The year is 2018. You’re an awkward, nerdy type shuffling your way through a crowded party with a luke-warm drink in your hand. As you elbow your way through the crowd and spill beer everywhere, you start to recognise a lot of your fellow party goers – they look an awful lot like you. What would you do?
In Dandara’s case, the solution is to change outfit, spruce up your make up, wear your hair differently and avoid the usual murky ocean of empty platitudes and drunken philosophers. The Metroidvania genre is a crowd pleasing favourite but it’s a stable that is swelling with imitators. Quickly peruse your way over to the Metroidvania tag on Steam, for example, and you’ll see a tidal wave of me-too’s clogging up the faltering arteries of steams catalogue. Here comes Dandara (reviewed on the Nintento Switch) with a brand new face of makeup ready to make an impression. But there’s a bit more beneath the surface that’ll have you lost in thought.
At first, Dandara feels something like a gimmick – The game’s titular heroine Dandara can’t move around in a traditional forwards-backwards manner. Instead she darts from point-to-point in a system that feels like the wild, passionate love child between the grappling hook from Bionic Commando and the Blink ability from the Dishonoured series – an awkward transition at first but as you find your feet it becomes much of the games focal point. Developers Long Hat House have done wonders spinning a gimmick into a broader problem solving device as the levels develop around Dandara’s ability to zip across small distances. Eventually you’ll encounter spinning, twirling platforms, awkwardly arranged terrain that bends around strategically placed enemies and surfaces that turn away from you and hide as you approach meaning Dandara has to think outside of the box to traverse the ever-changing terrain.
Dispatching foes in Dandara happens, more often than not, while manoeuvring your way through the strange environments. Shooting requires a moment to charge a shot before letting rip – let go too early and the attack will fizzle out, but leave it for too long and your zippy, articulate foes will have already caught up with you. In Dandara, enemies will exploit the heroes plucky aptitude for grappling across distances by attempting to catch her mid-flight and her need to charge up a shot before firing means she often has to think first before moving. Carefully placed turret enemies pile on the pressure as you navigate some dangerous environmental hazards meaning that exploration is often littered with a perilous sense of risk/reward.
Progression and levelling up, an essential ingredient in any metroidvania, is present albeit in a much more Soulslike manner. Dandara collects a resource known as Salt as she smashes boxes and sweeps away enemies which can be cashed in at bonfire-like checkpoints strategically placed throughout each of the games locales. As more of the world map is opened up, Dandara will find extra abilities and power ups that slowly beef up her modest abilities – the upgrades and power ups reside firmly in uninteresting territory, offering nothing more than a bit more of this and that, but the soulsian influences ensure you treasure every last bit of salt you collect – dying leaves behind an orb containing all of your precious resources. If you can make it back to that point without dying you’ll get it all back. But slip up again and it’ll go right down the drain. The run of the mill statistical upgrades might not be as dazzling as a game like Dead Cells but the tension of losing all that precious salt means you value those rather dull upgrades much more than you usually would have.
The visual design echoes pixel art seen in Enter the Gungeon in terms of fidelity but the world is painted in a left-behind abandonment that is tone perfect. Old, broken couches, windows into nothingness and matted carpets make up many of the parallax scrolling backgrounds. The earlier moments of Dandara conjure up a sort of mystical urban dreamscape of things forgotten and the game isn’t afraid to veer off the beaten path into mystical pink machinery and brown, skull encrusted dungeons and caves. Sometimes, a huge face made of stone will eerily jut out of the scenery or moving platforms will play with your expectations in genuinely surprising ways. Dandara likes to twist the knife in more ways than one, though, especially as this is all backed up by an excellently sparse electronic soundtrack that often feels like a meandering dream. You won’t find pounding beats or soaring melodies. Instead there’s pleasant ambience piped into the hallowed hallways of Dandara’s world, echoing as though being played at a loud volume from another room, where every waking second spent zipping around these fractured locales gives the game a dreamy, analogue vibe; a haze-filled VHS recording from another time.
And yet, Dandara has it’s fair share of stumbling blocks. Smart lengths of spatial puzzles and classic metroidvania backtracking gets stamped on by sudden and poorly designed difficulty spikes. Parts where players should be able to “git gud” and learn a way through that works for them often boils down to pure endurance, and a lot of frustratingly quick deaths. It’s clear what they’re going for – This is the sword archers of Anor Londo school of difficulty – but when you have only two methods of problem solving, moments like this simply bottleneck the player into frustration.
But when Dandara isn’t missing the point, it’s a thoroughly excellent twist on our old faves of the past. The game walks in the shadow of Symphony of the Night in terms of it’s dreamy, mystical tone and though it’s unique premise can easily be dismissed as a gimmick, it manages to spin a grand yarn out of a single idea until it triumphantly climbs atop the heaving mass of me-too metroidvania’s. Dandara is a surprising, and unfortunately hidden gem – but don’t let it pass you by.