Disclaimer – What started out as a pleasant experience with an innovative little indie Metroidvania has turned into a trial that is testing the limits of my patience. As of the time of writing, I am currently around three-quarters of the way through Dandara, and I am struggling so intensely with the difficulty and the possibly inaccurate map that I am entirely unable to progress any farther. Up until this point most every time I was faced with a challenge that was too difficult I was able to overcome it by simply playing better. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case this time.

As frustrating and embarrassing as this is it looks as if I will be unable to complete the last quarter before my deadline so I will be reviewing Dandara based on all of the information I have and giving it a provisional score. Once I find my way through to the end of the game, I will come back and modify the score if I feel that anything has changed. Alternatively, if I am not up to the challenge, I’ll update the review and inform you, dear reader, of my shame.

 

Provisional Rating: 8/10

 

By this point, the Metroid formula is well worn. It has been done, redone, re-redone, remixed, and re-remixed countless times since the debut of the original. Considering that, it is exceptionally difficult for a game to manage to introduce an entirely new twist on the style. Yet somehow, developer Long Hat House has done exactly that. With the inclusion of a brilliant movement system and a liberal helping of Souls-like mechanics, Dandara stands out in almost every respect.

In a typical Metroidvania, you will likely find yourself running and jumping about a labyrinthine map shooting/slashing baddies and collecting power-ups. Now imagine navigating a labyrinthine map shooting baddies, but you can neither run nor jump. Instead, the titular Dandara leaps from platform to platform, defying gravity to cling to walls and ceilings. Any space colored white is fair game so long as it isn’t too far away or at too steep of an angle from where she is currently standing.

By building all forms of interaction with the world and enemies around this fundamental limitation, Dandara turns even the most simple acts of navigation into miniature puzzles. As a result, the moment to moment gameplay is remarkably engaging, as all actions require active thought and careful attention. That’s not to say that moving from point A to point B is always tricky, but instead that it’s far harder to go on autopilot than in most any other game.

Unfortunately, this system does not always lend itself well to precision platforming or quick response times. I get the feeling that the developers expected players to be both fast and accurate, but too frequently one comes at the expense of the other. These moments were mercifully sparse, but when they cropped up I quickly found myself getting irritated at the number of times I was dying for reasons that weren’t exactly my fault.

Aside from the movement system, the most innovative aspect of Dandara is the fact that it’s got about as much Dark Souls in its bones as it does Metroid. Enemies drop Salt (read: Souls, Blood Echoes, or in the case of Salt and Sanctuary: Salt). You can redeem your Salt for upgrades at camps (read: Bonfires, Lanterns, etc.), but if you die you drop all of it where you fell. It can be retrieved, but if you die on the way back to the location of your demise, its bye bye Salt. The formula should sound pretty familiar, as it’s arguably the most copied progression mechanic in modern gaming.

What’s remarkable though is just how well Dark Souls and Metroid work together. Moving farther into the map is a tense experience, and death has real consequences outside of the inconvenience of retreading old ground. The Souls influence is also evident in the game’s occasionally maddening difficulty. One particular boss took me well over ten tries to conquer, and by the end of the fight, I wanted to beat it as much for the satisfaction of finally watching it die as I did for my need to progress.

It is worth noting that no matter how excruciatingly frustrating a challenge was (and many of them were), I kept going back. I wanted to try a new approach or watch for a pattern I could exploit. Occasionally it feels like a few rooms are set up in a way that is legitimately unfair, but more often than not the effort required to overcome an obstacle ended up rewarding me with an extraordinary endorphin rush. Maybe I’m just a sadist, but I couldn’t help but go back for more.

There are other Metroid mainstays like rockets and super weapons, but some of these just feel unnecessary. For instance, the missiles can break down a particular type of wall that no other item can, but the Memories Shaft (a constant beam of energy that emanates out from the wall) feels far less vital. Interestingly though, the use of these attacks and other abilities all whittle down the same energy bar, meaning that if you spam the more powerful attacks taking down enemies, you may not have enough energy left to break down a wall or defend yourself in a pinch without backtracking to the nearest camp.

Another stumbling point for Dandara is its story. While the eponymous character is based on a Brazillian woman who led a slave revolt in the 1600’s, that has virtually no bearing on the game itself. Apparently, the world used to be at peace, but now there is oppression. That’s pretty much the extent of the backstory you’re given, and there are no actual plot points to speak of. This is particularly disappointing given that not only is the world beautifully illustrated, but there are even some subtle details in the environments that give the whole place depth and character.

The world of Dandara is based on the balance between “Creation” and “Intention.” Rooms in the “Creation” area are designed like lofts and apartments, and you’ll meet characters like a writer, a musician, and a painter. Stages in the “Intention” areas are designed like high tech facilities, and rooms are named things like “Reasoning Lock.” It is subtle little touches like this that make the world feel bursting with potential that was, sadly, entirely overlooked during development.

One thing that Dandara cannot be faulted for is its visual design. The pixel art is stunning and looks almost hand painted. Animations are fluid, backgrounds are lush, and each area feels distinct and memorable. Dandara is worthy of praise if for no other reason than it feels like the visuals are presented in a “retro” style for a legitimate reason, and not just because of nostalgia.

As far as genre mashups go, Dandara is executed brilliantly. By combining the very best elements of the Souls games and classic Metroidvania mechanics, Long Hat House has created a game that evolves the very formula to which it pays homage. Difficulty spikes and vague story aside, Dandara is a gripping and innovative game that impresses at nearly every turn. And for only $15.00 you get about five times as much game as Her Majesty’s Spiffing. Of course, it may drive you to the brink of insanity, but I suppose that’s a risk each of you will have to evaluate for yourselves.

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