Dandara puts a fresh new idea in very familiar settings

Dandara does something important. It has an original idea. And then very smartly puts that original idea inside lots of very familiar ones. It’s a metroidvania where you cannot walk, run, jump, let alone double-jump. Instead you move by zapping yourself from surface to surface, only able to stand on the white-marked ground, while the enemies have free reign.

And this works. Extremely well. At first, trying to get used to the complexities of pointing and aiming, then leaping and almost immediately landing, feels cumbersome. But it quickly sets in, and in no short time you’re zipping all over the screen like a lightning bolt, aiming fire at an enemy before pinging out of his reach in an instant. It’s immensely satisfying to master.

Master it you will need to, because Dandara is a game that ramps up its difficulty quite significantly after the opening stages. Movement is your key to survival, working out ways to use this unique perambulation to thwart angry enemies, and solve its rather splendid platforming puzzles.

You may note I’ve not explained in the above who you are or why you’re doing any of it. That’s because, honestly, I’ve no idea. The game starts telling you that something called The Salt (perhaps where you are, although Salt is also currency) is in peril, and you have been called forth to save it. But how or why or who either got lost in its esoteric delivery, or was just never said at all.

So, like all metroidvanias, your aim is to progress because you presently can’t, although to have this mechanic stripped so bare is perhaps not in the game’s favour. I don’t need (nor usually want) acres of story to justify platformy fun, but the absence of any sense of where I’m trying to go, and why I’m trying to go there, does reveal its necessity on some level. I’m doing it because it’s quite fun to do it, but I have yet to feel any great compulsion to make sure I get wherever I’m going.

All that said, I’m having fun in my aimlessness. What’s so key about this, and why Dandara is so good despite the above and below flaws, is that the movement mechanic isn’t just a gimmick or a hindrance. The whole game is conceived around it, and it always feels incredibly right to be using it. Every now and then, after I’ve gone to get a coffee, say, I come back and try to push left or right before remembering. And then I’m zip-zapping about without another thought.

And goodness gracious, I even like the boss fights. Because when I failed the second one multiple times, each time it was because I was messing up, knowing what I should be doing but not quite being able to do it. It felt fair in my failure. So mastering it, finally beating it, felt like a personal victory rather than a tedious ordeal over at last. However, these are not my main impediment to progress.

If there’s one lesson I’ve learned about metroidvania audiences, it’s that there’s no limit to how much parts of it want to be punished. So no matter how un-user-friendly a game in the genre might be, there will be a voluminous chorus that celebrates it for that aspect. Still, even with this abrasively gleaned knowledge, I still cannot fathom who the audience is for metroidvanias that do not mark blocked areas on their maps.

And yet I see it again and again. Dandara, like so many games, believes in an audience that wants to have maps show seemingly accessible rooms, which in fact are blocked by any number of as-yet uncrossable barriers. The game has these rooms on the map in such number that a player would have to print it out and mark it themselves to keep track, or have the sort of memory that can store seventeen decks of cards in order at a glance. And just to be sure it’s wildly impossible to fathom, Dandara’s rooms rotate as you enter them, meaning holding a mental map of which directions had that grey wall, which had the switched off platforms, which had the fixed rock barrier, requires a PhD in cartography.

What I want, and I know that voicing this opinion in public guarantees me to be flogged in the streets by a vocal minority, is red/blue/green/whatever lines across the rooms where such obstacles currently exist. They become totems, goals for later progression, and more than anything else, stop me needlessly trudging across a great series of complicated rooms because the map suggests there’s an open corridor I’ve yet to explore.

The combination of this, along with the overall sense of being directionless, and a lack of an understanding of why I am doing anything I’m doing, means Dandara misses that important pull to make me want to keep plundering its every depth. And yet, I’m enjoying every moment of it I do play. It’s an interesting contradiction.

I suspect this will play well with the hardcore, as well as those looking for something a little lighter. The crossover spot.

