By Josh Speer / February 13th, 2018
|Developer||Long Hat House|
|Release Date||February 6th, 2018|
|Platform||PC, Mobile, Nintendo Switch, XBox One, PlayStation 4|
|Age Rating||E for Everyone – Fantasy Violence|
I purchased Dandara on a total whim. Its style had captivated me when I saw the initial Nindie trailer, and I was eager to explore such an interesting looking world. I knew literally nothing about the developers or publishers, but trusted my instincts enough to roll the dice. And I’m glad I did, since it’s one of the more interesting Metroidvanias I played in a long time. That said, it’s also the first big game developed by Long Hat House, other than a handful of far less ambitious Game Jam projects. So the question for me was – could it live up to the expectations presented by its tremendous visual design and brave attempt at rethinking how direction works in a topsy-turvey world?
From the get go, Dandara had two very unique hooks. First and foremost, the aesthetic design of the titular character. Dandara is a beautiful black woman, with a full afro, dressed in colorful, baggy clothes adorned with a long yellow scarf. It’s unusual to have a woman be the main character, let alone a woman of color, and I appreciated the novelty. The other hook is the way you navigate through the world of Salt. See, Dandara can’t just run and jump like most Metroidvania heroines, instead she defies gravity entirely. When she’s not floating in mid air, she moves more akin to a pinball, bouncing off surfaces and sticking to any flat surface coated with white. The exploration is definitely one of the game’s highlights, since it’s totally unlike any other platformer I’ve played. The downside of that, of course, is that it takes some getting used to.
The way movement is handled in the game is more intuitive that it sounds at first blush. By pressing the joystick away from your current position, a line with a cursor will appear. It extends in a half circle above your head (not unlike how you fire eggs in Yoshi’s Island), and your goal is to point it at a nearby surface, and then you can leap towards it with the A button. To keep things from getting too out of hand, you can only jump so far, so you’ll quickly learn to think in right angles. The other face buttons are mapped to combat options. By holding X, you’ll charge up, and when fully charged you can unleash a burst of arrows in any direction your cursor is facing. B and Y are mapped to Essences and Infusions of Salt, which refill your health and energy, respectively. There are other offensive abilities you’ll gain as you play through the game, which can be toggled with the R button, and activated by holding X and pressing ZR to fire. All of your subweapons rely on your energy meter, which matters since they all fire much more rapidly than your standard attack. The game also offers touch controls, but I stuck with joystick and buttons and found they worked great.
I’m a bit divided on the combat in the game. While it can certainly be enjoyable, it also grows to become much more of a chore later in the game. The simple reason for this is it’s hard to juggle avoiding enemies and fighting, especially in rooms full of foes. It’s a bit frustrating that every time you attack you have to charge for a few seconds, especially since many enemies are faster than you and some can move around more freely. Additionally, you can’t charge your attack while moving. If you get hit, you’ll float in mid air, and while you can fire in mid air, it’s safer to attach yourself to a flat surface before you resume battle. You’ll find yourself constantly hopping back and forth, avoiding enemy projectiles and other hazards all at once. But lest I give you the impression it’s all frustration, next let me discuss some of the many things I enjoyed about Dandara.
Quite simply, the world of Dandara is utterly beautiful. This is a world of ideas and strange gods, now under the boot heel of oppressive forces of greed and heavy industry. The world of Salt is alien, but it’s one that is captivating at the same time. You’ll find waterfalls falling upwards, strange desert ruins, rings of tornadoes in the sky and much more besides. Dandara’s artistry is constantly impressing, and the way you navigate the game only highlights it further. Often the screen will rotate as you progress, which is initially disorienting, but quickly becomes something I looked forward to. Up and down have no meaning, making traversing the game both a challenge and an exciting adventure. Adding to the atmosphere of the game is the soundtrack, which is equal parts mystery and adventure. In conjunction, the art and music round out a very attractive package.
