Review: Dandara

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Idea guys the world over hate to hear it, but there’s a lot more to making a great game than just having a great idea. Assuming you really do have a great idea, the details are what make it work for players, details like gamefeel, balance, polish, and so on. Dandara is an excellent case study on this topic, because on paper it sounds like it should work just fine. Leap effortlessly from surface to surface, traverse a vast, esoteric world, solve clever puzzles, all of that conjures images of a slick, stylish metroidvania. And in the end, it works well enough, I suppose. It’s those details that drag Dandara down, though, taking it from a slam dunk to a weak rebound as little irritations with the design mount.

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The world of Salt is a place of boundless freedom and expression, but all that is coming to an end. An evil empire is extending their crushing rule across the land, threatening to wipe out the very spark of creation. But before that can happen, a hero appears in the form of Dandara. Nimble, powerful, and driven, Dandara sets out on a quest to destroy the empire and restore peace to all of Salt. It’ll be a long and winding journey, though, as this world is a tangle of paths and chambers she’ll have to figure out how to navigate. Many of the residents will have gifts for her in the form of new abilities to open the way forward, while others will stand in her way and need to be faced down if she is to succeed.

There are two oddities about this that have stuck with me in that hours I’ve been playing Dandara. The first and most prominent is how Salt makes absolutely no damn sense as a traversable world. Dandara can handle it because she can leap from surface to surface, but only designated white surfaces. I don’t know if other inhabitants can do that, but one of the first locations you explore is supposed to be a town, which does not resemble any sort of settlement in any way. On a similar story note, Dandara is not only a mute protagonist, but seems to have no motivations or backstory whatsoever. In the intro she is literally created to destroy the empire, and unless she gets a burst of characterization at the very end of the game, is just a blank heroic slate for other characters to fawn over.

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I’m thinking about these things because the game feels like such a long journey when it really isn’t. The world isn’t particularly huge, but a couple factors lead to it feeling larger than it is. One is that the movement system isn’t quite the genius invention it’s posed as. Dandara doesn’t walk or hop at all, but must be directed to leap to other surfaces by aiming with the stick and pressing A. You can do this in rapid succession but most surfaces can’t be landed on, and the further you get into the game the more danger is present. That means just basic movement in this game takes far more focus and effort than just holding right or left like you get to in most platformers, and over the course of several hours this mental exertion adds up. In fact, it adds up really fast once you see how puzzley Dandara’s world is, and how much you’ll have to work to get through some of the larger or more dangerous rooms.

You’ll encounter plenty of enemies to avoid or dispatch, either with your normal charged shot or the additional weapons you unlock along the way. Here again, the fact that you have to charge your most basic attack and cannot move normally while attacking complicate even simple encounters far beyond what you see in most games. On top of this, they’ve borrowed the Dark Souls system of losing your accumulated Salt (treated as spendable XP here) on death, and the only way to get it back is to return to the spot where you died without dying again.  I’m not against Dark Souls systems at all but they have their place, and a game where you’re already making an extra effort just to move and shoot is very, very, very, very much not the place for it.

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I feel like I’ve been trying to talk myself out of recommending this game through this entire review, but that’s because the complaints I have stick out so prominently. I’ve been right on the line almost the entire time I’ve played Dandara, but I have to admit it’s a beautiful world and an interesting adventure. As confusing as Salt is, it’s a fascinating realm of notions given form and symbolic existences. The puzzles are indeed quite clever, and one of the powers you get has a rather surprising transformative effect on the world. The combat is probably the weakest part but it works well during low-intensity moments, and only comes apart when battles get too complex for the mechanics.

Ultimately I’d say Dandara is worth a look if you want a very different kind of metroidvania, but don’t go in without knowing what you’re getting. As clever as the movement sounds, it causes more problems than it really should and you need to be okay with those if you’re going to make it all the way through. Presentation, style, and exploration are all just fine here, if you can wrangle the controls to see it all. I’m not usually this divided on games but I’ll give it a nod, because hopefully most people are more forgiving of these details than I am.

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