Dandara is an Action Platformer / Metroidvania by Brazilian developer Long Hat House and published by Raw Fury. It was released on February 6th, 2018. It costs $15 and is available on Switch, PS4, Xbox One, PC, and iOS. I played the game on Nintendo Switch.
Dandara first caught my eye during one of Nintendo’s Nindie Showcases mostly because the playable character was a woman of African descent. That may sound a bit shallow, but I’ve played so many games as a white male character (more on that in another post someday), that it looked quite interesting to play as someone different.
What kept my attention, though, was the movement in this game. The character moves entirely by jumping, no running whatsoever, and the world is directionless, with no absolute up or down. The walls, the ceiling, literally anything can be a platform. And of course, what sealed the deal for me was finding out that it was a Metroidvania. While on paper a “directionless world” sounded like it would be incredibly hard to navigate, I was willing to try it.
What I found was perhaps the most unique Metroidvania – or 2D platformer, for that matter – that I’ve ever played, though it’s not without its faults.
Let’s start with its most defining and controversial feature: the controls. Imagine a Zelda game where Link can only move via hookshot. Some of you may be intrigued by this idea, and some of you may cringe at it. Personally, I love it. It’s restrictive yet liberating, and I haven’t played anything else like it. Movement is snappy and kinetic. There’s a green guide arrow that helps Dandara automatically land on the closest thing you’re aiming for, so quick movements don’t need too much planning. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be zipping around the screen, dodging attacks like some Spiderman ninja and countering with energy arrows or magic rockets.
That being said, it takes some time to get used to it. The game might give some people the vibe of trying to fix something that’s not broken. After playing so many 2D platformers and Metroidvanias, I had to suppress the instinct to run/walk for quite a while. By about 4 hours in it was starting to feel natural, but that leads me to some of its other issues:
With such a unique control scheme, I was hoping to have some time just exploring before being thrown into a challenge. Once I left the tutorial, however, the difficulty curve went up much quicker than I anticipated. I spent a good amount of time grinding for salt (the game’s version of experience points) and learning the enemy patterns before I felt comfortable enough to move on to a new area. For some this will bog the game down. I personally didn’t mind a bit of grinding. I like having some time to just soak the world in. And the game’s world is such a treat to be in.
The game has great pixel art environments. It’s not quite to the level of Owlboy or Hyper Light Drifter, but it’s still nice to look at. And the soundtrack gives excellent ambiance, mixing traditional Brazilian drums and flutes with modern synthesizers. In fact, the entire world and its characters, including Dandara herself, are loosely based on events from Brazil’s history. In the real world, Dandara was a 17th Century Afro-Brazilian warrior who led her people in a rebellion against European slaveholders. Sadly, the real story ends in her suicide, as she was captured and refused to return to slavery.
In the video game, I found the story to be a bit too vague to really pull me in. There were some interesting moments where the game explored themes like creativity versus logic and oppression versus freedom, but not enough to get fleshed out. My favorite part was near the end of the game when you start freeing NPCs enslaved to power these massive golden machines, and it really makes you feel like this legit freedom fighter.
With it being their first game, and a very avant garde game at that, I expected to go easy on the developers with the level design. But Long Hat House actually nailed it on their first try. Since you can only land on surfaces covered in salt, the devs crafted sections of platforms and enemy encounters that felt satisfying to figure out. You’ll have to time and place your jumps and counterattacks just right. It makes for an engaging challenge, especially with the bosses. The boss in the Remembrance Desert is perhaps one of my favorite bosses in recent memory.
As I said before, I was worried that I’d get lost a lot, but surprisingly it only happened a couple of times, and not for very long. The level design and map design made exploration quite intuitive. The one exception to this was the Dream Lands. This area not only left me without a map, but it also recreated one of the first areas in the game with the hallways all twisted around. So I really lost my way in there and floundered around for a while. It’s a blemish on an otherwise stellar level design.
Before we wrap up, one last nitpick: I wished there were a few more save points in the game. The game takes its dying mechanics from Dark Souls, where if you die, you lose any experience points that aren’t yet spent on an ability. To get them back, you have to go to where you died and recover them. It’s a bit punishing given that you also have to learn this wholly different control scheme. With how far apart the save points are, I would have appreciated just a little more of them to make this mechanic easier to swallow.
Dandara certainly had its shortcomings that kept it from being a masterpiece of an indie game. I’m afraid its control scheme combined with the difficulty may scare away a lot of people. But for me, Dandara gave me a solid original experience that I’m sure Metroidvania fans will enjoy.