Platform: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Developers have managed to do interesting things with the Metroidvania genre in recent years. Axiom Verge is one of the best Metroid games around despite technically not being a Metroid game. Song of the Deep offers up an inviting my-first-Metroidvania experience that plays out like a storybook. Headlander lets you attach your head to color-coded robots and dogs to gain access through the appropriate doors in a futuristic '70s-styled sci-fi world.
Then there's Dandara from Brazilian developer Long Hat House, which completely removes the genre-centric controls you know, in the process changing the way you play the game.
If You Can't Run, Jump
Movement in Dandara is unique in that you never actually get to walk or run around the levels. Instead, you jump. Don't take this to mean you can jump anywhere you want.Your movement is limited, only allowing diagonal navigation across marked spots. This means that in order to jump from one spot to the next, you must first point the onscreen cursor in the proper direction at the designated location before hitting the jump button. The cursor will indicate if you can make the jump, thus limiting any guessed button presses.
If this control design sounds challenging, that's because it is. There's a learning curve to Dandara, and jumping seamlessly through the many interconnected rooms in the game takes plenty of practice. The titular character of Dandara can defy gravity, so making your way through, say, a lengthy corridor, will require you to jump from the ground to the ceiling and back, repeatedly until you've made your way across. It's not all corridors, though. A lot of the time, you'll be jumping through curving passageways and making your way around cleverly designed barriers.
Taking on the Impossible
The first few sections in Dandara do a solid job of teaching you how to play. It isn't long before you begin encountering enemies and obstacles. You're armed with a decent shotgun-like energy blast to start, and for quite a few hours, this will be your primary means of defense. If you come across groups of baddies, you'll have to take them down. Sometimes these dudes just charge at you with their spears. Other times, they keep their distance and fire projectiles at you. In later parts of the game, you'll deal with both simultaneously.
It's when Dandara throws multiple deadly challenges in your way that things get difficult. At times, the game can get frustrating. This is because you'll have to dodge enemies and projectiles left and right, all while utilizing the game's limited movement. There's an artfulness to being able to do so, and when you succeed, you'll feel accomplished and relieved. But when you've failed in the same area multiple times, you might find yourself wishing for a traditional run-and-jump control scheme. But then, that wouldn't really separate Dandara from the rest of the Metroidvania genre, would it?
A Maze of Puzzles
Though the action sequences can range from entertaining to enraging, there are moments in between with no combat that are absolutely invigorating. Because markings indicate where you can jump, and due to sometimes being upside-down, you won't necessarily be able to reach a certain door just because it's a few inches away. Instead, you might need to exit the room, go through a bunch of other rooms, and make your way back to the previous room through another door, this time no longer upside-down, which means you'll be able to reach that previously inaccessible door.
Situations like these add a very specific puzzle-like element to Dandara that isn't seen in other games of its ilk. And those are some of the best moments in the game. Intimidating, for sure, but still some of the most memorable moments.
You can bring up your map at any time. Seeing the labyrinthine world expanding as you make your way from one room to the next and one world to another is satisfying. Well, it's satisfying when you know where you're going. Getting lost in Dandara is always a possibility, especially if you're a newcomer to the genre. Even if you're a Metroidvania aficionado, though, you'll certainly go to the wrong room on more than one occasion, and having to retrace your steps and figure out what went wrong can be annoying at times.
Rooted in Brazilian Culture
Dandara isn't heavy with plot twists and story beats. In true Metroid-influenced fashion, this game keeps the story elements brief and somewhat vague. Basically, bad stuff is happening, and you have to save the deteriorating world around you. There's nothing too original here, but given that some of the best Metroidvania titles never got too heavy-handed with their stories, it almost seems fitting for the genre. Interestingly, the character of Dandara is based on a Brazilian warrior who fought slavery in the country during the 1600s.
Speaking of which, there are plenty of nods to Brazilian culture in Dandara. The characters, art, and architecture all have a distinct look that's quite rare in video games. The same goes for the music. Though some of the themes loop a bit too often, the overall atmosphere is definitely accentuated by the ancient sound of the music.
Tried and True
There are several elements in Dandara that make it a unique take on the familiar Metroidvania formula. Despite its ingenuity, this is still a familiar entry in the genre for all the right reasons. There's still that exhilarating feeling of accomplishment when you find a new upgrade that you just know will open up those locked doors you witnessed a dozen rooms back. There are countless “a-ha!” moments sprinkled throughout. There's some backtracking to be done and a whole lot of exploration. Dandara is different where it counts, but it's familiar in the best possible ways.
I'm almost certain Dandara would've worked with a traditional run-and-jump movement design. It would've been a good game, probably something a lot closer to Metroid proper like Axiom Verge. But it's that limitation of control — the fact that you can only jump diagonally — that truly helps Dandara stand out in an ever-growing genre. It's what makes this not just a great game, but a remarkable game. Regardless of familiarity, there's nothing quite like Dandara.