Fresh air can be hard to find in the stale caverns of the multitude of Metroidvanias that continue to be released every year. Though the tried-and-true formula often results in a varying amounts of fun, it also results in experiences that are mostly…formulaic. Even Nintendo, one of the originators of the genre, has had a hard time discovering new ways to play an old game, but occasionally entries like Steamworld Dig transcend their claustrophobic corridors and reach toward something more. Though Dandara has some flaws that hold it back from bursting through the surface to expose a wider world of 2D action-adventure games, its unconventional gameplay and unique sci-fi/mythological setting definitely reveal glimmers of further possibilities to explore.
Taking place in a strange universe that seems both completely incongruous and harmonious at the same, Dandara follows the titular warrior, who is loosely inspired by Brazilian legends of a woman who ultimately sacrificed her life in the fight against slavery. Instead of battling overlords in 17th century colonial South America, however, players will find themselves wandering past cat soldiers in rundown urban streets, fighting giant bugs in pine tree-lined forests, dodging sand monsters in barren deserts, and avoiding laser beams in technologically dense alien spaceships. All of these areas are surrounded by starry backdrops, implying a bizarre society floating through the cosmos. If that sounds confusing, well, don’t worry — Dandara isn’t really about a cohesive narrative. It’s the vibe here that matters, with visuals that stimulate the imagination instead of dictating to it, and a sound design that finds just the right balance between robotic and organic, blending together to suggest more than actually say.
There is something sad going on in this deteriorating land called Salt, and so Dandara is manifested as the hero who must set things right; that’s all the impetus one needs to point a blaster at a massive disembodied head and fire away. Getting to that point is what makes the game stand out somewhat from its peers, as though Dandara has come to aid in the struggle for freedom, she herself is very limited in her ability to move. Despite having what appear to be very workable legs, there is no running or jumping in this platformer, but Dandara does possess the ability to defy gravity with a multi-directional dash. She can then land on and stick to designated areas positioned around each room on the floor, walls, and even the ceiling. By maneuvering the control stick to find a spot, players can dart back and forth with the push of a button — like Nightcrawler combined with Spider-Man — unfettered by the constraints of normal physics, but subject to the type of surface on which to stand.
It feels a bit funky at first, but with a little practice, the concept soon becomes natural, if a bit imprecise. What results is that in addition to the standard environmental puzzles that the genre is known for, each room also becomes a sort of puzzle of its own. Simply navigating from one end to the other can be an enjoyable plotting of course, especially when a few enemies dot the path and try to force an alternate route. I’ve never paid so much attention to my surroundings in a game like this before, mapping out my plan of attack upon entry. Usually, a bit of running and gunning is all that’s required before scanning for secrets, but the constrained movement in Dandara makes combat more of a thinking prospect, where careful shots followed by quick retreats may serve better than an all-out assault with guns ablaze.
Add to that a general feeling that while Dandara steadily adds to her powers over the course of exploring the large, labyrinthine world, none of these offer massive leaps in strength or agility, and she still feels weaker than the collective might of her opponents. I was never comfortable, never felt like the badass that so many other Metroidvania heroes eventually become. Treasure chests hide healing items, weapon upgrades, and salt (the game’s currency, with which Dandara can level up), but still, the smallest enemy can quickly kill the cocky adventurer. Valuable salt is also lost upon death (though it can be reclaimed if recovered at the spot of the fall), so tension increases the further one ventures into the unknown. This makes campsites, which provide a respite from the danger, a very welcome sight. It’s a more measured way of doing things that I appreciated, not so much for its difficulty (though you will likely die more than a few times, right from the start), but for its consideration.
The design is not without some frustrating elements, however. While fighting against relatively sparse enemies across most of the game’s map allows for time to strategize, there are obligatory bullet hell sections that can devolve into mere button mashing to power through. Dandara‘s mechanics don’t work as well for this type of combat, as maneuvering the directional pointer with which to dash can often be imprecise — or flat-out unwieldy — when rushed, and a questionable decision to make the player have to charge their weapon before firing hampers one’s ability to pull off the split-second gameplay the situation sometimes seems to require. These moments can be annoying, but soon enough they’re over, and the best of Dandara reveals itself again.
Roaming this mysterious pixelated landscape is a pleasure, and developer Long Hat House has incorporated an abundance of small touches that contribute to a rich, enigmatic atmosphere. Many rooms work like tiny vignettes, telling a story of a fierce struggle and loss without using any words. Quirky characters can be found throughout that provide aide in opening up gateways via off-beat methods. Distinct tunes are spread across visually distinct regions. There are no graphical fireworks, but there does appear to be a clarity of vision, and it comes through in tone. Like with the best of the genre it manages to strike a balance between exploration and linearity, between following the formula and expanding on it, allowing for moments of meandering into the overwhelming, yet never truly opaque or devoid of guidance.
With an adventure clocking in at around 6-8 hours, Dandara doesn’t have the replay value that other genre entries offer, but due to the unique gameplay, a strangely alluring setting, and just the right level of challenge, what’s there still feels different, a breath of fresh air in the countless corridors of the Metroidvania mine.