Developer: Long Hat House
Publisher: Raw Fury
Release Date: 6 February 2018
Price: $14.99 / £13.49
Reviewed by Antonio Guillen
Dandara is an odd and unapologetically difficult spectacle. From its boundary-defying movement, to its pixel laced world, the game is a strange feast. Depending on your tastes, its unique flavor of hardcore platforming can be highly satisfying.
A Videogame's Responsibility to History
You play as the the freedom fighter Dandara, tasked with freeing the denizens of the world of Salt from an army of oppressors. Unfortunately, the game forces you to piece together the backstory from a few lines of opening text and tidbits of NPC dialogue. The hidden reality is that Dandara is a unique game because it draws inspiration from a unique real-life heroine.
Dandara was a real person who lived in a refugee settlement for escaped and freed, Afro-Brazilian slaves in the 1600’s. She waged a defensive battle of survival against Dutch invaders and others who wanted to conquer Palmares and subjugate its people.
I quote Garret Martin’s must read piece ‘Dandara: A Videogame's Responsibility to History’ that can be found on pastemagazine.com:
“...in 1694, after being arrested, she took her own life to avoid being returned to slavery. Dandara was real, and really amazing, and until this game I had never heard of her. Some of this might be myth. Dandara is a legendary figure in Brazil, with the inspirational legacy of a Greek hero and a real-life relevance magnified by the still-tangible remnants of slavery and colonialism. It’s possible the tales of her deeds have been stretched over the years, but that wouldn’t diminish her power or her significance. That wouldn’t change the fact that she was a real person who fought against real injustice.”
It's safe to say the more you know about the game’s premise, the more you’ll appreciate it. Educating players and adding more context to the story would have been a worthwhile decision.
No running in the hall
Creating a platformer with no way for your character to run or jump is a bold move. Your only means of traversing the world is to aim your cursor at a nearby surface and then perform an agile leap in that direction.
If Dandara’s leaps are the brush then the game world is the canvas. The game turns conventional level design on its head and blurs the lines between floors and ceilings. Each area is an inexplicable showcase. Forests, mansions and urban bohemian districts are connected in a strange maze-like layout. Each twisted corridor feels funky and strange.
It’s hard to describe how refreshing it feels to control a character as nimble as Dandara through such fascinating locales. You never know if the next room will be a self-contained movement puzzle, or a hub for a swarm of deviously placed enemies.
Down the rabbit hole
As you can imagine, navigating this topsy-turvy world can be problematic. Meeting new NPCs and gaining new abilities will help open up new areas, but many times the game won't direct you where to go next.
Choosing the wrong path will have you travelling down a dangerous road for several minutes before you hit a brick wall, forcing you to backtrack and find a long way around.
On top of that, occasionally the game will rotate the environment when you enter a new room. This killed any remaining sense of direction and had me frequently checking my map.
Dandara’s movement does have its limitations as well. Most of the time your leap has a limited range. You’re only able to jump onto certain segments of each wall, and if you point your cursor toward an invalid selection, an alternate landing zone will be suggested instead.
Traditionally, the best platformers have reliable and simple controls. This allows the player to focus on the obstacles and challenges at hand while movement becomes second nature. In Dandara there’s so many factors at play that I felt I had to be extra cognisant of every input, and I found myself constantly making small carefully planned moves.
Seasoned with salt
The only way to save your progress is to reach campsites that are scattered across the world. Reaching these beacons of safety gives you the opportunity to spend the salt you’ve collected from chests and defeated enemies on upgrades.
You can eventually choose between expanding your heath pool, beefing up your special attack energy reserve, or increasing the number of consumable items you can carry. No matter which one of the four you choose, the next rank of all upgrades gets more expensive after every purchase. This makes every salt shard and investment decision incredibly important.
Be warned, if you don’t eventually start collecting enough salt for high priced upgrades, you’ll be ill equipped for the challenges ahead. Even after upgrading my health pool and offensive capabilities I felt consistently outgunned. There’s just no substitute for getting better at finding a balance between moving faster and making quick, smart decisions.
Enemies are an irregular mingle of staff wielding soldiers and armored blob like creatures. Initially you face off against only a few foes at a time, but thanks to a sharp difficulty curve, you’ll be forced cross plenty of rooms full of frenzied enemies. You’ll have to quickly navigate through tight spaces or across rotating platforms, under a barrage of fire, to survive.
Unleashing Dandara’s basic attack requires a moment to charge, so it's important to tread lightly. Quickly darting down hallways is a sure fire way to get killed by enemies laying in wait to ambush you. There’s also a slight delay when using items, ensuring that they don't become a crutch. The health replenishing animation is just long enough to demand that you have an escape route planned for every encounter.
Each time you die you leave your loot behind. You have one chance to recover it, but if you die a second time before reaching your ghostly remains your hard-earned loot is lost forever. You’ll feel the pinch after a single death, but just wait until you experience the sting of losing a small fortune.
However, peak euphoria comes when things go your way. Darting around a room and vanquishing foes without being touched makes you feel like a masterfully seasoned ninja. When things begin to flow like this, the action scenes on display in Dandara can be a thing of beauty.
The game also shines during standout boss fights. Not only are the bosses themselves cleverly designed, but the game goes for broke as these boss fights play host to the game's best level design. The focus and precision required in these platforming scenarios is second to none.
Dandara might be the most unique Metroidvania platformer ever made. Non-traditional controls, gruelling obstacles, and maze-like design come together to form a mighty adversary. Unfortunately, the game’s story suffers from a lack of context, but the development team at Long Hat House should be commended for taking risks and delivering a wonderful experience. If you crave a fresh and challenging adventure you'll be head over heels for Dandara.
Pros & Cons
+ Bold movement mechanic
+ Strange new world
+ Extremely challenging
- Confusing and obtuse story
- Controls never feel second nature
- Backtracking is punishing