Developed by Long Hat House, a two-man studio running shop in Brazil, Dandara seems to ask the question, “What if Metroid was fantasy instead of science fiction?” Scoring finalist in three different competitions and Best of The Mix at E3 2017, this little indie game is turning heads with their answer. Players control the titular character, a mysterious woman with abilities that put her in a position to reclaim the world of Salt from Eldarian oppressors.
One of the first things players will notice is that gravity doesn’t exist in Salt. There is no force pulling you to the floor. Instead, the player moves around by launching from white platform to white platform, gripping each as they land. This mechanic sounds a little bizarre, but is rather intuitive once you get started.
The implications of the absence of gravity extend beyond the basic movement mechanic. The art style picks up on this by showing us a world that seems lived-in: houses can have furniture on any surface, residents have no means of “walking” around, yet the layout of the environment makes sense. There are plenty of details provided in the background art that make each environment stand out and simultaneously convince you that this isn’t our world, but this world may exist somewhere else. Great care and consideration were put into using the art to reinforce and expand on the mythology of the game.
In terms of story, it seems that Long Hat Games believes in the style “Show, don’t tell” in that they tend to keep dialog to a minimum. There are very few NPCs in Dandara, but nearly all of them will unlock a new movement ability and expand on the story. In most cases, they will open up new passageways for you to explore and explain how they have felt trapped by the Eldarian army. Personally, I found that the environments told more of the story than the NPCs.
Speaking of the environments, it should be said that there aren’t really discrete levels to speak of, but rather different locales that you can access once the corresponding movement ability has been unlocked. Fans of the Metroidvania style of game will feel right at home here. Each area comes with its own art style and soundtrack–an ambient, atmospheric audio tapestry that enhances but never distracts from the action. Enemies may be reused in each area, but for the most part what sets them apart in terms of gameplay is either a new movement mechanic or an increase in the frequency and difficulty of the enemies present. In fact, without fail, if you find yourself in a particularly difficult room, this tells you two things: there is a camp nearby and a boss to fight soon.
The bosses were especially challenging, in my opinion. While they do have a clear pattern to them, you will likely die multiple times before their patterns become apparent, and even then you are still likely to die a few more times if your reflexes should fail you. I wish I had more time to take a moment to appreciate them visually, as they were always much larger than any other enemy in the world, but the pace of the battles often required reflexes to take over and typically felt frantic.
The camps serve two main purposes (and a third that you will discover later on), which are to act as checkpoints to save your progress and to purchase upgrades for Dandara. The upgrades available at camp are very straightforward: you can increase your health capacity, energy capacity, or the effectiveness of restorative items in those same categories. The currency for these upgrades is never named explicitly, but is very clearly salt, dropped by fallen enemies throughout the world. Should you die before spending your salt on upgrades, you lose it all, with a chance to recover some of it if you are able to safely make it back to your fallen body. Upgrades to your attacks are also possible, but are found out in the world, and either improve your basic attack or give you new secondary attacks which are limited to how much available energy you have, represented by the length of your scarf.
Visually, Dandara fits very well into its pixel art style. It also ran nearly flawlessly on Nintendo Switch, which I played it on for the purpose of this review. The only glitch encountered occurred late in the game, when a save point failed to load. Fortunately, restarting the software put me right back to my latest save point with no loss of data.
Dandara gets a lot right, which is especially impressive coming from such a small studio. The original soundtrack, unique gameplay, the mythology and art style all excel. Dandara is available now for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Android, Windows, iOS, Linux, and Macintosh operating systems.