Review: You don't know the power of the Dark Side...
Metroid has enjoyed quite the rebirth lately. With the success of Metroid Prime despite incredible backlash for the move to 1st person, the series arguably has become Nintendo's most important in the wake of Mario's decline in popularity and the wait for the new Zelda game next year. This time around, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, a direct sequel, doesn't have the hype or the skepticism, instead Echoes is merely an excellent sequel to a beloved game. It does what it promised; a pure sequel to a fun game, with some new elements and a world very different from typical Metroid standards. It doesn't break a lot of ground, and its biggest addition is barely relevant, but Metroid Prime 2 is a great GameCube adventure and as long as you loved the first, you'll be right at home with the sequel. It probably won't win over those who didn't like the first game, but it should satisfy Metroid fans.
Metroid Prime 2: Echoes takes place on the planet Aether. Home to the Luminoth, an advanced race not unlike the Chozo, Aether is attacked by a mysterious meteor, which actually splits Aether into two ? one light world, and one dark world. Dark Aether is populated by the Ing, a vicious race of creatures who've decimated the peaceful Luminoth and slowly are sapping the energy of Light Aether, threatening to eliminate it entirely, leaving Dark Aether as the only planet. Meanwhile, a Space Federation ship is battling Space Pirate troops in Aether space, and manage to knock the Pirates down into the planet, where the enemies discover the Ing and the mysterious portals which allow one to move from light to dark. Samus Aran, bounty hunter extraordinaire, is sent to investigate the disappearance of the Space Federation troops, and lo and behold, the crap hits the fan fast. Eventually, Samus meets the Luminoth, and begins a quest to wipe out the Ing, the Space Pirates, Metroids, a mysterious Samus doppleganger, and Dark Aether, in order to restore peace to the planet again. Like before, the story is mostly told through scanning and reading, thanks to various reports from dead Federation soldiers, Space Pirates, and Luminoth. Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention multiplayer aside from the main story mode?though to be honest, it feels like a tacked-on effort to satisfy the people who believe any 1st person game must have multi or it's suddenly not relevant, despite the fact that Metroid is a 1 player game at heart. It will do, but at the same time, Metroid Prime Hunters for the DS is a much more ambitious multiplayer Metroid effort.
Like you'd expect, Metroid Prime 2's world is split into two, with the ability to venture to Dark and Light Aether. Both maps are exactly the same in design, only each world has slightly different terrain and atmosphere. This doesn't mean the main world is small; though not quite as vast as Metroid Prime's, it's still very large and full of hidden/locked locations to discover as you recover/earn new weapons. Both Light and Dark worlds play pivotal roles in events taking place in the opposite universe, which becomes the main gameplay hook. For instance, you will see objects appear in one world, but they're incomplete and not useable. However, when you discover their full shape in the proper area, they unlock or clear the way for advancement in the opposite land. Many times, if you're stuck, you need to activate a portal to the other world to discover the clue. It's all nothing extraordinary, since it's been done before, but at the same time it adds a different dimension to Metroid's core.
Dark Aether has one little aspect not found in Light Aether ? the air itself is deadly. If you're out in it, your health slowly depletes due to the atmosphere. However, the Luminoth, in their own battles with the Ing, created light shields, which protect and heal you from the deadly Dark Aether. Some are always there, others have to be ?shot' with the Power Beam in order to activate and eventually will go out after a while. Since you spend a lot of time in Dark Aether in order to destroy it, you will have to deal with starting and stopping every once in a while to recharge energy. Once you acquire the Dark Suit it becomes less of a pain, but even then you may find a lot of stop and go moments in Dark Aether, which can get annoying after a while. In some cases, it can dumb down a boss battle ? being able to fight while being inside a light shield makes for a really simple duel. Yet there are some boss encounters where there's no shield at all, making the fight a battle against not only an enemy, but also your own depleting health.
Other than the dark world aspects, Prime 2 functions like any other Metroid game does. As always, early on Samus gets her weapons confiscated or destroyed (this time the Ing are the culprits), and you must find them in order to progress. A new little twist is certain boss battles against Ing Guardians in order to regain an ability ? it's a twist because this boss enemy actually uses the skill against you when you fight them. In addition to familiar powerups from past games like Super Missiles, Super Bombs, Spiderball, etc. you get some cool new toys and visors. There's no beams like in Metroid Prime ? instead you get a Light and Dark beam which deal damage to the opposite class enemy (i.e. shooting an Ing with a Light beam shot will kill them faster). On the downside, ammo is actually needed for both beams, which is tough to come by unless you know how to get it. I won't spoil many of the other upgrades, but suffice it to say Samus' array of upgrades is a very unique set in this Metroid universe. Otherwise, everything functions in familiar fashion, though now with the addition of Dark Aether, a lot of trial and error is needed to find all-important Missile Expansions and Energy Tanks. Even the hint system has been tweaked; in MP, you almost instantly got a message telling you where to go; but in Echoes, it usually doesn't popup unless the game recognizes that you're wandering around aimlessly ? letting you explore yet also knowing when to hint you in the right direction.
