A lot of metroidvania games tend to take the same core formula and slap a little extra sauce on it somewhere. They might look and sound different, but most of the time, they don’t feel different. Dandara takes a big risk with the genre by changing up a big part of the puzzle and removing your ability to walk.
Instead of running through castles and hopping onto platforms, Dandara sees you playing as a scarf-clad heroine who can only navigate environments by magnetically hopping along white platforms that are strewn across the world. Trailers make this mechanic look a little daunting, with needle-threading precision seemingly needed to string these leaps together properly, but having actually played through the game, it’s a bit easier than videos make it look. Only a bit, though.
In order to hop from one platform to another, you’ll have to point your stick in the direction of a platform and then press jump. When your cursor gets near a platform, it automatically aims you toward the center of that platform. This means you’ll only have to vaguely aim where you want to go in order to get your character moving, and for a good chunk of the game, you can make due by relying on that auto-aim. Late game environments and boss battles require much more precise platforming though, and there were too many times to count where my series of twitchy platform hops ended in me landing on the wrong one.
Another faltering facet of this function is that it makes one of the biggest chores of the metroidvania genre even more of a chore. Backtracking to previously visited areas is part of practically every game that falls into this category, whether you’re wandering through the map to figure out your next task or circling back to an old area to enter a previously inaccessible section. In most games, it’s just a matter of absentmindedly walking back and running past enemies to get where you need to go, but you cannot be so absentminded in Dandara. Every movement has to be deliberate and calculated due to the nature of the way your character moves, meaning that big bouts of backtracking are made insufferable by the fact that you’ll need to thoroughly re-navigate each room you pass through.
For all my complaints, when the movement system works,it works. Leaping from platform to platform and blasting enemies can feel incredibly satisfying, especially due to the sharp, bouncy art style. Characters and monsters have unique and colourful designs, and the protagonist moves with wonderfully fluid animations. The world of Dandara is unique and enchanting, and the haunting soundtrack by ThommazK helps make Dandara what it is.
Still, it’s hard to always know where exactly in the world you are a lot of the time. Not only does the camera frame most rooms differently than they are laid out on the map, but almost every room is made up of the same brown blocks and white platforms despite having names like “School District” and “Backstreet Alley”. The details that make these sections unique are there, but they’re hidden so deep into the dimly lit background that you might not notice them at all.
Something else you might not notice in Dandara is the story. The narrative in Dandara is intriguing, but is largely spoon-fed to the player. In a world full of oppressed people on the brink of destruction, the warrior Dandara awakens in order to turn things around. You’ll encounter interesting characters and jaw-dropping bosses, but I was always craving just a little more dialogue out of them. Interestingly enough, the story of Dandara is loosely based on the real life tales of Dandara, an Afro-Brazilian warrior of the colonial period of Brazil. The hints of narrative parallels to that real-life story were great, but I was still always left wanting more.
Another aspect of Dandara that helps set it apart from other titles in the genre is the way it handles checkpoints and death. You’ll encounter campfires throughout the world that act as your checkpoints, and upon death, you’ll return to your last-visited fire. Something else happens when you die, though. Throughout Dandara you’ll collect Salt as a currency to upgrade your health and abilities and dying drops all of your salt. In a Dark Souls style, the only way to recover what you lost is to go back to where you died and interact with the ghostly imprint that’s been left behind there. It adds a little flavour (or seasoning) to the game, and it helps add some extra incentive to retry that tough puzzle I just died on a few more times.
Dandara is a beautiful game with a fresh movement mechanic, but it doesn’t come together as well as I had hoped. Leaping across platforms is satisfying when it works, but aggravating when it doesn’t, and even when the leaping does what you want it to do, you’ll find annoying backtracking or bizarre navigation puzzles to overcome. There are some great moments in Dandara, but the headaches you have to deal with to get to them aren’t always worth it.
Version tested: Switch
Out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC, iOS and Android