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Dandara (Switch) artwork

Dandara (Switch) review


"Dandara is a wholly unique experience whose ďlimitingĒ mechanics fascinate and frustrate."


In an era where new games are molding themselves after the last big hit, one where hues of brown still dominate the overall gaming color palette and the definition of true growth and revolution is cardboard accessories, Dandara stands apart from the crowd by trying new things within familiar trappings. Itís set in a world created by someone with a truly unique vision. You're never quite sure what the next room will hold. The title dares to challenge you with interesting mechanics and it isn't afraid to stick to its guns, even when the value in doing so is sometimes questionable.

Dandara is a labor of love and that love is evident in every aspect of its design, whether you like the end result or not. I happen to like it a lot.

Dandara tells the story of a hero with the same name. Our hero is a femme person of color born into a world of oppression, one who hopes she can make a difference. The world of Salt (yes, Salt is its name) has been torn apart by The Golden Idea, a corporate-minded entity that overruns the beauty of the landscape's villages and cities. Given the task of eliminating the various entities sapping the will from Saltís citizens, Dandara sets forth on her journey.

Dandara (Switch) image

That may sound like a rich narrative well from which to pull, but story isnít something Dandara prioritizes. Aside from the opening cutscene and a few moment-to-moment interactions with the characters you discover in the world, there isnít much plot to see. Salt, its inhabitants, and Dandara herself are beautiful and interesting, but we arenít given enough material to fully understand everything in the end.

Interestingly, Dandara herself is actually based on a historical figure. An African queen brought to Brazil as a slave, Dandara was a fighter who helped her people fight back against oppression. After being arrested for her efforts on February 6, 1694, Dandara committed suicide to avoid having to return to her life of slavery. During her remarkable life, she studied capoeira (a flowing fighting style that blends dance, acrobatics, and martial arts). Her story is more of a legend at this point, with no one certain of her true origins and the veracity of the unattributed tales that are told about her. This game only helps to add to those legends.

And that isnít the only way that Brazilian developers Long Hat House celebrated the Brazilian history of resistance, either. Characters you run into, like giant woman Tarsila (who is based on artist Tarsila do Amara), are Brazilian icons. Their identity and their culture run throughout this game, and that is beautiful and worthy of praise.

But again: story isnít a priority for Dandara. Navigation and exploration are.

Dandara is a Metroidvania experience. Thereís no talking around that. For the unfamiliar, that suggests it is greatly inspired by games in the classic Metroid and Castlevania franchises. They popularized a genre characterized by world exploration with few or no prompts, along with areas and items and weapons that unlock as you progress. The locations you find are dense with secrets, and you are encouraged to return to them later, once you've unlocked new abilities and can uncover additional treasures.

Dandara has all of those things, but with a major tweak: you donít control this game in any traditional sense.

Dandara (Switch) image

Originally developed with touch controls in mind, Dandara is a technically static character. You donít direct her movements across a stage like in the usual platformer, but instead launch her from surface to surface from the fixed point where she lands. Gravity is non-existent, and you can find yourself upside down and sideways pretty quickly. Level design keeps this mechanic in mind and the result is a world that is incrediblyÖ topsy-turvy to say the least. Movement requires you to think quickly and to be precise about where you launch yourself next. It is a truly liberating experience at times. Flicking yourself through each level is more fun than it appears.

In its current form, the game supports both touch and gamepad controls on Switch (which might be the only version that does so), but due to the frantic nature of the game design, itís hard to recommend using touch controls unless you must. They require one hand to flick Dandara around the stage and another to aim and shoot her weapons. That said, the title is releasing on both Android and iOS, and it is more than serviceable in that mode.

At the start of the game, Dandara comes equipped with a shotgun-like burst of ďArrows of FreedomĒ that require a charge-up time to unleash. This process can take some getting used to--especially as enemies launch their projectiles at high speed while you come to grips with Dandaraís movement--but it eventually settles in as a truly satisfying tool for your arsenal. As you explore, you eventually unlock four sub-weapons that both help you navigate the world and provide ample combat help.

Combat scenarios are reminiscent of bullet-hell games, so your skill at dodging dozens of enemy projectiles is just as important as your proficiency on the offensive side. Mastering the movement mechanic to best dodge your enemiesí bullets can be a bit baffling, and by the end of the game I still felt a little trepidation about going into any new fight.

Dandara (Switch) image

Part of my discomfort was due to the level design. Its aforementioned topsy-turvy nature can truly confuse a person at points. Tie that to the precise aiming needed for both movement and combat and the frantic nature of later scenarios and you invite situations that donít always end well. At times, youíll find yourself launching Dandara places you didnít expect, so that she arrives at the center of a cluster of bullets or enemies. Do that enough times and you are sent back to the last checkpoint you interacted with (known as "camps" in this game). Your dead soul, meanwhile, is left where you fell.

As you blast enemies, you accrue Pleas of Salt, which are essentially experience points. You can cash these in to level up your character, gaining HP and energy for your weapons, and increasing the quality of the two potion-like items that restore them. When you die, the only way to regain your XP is to return to the place of your demise and grab your body. Die before reaching it and you lose that salt for good.

Ironically enough, this setup is where a ton of my real-life saltiness came from.

Checkpoints are few and far between. You can quickly find yourself trapped in bottle-necked loops where you die, attempt to grab your body in an area that was difficult to begin with, only so you can die again and repeat the process. It would be one thing if you could bypass the chunks of level that you mastered, but checkpoints are often positioned far away from the areas that frustrate, which leads to the loss of masses of XP.

Itís a difficult game, and I think there is merit in that approach. Where Dandara fails is that it doesn't initially balance difficult scenarios with the XP you receive upon first clearing them. By the end of the campaign, though, XP comes in bunches and you are truly able to focus on the use of mechanics to traverse the gameís devastating final sections.

Dandara (Switch) image

Dandaraís most satisfying moments are its hard-as-nails boss battles. These confrontations are varied and offer the best display of the gameís mechanics in every form. By blending movement and combat masterfully, the multi-phase battles force you to think on your feet in fun ways. Deaths during such fights feel earned, and they provide insight into how to eventually fell your enemy and continue on to the next challenge.

You do eventually reach a point of familiarity with the gameís mechanics that makes some of the smoother and quieter sections of the game flow by. That familiarity makes your eventual return to earlier parts of the world incredibly enjoyable. You launch yourself from platform to platform with ease, easily destroying enemies that once gave you trouble, and it feels great. Learning the patterns of new enemies and mechanics within each freshly charted area is a satisfying experience, as well. Itís only during the handful of times when the developers toss a bit too much at you all at once that the experience falters. And even after my 13-15 hours with the game, Iím itching to hop back in to discover the last few secrets it still is hiding from me.

Dandara may prove frustrating at times, but when the game doesnít get in its own way, itís an unrivaled experience. It looks beautiful--particularly while being played in handheld mode--thanks to detailed pixel art and varied design. The soundtrack and related effects perfectly anchor moments of frantic combat and moments of calm. Supplemented by HD rumble support, each sound packs an extra punch to immerse you in the moment. The unique movement mechanic is worth experiencing on its own, as well. When the gameís systems work harmoniously, it truly feels like nothing Iíve played before.

4/5

Naetoid's avatar
Freelance review by Nathan Hermanson (February 06, 2018)

Nathan Hermanson is a freelance journalist who has made his way around the block covering everything from the passage of tax levies to video games where anime characters use stripping to expose vampiric skin. It's been an interesting five years.

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