In the first hours of Metroid Dread, its horror trappings are set. The Galactic Federation sends bounty hunter Samus Aran to an alien planet to annihilate an advanced force of robots revealed to be nearly invincible. An ensuing game of cat and mouse becomes the main source of fear, but the true terror of Metroid Dread exists on a larger scale.
Samus loses her abilities at the beginning of her journey like in most games in the series, but the power she gains throughout the game is greater than anything she’s ever found. Where Metroid Dread gets truly scary is in its examination of the misery unfettered power can bring, even when wielded by a hero like Samus for “good.”
In an ironic turn, the villainous robots, which the game calls E.M.M.I. (Extraplanetary Multiform Mobile Identifiers), are the least scary horror element in the game. From Nemesis in Resident Evil 3 to the Xenomorph in Alien: Isolation, invulnerable enemies have been around for years, and Metroid Dread’s robots embody some of their least compelling traits. A horror game has to balance the challenge of the gameplay with the fear of the atmosphere, and the E.M.M.I. skew too frustrating to land that balance. These lanky machines skittering on all fours towards Samus is scary the first time, but becomes less so when the player is forced to repeat the section the tenth time after dying. The E.M.M.I. sections end up closer to tedious than terrifying, which is a shame given the excellence of Metroid Dread’s more traditional gameplay elements.
That being said, the E.M.M.I. serve as the first in a long line of questions Metroid Dread asks players to contend with regarding the checks needed on power. While these robots ostensibly serve as scouts and research collectors, the history of the Galactic Federation casts doubt on how benevolent these inventions really are. From manufacturing wildlife to use as weapons in Metroid: Other M to breeding Metroids and plotting to use the X Parasites for their own purposes in Metroid Fusion, the Federation has been shown throughout the series to be varying degrees of corrupt and reckless. While the E.M.M.I. might not have been designed for war, the philosophy and hubris of the organization behind them have easily led to the abuse of their power.
The E.M.M.I. aren’t the only enemies whose terrifying power has run rampant, though. In Metroid Dread, the X Parasites show what they’re truly capable of without anything to stop them. While the X were primarily confined to a single research station in Metroid Fusion, they have the entire planet of ZDR to spread across in Metroid Dread. Initially trapped in just a single region on the planet, they show exactly why they are such a threat once they’re released by the villainous Raven Beak. Within the next few hours, every single enemy the player encounters that isn’t a machine becomes an X. An entire planet is assimilated and its ecosystem is destroyed. The latter plot development hits uncomfortably close to home as our real-life climate crisis wreaks havoc on the lives and wellbeing of people worldwide.
It’s also important to bring up the direct culpability Samus carries when it comes to the X. The X only began to thrive once she hunted the Metroids — their only natural predator — to extinction. This is not the only time Samus has nearly or completely eradicated a group of foes, with the Ing of Metroid Prime 2 becoming fully extinct after Samus destroyed the dark dimension they called home. At the end of Metroid Fusion, she also crashed the research station into the Metroid homeworld of SR388, blowing it up in the process . The series has seldom grappled with the immensity of Samus’s own power, as well as her broad discretion and willingness to use that power as a bounty hunter.
The only previous game that seriously attempted to confront this was 2010’s Metroid: Other M, in which Samus’ chain of command was questioned, with Galactic Federation commanding officer Adam authorizing use of her various abilities throughout the game. Unfortunately, this game handled these points clumsily and poorly, with Adam’s authorizations feeling shoehorned in as an excuse to artificially gate abilities in gameplay and Samus being characterized as bizarrely passive and hesitant.
Where Metroid Dread shines in creating fear is pointing that spotlight on its protagonist, raising the idea that Samus herself might be the scariest thing of all — especially since its gameplay rewards and encourages a much more aggressive playstyle than past entries. The sweeping Melee Counter introduced in Metroid: Samus Returns is expanded, with Samus using her cannon as a cudgel on the move and being able to take down several enemies with a single blast after countering them. Its upgrade system supports Samus’ aggression as well. The Morph Ball – one of the most iconic exploratory and puzzle-solving upgrades in platforming games – is typically the first or second upgrade in Metroid games when not available by default. In Metroid Dread, you won’t acquire it until several hours in, with other, more offense-oriented upgrades to Samus’s attacks taking its place. Even for players who only acquire some of the many inventory-expanding collectibles, the final stages of Metroid Dread pose little challenge, as she can rip her way through enemies with minimal resistance. While she always becomes a powerhouse by the end of each game, her extreme strength here borders on unnecessarily cruel.
She isn’t quite as cool and collected as players have come to expect. In cutscenes, her finishers are more brutal and violent, with Samus pinning enemies to the floor before firing fully charged beam attacks into their mouths to destroy them. Her infusion of Metroid DNA from Metroid Fusion has also granted her their absorption ability and, seemingly, their hunting instinct. In one particularly affecting cutscene, she encounters a low-level enemy and instinctively raises her hand to absorb it. Metroid Dread does incredible work conveying Samus’s emotions through shots of her eyes, and here they are filled with a palpable degree of malice unlike anything we’ve seen in her before. Even Samus is horrified by herself, staring at her hand after she forces herself to stop. When she does use this power against late-game bosses, the violent sequences of them writhing in pain as she pins them to the ground and absorbs their power are deeply uncomfortable. Arguments can be had about the morality of Samus serving as a hired gun for a massive government entity, but each prior game has portrayed her as caring and restrained, hunting as efficiently as possible to carry out her tasks. With this much power, the cracks in her morality are chilling to contemplate.
This comes to a head during the finale, in which the Metroid DNA inside Samus fully activates. She kills Razor Beak as he struggles in vain, and is transformed into a combination of human and Metroid, sporting a monstrous organic suit and screaming in rage as she vanquishes anything standing in front of her. In her quest to do good with her abilities, she literally and metaphorically becomes the power that threatens the galaxy. Even her ship will malfunction if she touches it at this point; this power is too great to unleash upon the world. It takes a heroic sacrifice from the X themselves to save Samus – an act of passive selflessness to deescalate the power brimming inside of her.
Across her adventures, Samus has faced countless terrors. With Metroid Dread serving as a bow on the narrative arc of the franchise so far, it’s fitting that it fully examines the fearsome implications of how all the powers in this setting can be destructive and ruinous, even if they’re in the hands of the “good guys.” This isn’t a horror game in the purest sense, but its cautionary tale of what happens when power thrives unchecked is more than enough to send a shiver down your spine.