It desperately needs another story pass – I just went back and checked, and the opening is, “The Salt was once nice but now it’s not. Fortunately this lady’s here now, so, er, off you pop.” And please, for goodness sakes, if you’re not going to mark the map yourself, at least let me have the option to do so.

But at the same time, of what I’ve played so far Dandara offers a fresh new way to play a very familiar format, with deft design and strong puzzling wit. I just wish it had remembered to give me a reason to do so.

Dandara is out now on Windows, Mac and Linux, for £13.50/$15/15€, via Steam.

20 Comments

  1. notenome says:

    “You may note I’ve not explained in the above who you are or why you’re doing any of it. That’s because, honestly, I’ve no idea. The game starts telling you that something called The Salt (perhaps where you are, although Salt is also currency) is in peril, and you have been called forth to save it. But how or why or who either got lost in its esoteric delivery, or was just never said at all”

    I noted this in the previous RPS post about the game, but Dandara was the matriarch of the largest quilombo in Brazil’s history (Palmares) in the 17th century (quilombos were communities composed of runaway slaves). She was the political head of Palmares and also supposedly the leader of the “female phalanx”, though what this means precisely is unknown. How much of this made it into the game, however, I can’t say.

    Salt was a de facto currency in Portugal and its colonies (much like in other European countries), and to this day is the root for the word ‘salary’ (in Portuguese, ‘salário’ derived from ‘sal’ [salt]). No clue if this helps any.

    • John Walker says:

      It’s extremely interesting, but seems to have no bearing on the game here.

    • Not Marvelous says:

      Actually, this is a misconception – salt was probably never used as a currency, although it was a crucial trade good for thousands of years. There was a good article about the whole thing, even going into the weird Latin etymologies, but I forgot where I saw it and I’m too lazy to look it up on my phone.

      • Babymech says:

        The Wikipedia entry has the schizophrenic, self-conflicting style of a contested topic with several editors: “Modern sources maintain that the word salarium is derived from the word sal (salt) because at some point a soldier’s salary may have been an allowance for the purchase of salt or the price of having soldiers conquer salt supplies and guard the Salt Roads (Via Salaria) that led to Rome. But there is no evidence for this assertion at all.”

  2. Turkey says:

    I’m having some trouble playing it with the mouse. There are some downward angles where I have to pull the mouse a little extra to get her to aim at a platform. I think I’m going to try it with a controller instead.

    Pretty unique platformer. People keep trying to compare it to other gravity defying platformers like VVVVV, but it really doesn’t play anything like those games.

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      buenaventura says:

      Do you need a controller with sticks to play, or is a SNES-style one OK?

  3. Someoldguy says:

    /nitpick
    it’s free rein, not free reign
    /end nitpick

  4. lordcooper says:

    I want a huge flashing arrow to point me in the right direction at all times.

  5. MrEvilGuy says:

    It’s unfortunate to hear that the game’s narrative or story is lacking in relevance to its historical underpinning. It’s rare enough for a game to be based on someone like Dandara, rarer for it to actually have brilliant gameplay and mechanics in addition. It doesn’t necessarily need a story to achieve such relevance, as it can come through symbolism or other aspects of the gameplay (Celeste and mental health come to mind as a recent example). Hopefully the developers add a bit more to contextualize it better.

    • MrEvilGuy says:

      At the same time, if you’re not Brazilian you might not be able to pick up on the symbolism as effectively. If you are Brazilian, maybe you’d already know the story (from school) and so explicating it in-game would be superfluous.

      As Brazilian game journalist Dario Coutinho writes on mobilegamer.br, for example, “If you missed history or arts class, you will not recognize names like Dandara. But one glance at the look of Tarsila is enough to see that it is inspired by the painting Abaporu de (dã) Tarsila do Amaral.”

      I saw Tarsila do Amaral’s work in the Toronto Art Gallery recently, but I’m not sure if an RPS writer, or the average non-Brazilian gamer, would have.

    • April March says:

      I don’t think the game inteds for it to be anything more than a vague allusion. I don’t think it needs to be anything more than that. Not as long as the devs know what they’re aiming for, and effectively hit it. Not that I wouldn’t like a game based around Brazilian quilombos (or a thousand other cultural things that few people know about), but it’s okay if this game isn’t it.

