Review: Dandara (PS4)

Dandara is a metroidvania game with a difference – you can’t run, or even walk. The titular Dandara only has one method of locomotion: leaping from floor to ceiling.

It’s a pretty novel take, and leads to dizzying levels where there’s no real difference between up and down. And once you get used to the unusual control system, you can zip through levels with dizzying speed. It’s very satisfying indeed.

Dandara herself is a reference to a real-life leader of a slave revolt in Brazil back in the seventeenth century. Indeed, as this article notes, the game was pointedly released on 6th February, the same date that Dandara chose to kill herself rather than surrender to her oppressors.

The start of the game sees Dandara being summoned to protect Creation from forces that seek to control it and impose order on it. I’ll admit that most of the story went a bit over my head, but I’ve since read up on some of the symbolism in the game, and it’s really fascinating – this article on the relationship of the game to capoeira is particularly interesting. Long Hat House is a Brazilian studio, and it’s refreshing to see a game so heavily based on Brazilian iconography and heroes. It also made me realise how so many games are narrowly focused on US or Japanese culture, reflecting their origins in the big studios of those countries. Even games like those in the Grand Theft Auto series, which are primarily made in Scotland, are chiefly about America.

As in any metroidvania, the aim is to hunt down new abilities that open up new areas of the game world, and that also allow you to backtrack and grab items that were previously inaccessible. The levels are intricately designed, often looping back on themselves, and there are usually several choices of routes to take. But exploring can be perilous.

The developers have implemented a campsite system that’s inspired by the bonfires in Dark Souls – get to a campsite and you can light a fire that acts as a restart point, and your hearts and energy will be completely recharged. You can also use the ‘Pleas of Salt’ you collect to power up Dandara at campsites, buying extra hearts or energy – both of which are essential to have a hope of surviving. Unlike, say, the Metroid games, enemies don’t drop energy when they die – the only way to top up your hearts when you’re exploring is by using an ‘Essence of Salt’. But you have to collect these essences – I had a total of seven by the time I finished the game – and they only get recharged when you reach a campsite. So once you’ve used all your essences and you’re down to your last few hearts, the only way to top up your hearts is to visit a campsite. But the catch is that after you visit a campsite, all of the enemies you’ve killed respawn. It’s a neat mechanic that balances risk and reward – keep going without stopping at a campsite and you’ll have an easier time with fewer enemies about – but if you push on too far and die, then you’ll be returned to the last campsite you visited minus all the precious Salt you collected.

The only way to get back your Salt is to visit the place you died, where your floating body holds your valuable Salt collection – but if you die before reaching your body, then all that Salt is lost forever. It makes for some tense gameplay, especially as the places you die are usually some of the most challenging areas, so it’s not a simple prospect to recover your body and its precious Salt. Quite a few times I ended up howling in frustration as I died in a hail of energy bullets just short of Dandara’s floating corpse. It means you’re constantly trying to weigh up whether to press on or backtrack to the nearest campsite and cash in all your Salt for extra energy.

Let’s get this straight – this is a challenging game, and no mistake. There were a couple of bosses that had me tearing my hair out, and eventually I resorted to watching YouTube videos to figure out how on earth to beat them. I managed to finish the game, but it was tough – and I noted that only 15% of players have actually managed to beat it so far, according to the PlayStation Trophies. The extra weapons you collect are also a bit of a mixed bag, and I found only one or two to be really useful in a fight.

Having said that, I found Dandara to be thoroughly enjoyable, and it certainly comes highly recommended if you’re a metroidvania fan – just be warned that you’ll need some quick reflexes to go with your lust for exploring.

Dandara is available for Linux, PC, Mac, Android, iOS, PS4, Xbox One and Switch. We reviewed the PS4 version.

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