic environment where Samus glows lurid and vulnerable. The atmospheric sci-fi music is replaced with the sound of dripping water and the strangely-benevolent tones of the robot hunting you. When the EMMI finds you, (which it definitely will) a panicked soundtrack kicks in as you race to the exit. Even the visual acuity of the scene is affected, with distinct lines replaced by the fuzzy wash of a CCTV camera.
Needless to say, every time I entered an EMMI-Zone, my next objective was getting out. When I was initially met with these sections, I interpreted them as a disruptive dollop of misery on an otherwise fun adventure. Why must I be stealthy? Is it not enough to be kill aliens and jump on walls? Then, finally, when I stopped being an idiot, I realised that they fit the form perfectly. The moments of frenzied escape that the EMMIs demand are not placed in contrast to a simple alien shooter, but are an inevitable extension of a game revolving around navigation. The difference isn’t about killing enemies, but how the player moves through and understands their environment. Once I understood that, the rest fell into place.
Metroid games are infamous for sprawling level design with no clear direction. I imagine that people who like that are gonna be really disappointed with how Dread handles this problem, as in my 10-hour playthrough, I didn’t get lost a single time. And I’m pretty stupid. The truth is, Dread is more concerned with procuring the feeling of complex navigation than it is with actually making the player sit down for 10 minutes to work out the way forward. Having said that, I only realised this because I always knew where to go, not because the game feels linear; on the contrary, by the time I left Dread I felt as though I had fully appreciated an interconnected world. The developers sustain the illusion through the employment of subtle visual cues and item placements that lead the player in the right direction. The EMMI-Zones contribute to this effect by contrasting structured navigation with complete, chaotic disorientation.
Once I realised this, the momentum of the game became intoxicating. I was able to hand over the reins to the developers and let the game lead me where it needed to go. It felt like the perfect blend of conscious exploration and sustained threat. It might not please all the fans, but it’s an impressive attempt to balance the interests of two gaming generations. It’s pretty good. Go play it.