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.