Dandara Review — A Metroidvania Worth its Salt

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Developer Long Hat House’s Dandara is just a conceptually pleasing game. Rethinking the standard Metroid-type game from the ground up, Dandara approaches a near-saturated genre with new takes that genuinely flip gameplay on its head.

Dandara is without a doubt a merger of old and new ideas. On one point of the spectrum, the game offers the standard (and still equally relevant) Metroidvania layout. Starting with nothing, you build up Dandara’s arsenal over time through exploration, backtracking, and boss fights. The game’s map is split up into visually-distinct sections that you are encouraged to poke-and-prod your way through to find the next treasure chest with upgrades. The formula is tried and true, and as satisfying today as it was 30 years ago — something that should be so obvious given it’s a staple format among indie titles.

On the other hand, Dandara‘s main draw is its complete reversal of the genre: namely, the stationary-based movement and dizzying zero-gravity design choices. Obviously, the Metroid series (and games that follow in its footsteps) pin the main gameplay components on mobility — free running, double jumping, and everything in-between are staples of the genre. While Metroid: Samus Returns may not be the best example of this (thanks to a divergence into more stationary gunplay), other Metroidvania titles like Ori and the Blind Forest put the focus on different types of movement and more fluid gameplay altogether.

Comparatively, Dandara looks to do the opposite entirely: it pins you to the ground. As you navigate through the map, Dandara will move from surface to surface without direction. When landing on a surface, you are able to direct Dandara’s movement from a stationary position and take aim at nearby enemies. Likewise, movement is the next best thing to teleportation with near-instant transitions from point-to-point. The only time you will find yourself not-clung to a wall is on the off chance you are hit by enemy projectiles.

While the stop-and-go gameplay may sound annoying at first blush, it is surprisingly dynamic in execution. Dandara holds an almost indescribable weightless and directionless momentum that feels novel to the genre and addictive when you get into a groove. When you shoot the gap in between two enemy projectiles only to turn and decimate them with a missile, the combat system clicks and everything feels worth its salt… so to speak.

Of course, that only happens after you learn to master the mechanics that are admittedly alien when compared to other games on the market. And, while I think that is a commendable thing in any genre that feels repetitive, it comes alongside a higher-than-normal difficulty curb in the beginning. Provided you don’t mind challenging yourself and going outside your boundaries regarding control schemes, everyone should get past this initial hurdle in no time.

While Dandara does lift heavily from the Metroidvania genre, it also grabs from the rogue-lite risk/reward currency system seen in Dark Souls or Shovel Knight. By destroying items and enemies around the map, Dandara will collect salt that can be used at checkpoint-based campsites to upgrade anything from items to life. However, if you die before making it to the next checkpoint you will leave a blue, floating soul that you can return to and recover the salt. Of course, if you die again before reaching your lost salt, it will be gone entirely. The idea isn’t original, but it does add a nice drive to play “one more life” every time you are wiped out from enemies.

And while the unique gameplay style ultimately comes down in Dandara‘s favor, other gameplay aspects fall relatively flat in comparison — though never bad. This includes the all-around artstyle, the sound design, the soundtrack, and enemy variety. As I said, nothing about any of these components were terrible so much as it never felt noteworthy in the grand scheme of the game. My most prominent motivation propelling me forward was the often-addictive gameplay loop, not progressing a story or seeing what new weapons the game would unveil.

Dandara Review -- A Metroidvania Worth its Salt

And I suppose this is the case across the board except for one caveat: Dandara herself. One of the most commendable aspects of the game is how Brazillian-based developer Long Hat House stylized a character that is unexplainably a badass. For those who aren’t on the up-and-up about Brazillian history, Dandara was a real, historical person — a near-legendary heroine in both the feminism and abolitionist movement. She is a persona lionized today across minority movements from that region and isn’t just a creation like Owlboy or Ori, but a person rooted in history.

With that said, Long Hat Studios would never let you know that on a surface-level playthrough of the game. Despite a history that is rife in both political and ideological message, none of it is forced down your throat (or even mentioned) in the game which remains nearly narrative-free. Instead, the in-game Dandara is just an unspoken badass that happens to be a black woman protagonist, not a one-dimensional character defined by her characteristics. In a modern gaming scene, it seems like the closest parallel to Samus Aran in the original Metroid — an unwitting heroine that would largely surprise players.

The hands-off approach to character not only helps the game at large dodge heavy-handed political points made in other indie titles but also builds general interest in Dandara as both a character and a historical figure. Half the reason I know what I do about the authentic figure is that the in-game mystique directed me to look further into the origins of the title and what it was based on.

Dandara is more than the average Metroidvania and is a game worth your time. Although its unique stop-and-go gameplay may have you stumbling at first, movement turns into an art form as you get accustomed to it. And though not everything about Dandara stands out, the titular character is executed so masterfully it is hard not to be impressed with the folk-lore based heroine.

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