The first thing our bounty hunter tries to prove in this game is how smooth and agile it is compared to Samus Returns, which released on the 3DS four years ago. With that being a remake with a few added mechanics, and with this being a full new entry, MercurySteam has more freely implemented many 'game feel' advancements and fancy athletic moves, such as the elegant slide (through holes or under enemies) or a melee counter you can now perform while running or jumping, shoryuken-style. There are also many ways to interact with the environment from the get-go, including interesting water puzzles or more innovative design decisions.
During my first hour I learned how to start dealing with the mechanical menace, E.M.M.I., so fearsome that it gave me sweaty hands. They appear in confined spaces covering several rooms in the map, and the encounters get more tense and complex as the game progresses. At first you can only run and try to escape (and the objectives force you to cross these sections), but with time you can defeat them once the Omega Blaster is temporarily charged (which, by the way, also switches to a cool third person view). However, not even then do you feel superior, as the E.M.M.I. zones also require some rapid puzzle solving and that you use the environment to your advantage. One gave me the Spider Magnet, but I died a few times.
Other than Other M, both 2D mainline Metroids and the Prime trilogy kept narrative to an environmental, unidirectional minimum. Metroid 5 respects this as it picks things up where Fusion left, but it adds more depth and lore references while, again, modernising its ways. There are brief, action-packed cutscenes to set the stage or just to follow Samus into the next room, as well as voiced interactions with the computers, with Adam, and more. One great touch I loved was how, upon entering an E.M.M.I. zone, one-second cutscenes kicked in every now and then to build the tension. At any rate, it looks like eager fans will get to learn much more about the X Parasites (to which Samus is immune), the Metroids, the Chozo, the Galactic Federation... and Samus herself?
The increased production values are pretty obvious, more so when I came from replaying the first hour of Samus Returns on 3DS to then starting a new game on the shinier, crisper Switch OLED. There are many more animations and little effects to enhance the atmosphere, which add to the smoother action, the fast-paced navigation, and the interesting lighting. Together with the aforementioned quality cutscenes and the multi-language voice acting (a first for the series), this so far feels like treating side-scrolling Samus like she deserves.
Back to the design aspects, other than the actions and mechanics themselves, the map felt quite complex during the first hour already, much more than any other entry. This time you're going deeper underground and have to climb upwards, back to the surface, as you unravel the planet's mysteries. Thankfully, the new map screen and functions help with, again, more modern navigation and accessibility features, which I welcomed in search of hidden Missile Tanks and Energy Parts. Besides the circuitous paths or the previously-mentioned water puzzles, there are moving platforms, inner spaces, or effects that can cause a chain reaction in several different rooms.
If my main gripe with Samus Returns were its repetitive Metroid bosses (partly due to the original Game Boy design), my first encounter here was just the opposite: varied, staged, more ability-based... If they keep the pace and variety, they pose a different challenge to the E.M.M.I., as they feel much more like a powerful fight to the death. The first one required heavy fire, counters, sliding, dodging... and one of those studio's signature in-boss cutscenes that reminded me of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. Once dead, it gave me the Phantom Cloak to trick presence-detecting doors and keep going...
To sum up, a lot was going on even though this was just the first hour or so into Metroid Dread. I'll keep playing for review until reaching the surface and hopefully surviving ZDR's threat. For now, I left Nintendo's offices in Madrid quite impressed, and the only thing I'm dreading is whether the full game will live up to its name now that the Metroidvania genre is more popular and evolved than ever thanks to the talented indie offerings. But based on this alone, I can only put my trust in José Luis Márquez and the team at MercurySteam.