One facet of the game that deserves special mention is how upgrades and camp sites are handled. Every enemy you kill and every item you destroy will reward you with particles of Salt, which serves a very important purpose. An ever increasing amount of Salt can be cashed in at camp sites to upgrade Dandara’s attributes, increasing her health, energy and even efficacy of healing items. But before you think this makes the game a cakewalk, and go off to grind for Salt, there’s another important feature. Every time you die, all your Salt will be transformed into a crystalline statue of Dandara. If you’re able to reach it again, you’ll regain all your lost Salt, but if you die in the process, it’s gone for good. A similar mechanic was found in the fantastic Shovel Knight, and it serves a similar purpose here. The key thing to remember is that while the game auto saves, staying at camp sites won’t retain your Salt, so you’ll constantly have to be mindful of how much you’ve accumulated, and decide whether it’s worth it to press on or circle back to the nearest camp site to upgrade. I will say, caution served me well, as when I got too adventurous, I ended up losing a ton of Salt in my recklessness.
I always appreciate creative boss fights, and here Dandara doesn’t disappoint. While there are only a handful of bosses in the game, each one is totally distinct and offers a stiff challenge. While I did find the first boss more challenging than the second, and was irritated by how one boss could instakill me, overall they were balanced quite well. There are also a couple of more minor mid bosses in the game, such as a giant plant monster, but those weren’t that noteworthy. My only real complaint with regard to the bosses is that there weren’t more of them spread out throughout the game, since I enjoyed the ones here so much.
Now that I’ve covered some of the high points of the game, I need to mention a few things that frustrated me and impacted my appreciation of the game. This first one might sound minor, but it became more of a problem the farther I got. Namely, you never acquire health from killing enemies, just Salt, meaning you have to rely entirely on healing with your Essences, which are dependent on how much you’ve leveled them up, or refill your health at a camp site. Another larger frustration is when I reached the section patrolled by the Eldarian gatekeepers. This is a long sequence of interconnected rooms you’ll find towards the end of the game. One part is defended by a roving machine gun that follows you and shoots bullets everywhere, which can quickly decimate your health. The other part is defended by a laser gun that will do even more damage, though it takes a minute to lock onto you. The central area, which is a golden gate adorned with a giant eyeball, is the worst, since both the machine gun and laser will team up to assault you there. I wasted a good portion of time trying to destroy that eyeball before I decided it wasn’t possible. I only found out after beating the game that you can, in fact, destroy them. The problem is, it still means that for a large portion of the game you’re forced to race through this large section just to progress further. It’s not til much later that you acquire a means to warp past it, but up until that point it’s an annoyance.
Finally, there is one last area I take issue with, known as the Dream Lands. At first I thought this was an optional section, but it turns out it’s necessary to beat it if you want to finish the game. The first issue I had here was the lack of logical progression. You’ll find a circle of entrances, but where they take you is random, since they only will take you to either a challenge room or back to the exit. That was frustrating, but what was worse was when one door took me to what seemed to be an earlier area of the game. I quickly found out that I was locked in this familiar circuit of rooms, and I spent a good hour and change wandering around aimlessly, trying to escape. Finally through sheer stubbornness I figured out that I was supposed to repeatedly exit though the same part of this circuit, and doing so made the enemies become more and more powerful, until I reached a mini boss that rewarded me with a new ability. However, the lack of clear signposting in this area (not to mention how the map doesn’t function in the Dream Lands) made it a chore. I can appreciate that it might be a intentional decision to make the Dream Lands function on a sort of mad dream logic, but it was more difficult than it was fun.
Despite my complaints, I had a mostly positive experience playing through Dandara. For $14.99, I got about 15 hours of playtime. The mixture of creative world design, unique gameplay mechanics and challenging bosses make this a worthy game, despite the oppressive difficulty of a few sections and occasional lack of balance. While I never felt like I got to know Dandara as a person very well, the world of Salt was still one of haunting beauty that I’d love to return to. I’m impressed by this first mainstream release by Long Hat House, and look forward to what else they’re able to create. Dandara isn’t perfect, but it’s a laudable attempt, and one that I won’t soon forget.
Review Copy Purchased by Author
DandaraLong Hat HouseMetroidvanianintendo switchoprainfallRaw FuryReview