The reduced hints are just part of the difficulty hike of Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. The whole game is much more challenging; save spots are less frequent, even basic enemies can be a threat and boss encounters can be hazardous if you don't know what to do (which is why scanning is so important this time around). But it's not a cheap difficulty, it's a smarter difficulty, and recognizing the old-school pattern business is the key to surviving a challenge. It's not quite as tough as Ninja Gaiden or other ballyhooed games recently, but it's almost the equivalent to the Hard difficulty in Metroid Prime. Don't be scared off by the reports of challenge; you may find it a pleasant surprise that brains will always beat brawn. On the plus side the game maintains the same 20-some odd hour length, so you'll definitely get your money's worth, despite the reality that you're leaping between two exact worlds, which means less original terrain.
As mentioned, scanning is much more important and refined this time around. So yes, if the idea of scanning everything in sight for information bugged you the first time around, please stop now and buy a different game, because you won't like it this time. They've done a great job with the Logbook though, with more detailed info about enemies, bosses, and more ?personal' Lore and reports from fallen soldiers. The Logbook even keeps track of each type of file by percentage, so you know how many Logs you've found, how many enemies you've scanned, and whatnot. I could do without the annoying 3D menus for it and the title screen, but its irrelevant in the scheme of things. And of course, you can get a good bunch of unlockable goodies by completing a certain percentage of your Logbook, on your way to 100% completion.
Despite all the new weapons/suits, multiplayer, the alternate universe, and the enhanced logbook, Metroid Prime 2 may give you that ?more of the same' feeling. This is hardly a bad thing given how great the first game was, but Echoes really could be considered an expansion pack ? a long one, but an expansion nonetheless. The much-ballyhooed control scheme is the same, there's a ton of backtracking, and of course, the whole scanning thing. If you loved Metroid Prime, then Echoes will rekindle the romance, but if you disliked everything about it, there won't be much here that you'll enjoy. The Dark Aether idea is cool, but the generic presentation of it is disappointing and reeks of time constraints in order to get it out two years after the first game ? not a familiar direction for Nintendo to go. This does not stop the quality though, as Metroid Prime 2 is a fun, challenging, lengthy, and rewarding adventure game for Metroid fans, and despite how low-key the Cube has been in recent years, it's the best high-profile game of 2004 for the system.
Visually, Metroid Prime 2 is amazing ? in Light Aether. Lush, more Earthy terrain replaces the clich?d world of Metroid Prime (snow world, fire world, etc), and all kinds of great graphical effects shape a beautiful world. Run-down ruins, complex machinery, and things like this round out a really nice looking game that is extremely polished and easy on the eyes, especially for a 1st person game. On the other hand, Dark Aether is dull, with dark colors everywhere and no variety to its world at all. Just lots of black, purple, dark blue, and other depressing design. Obviously this was by design since Dark Aether is an evil, deadly world, but it's still really ugly and looks nothing like the majestic beauty of Light Aether. Enemy design though is great and some of the bosses are absolute monsters taking up nearly the whole screen. Dark Aether's boring and repetitive terrain aside, this may just be the Cube's best looking game.
One does not argue the quality of the audio of Metroid Prime 2, though. While again there's no voice acting other than a few unintelligible lines (since they're technically an alien form, you even have to acquire translators to understand and progress certain areas) here and there from a Luminoth, everything else is great. The soundtrack is epic and haunting all the same, one of the best original scores this year. Nothing like a subdued piece rolling in the background only for the pace to pick up immediately and mayhem ensue on the screen. It all sounds great, even better than the high-quality Metroid Prime soundtrack. Sound effects are equally well done, from the weird noises of Dark Aether enemies, the familiar (and scary as hell if you can't figure out where it's coming from) skree of a Metroid chasing after you, or firepower from a Space Pirate half the screen away. With no voices again, the soundtrack and sound effects more than make up for it.