  6. takfar says:

    So, I picked this up yesterday because I was intrigued with the character concept and the movement gimmick (I got it for the Switch, but I was playing on the controller, so gameplay on PC should be the same).

    Played the first area and really enjoyed it. Came home at night and couldn’t stop thinking about it. Played all through the night and finished it (11 hours, 99% exploration, can’t figure out where that alst percent would be).

    So, the main point of this game: the weird movement. It does take a few moments to get used to, but once it clicks, it feels really good. Metroidvanias naturally involve quite a bit of backtracking, and the speed you can achieve with the quick jumping makes it a breeze to traverse cleared areas. The fact that you can only adhere to certain surfaces also reminded me a tiny bit of Portal, and how the environments play a fundamental part in the puzzle. All in all, the jumping movement, while a gimmick, does not feel gratuitious. It adds something new and memorable, accelerates traversal, and compounds on the quirky aesthetics and sense of directionlessness.

    This movement scheme does carry a few cons, tho. In certain sections, you’ll want to jump and shoot and move and dodge as fast as possible, and you’ll inevitably screw up and die because of that, either jumping to the wrong place, or being stuck in place, because the surface you wanted to jump to is just slightly out of reach.

    This comes coupled with a separate gameplay quirk: the combat rewards precision, and severely punishes sloppy gameplay: you can move super quickly, but if you screw up just a bit, you’ll have trouble: the normal attack takes a while to charge up, and whenever you’re hit you’ll flinch, lose control for a fraction of a second and float off the surface you were standing on. Using the life or ammo recovery items will also paralyze you. Basically if anything goes awry in your battle plan, you’ll have a hard time recovering. Later in the game this effect is lessened as your life and ammo bars stretch significantly, but combat WILL make you die quite often, thus increasing the backtracking involved in playing the game.

    Also worthy of note: the boss battles (except the final boss, which felt a bit disappointing, as these are wont to do) are a cool way to subvert the usual movement and combat, and the second one is especially memorable.

    Regarding presentation: I, for one, enjoyed the mysterious and semi-abstract story (and was also able to pick up on the myriad references to Brazilian culture, so that factors in as well). Also, there was a development near the end (presented via environment clues and character animations, rather than cutscenes), that really made the understated storytelling shine, imo. Overall I enjoyed how the devs made use of Dandara as a symbol of freedom without going overboard on allegory, instead building their own weirdly surreal world around it.

    I really dig the graphics, especially the main character’s animations. The enemies look good, but are not terribly novel or inspired, feeling like a grabbag of traditional platformer goons. The bosses and the larger sprites, tho, look really good, and better reflect the weird setting.

    The backgrounds are a mixed bag. The first large area (the village) is probably the most interesting, merging weird urban doodads and gestalt with funky escherian architecture. The “city” area also brings some personality in the form of cool posters and billboards. The remaining areas, however, feel a lot more familiar (woods, caves, stone tower, clouds, hi-tech base), and somewhat unremarkable if you’ve played any 8- or 16-bit title ever.

    Also, the sound design deserves kudos. Everything sounds just right (and they handled the “jump” sound well, which could represent a problem since you do it so often), and the soundtrack is sublime, and fits the strangeness of the environments and characters.

    Overall, a good game, which manages to mostly pull off a combination of novel movement mechanics and an intriguing aesthetic premise. To paraphrase the game’s opening screenf: Dandara will not be forgotten.

  7. Merus says:

    I generally feel that if you’re making a Metroidvania, you want to decide how much you care about exploration, and optimise towards that. Alternatively, we should come up with a genre name to describe an open-world 2D platformer where gear gating’s used solely to enforce linear progression, and you’re never really intended to get lost.

    Still, I’d support a little marker on rooms where there’s an obstacle that blocked your path but it’s not obvious from the map, or draw half a room or something. The exploration of this genre is at its best when you’ve got too many possible directions to go, rather than too few.