A Directionless World
Dandara is truly one of a kind: there was nothing quite like it before hitting Nintendo Switch and I don’t suspect there will be anything like it again. Players take control of the game’s titular character, Dandara, as she seeks to free the Salt and its children from oppression; the central themes in Dandara deal with shaping a world that prioritizes art, knowledge, and discovery over militarism and capital. Dandara blew me away from start to finish.
One of the most beautiful aspects of Dandara, aside from its pixel graphics, is how its story and themes are subtly woven into its gameplay mechanics. The game’s tagline is “finding direction in a directionless world,” and that has a dual meaning. There’s the metaphorical: guiding the spirits that inhabit the world of the Salt toward a better tomorrow, and then there’s the literal: exploring a vast, “Metroidvania” style world with no waypoints and with environments that defy gravity.
Taking a Leap
Like any good “Metroidvania” style game, Dandara carefully guides players through its world without outright telling them where to go next. The world is littered with branching pathways that lead to obstacles that Dandara may not be able to overcome with her current abilities; those moments are filed away in the player’s memory for later, because again, like any good “Metroidvania” game, Dandara has a healthy amount of backtracking. Thankfully, those paths where Dandara will eventually come across a roadblock aren’t very long, so there’s not a whole lot of turning around and trying again when faced with a hallway that has three different directions to choose from.
Where Dandara stands out is how it handles movement within each area. The world of the Salt doesn’t adhere to the laws of gravity: enemies may walk around on any surface, it doesn’t matter if it’s upside down or sideways. Dandara, on the other hand, is unable to walk. Instead, she has to leap from point to point, marked by white patches of Salt that are on a variety of surfaces. This does a couple of really neat things: first, it gives combat a fast-paced, bullet-hell feel to it as Dandara leaps from surface to surface, firing and dodging projectiles. Secondly, it introduces movement puzzles that aren’t in any other game; point A to point B may simply be a matter of waking across a hallway in Super Metroid, but in Dandara, players have to leap from surface to surface while keeping angles in mind, because Dandara can only leap to what she can reach in a straight line. Dandara eases the player into its leaping mechanic and adds new concepts slowly, building off of previous concepts that players saw in earlier areas.
This relationship between the macro and the micro is what makes Dandara so brilliant. As a “Metroidvania” players are constantly referencing their position in the game’s world to find out where to go next, and they’ll have to consider the individual layout of each little area they pass through to find out how to leap across it and continue their adventure. The developers could have easily made Dandara a room-by-room puzzle game, and that would have been really disappointing. Thankfully, they went all-out to create something truly special.
The environments that Dandara explores are varied and make sense within the context of the story. One notable example is a town where several artists have lost their muse, and the inspiration Dandara gives them allows her to move floor panels and advance through the area. Another is a museum where The Writer, a being that seems to forge objects and creatures into existence, is suffering through a bout of hopelessness that has a physical manifestation a few rooms later. There’s a lot of environmental storytelling going on in Dandara, and it’s satisfying to piece the clues together.
Dandara grows stronger throughout her journey by collecting Pleas of the Salt that she discovers in treasure chests or that enemies drop after being defeated. These Pleas can be used at campsites, which act as save and restore points, to increase her total health, energy for special attacks, potency of health restores, and potency of energy restores. The cost of each upgrade increases over the last, and thankfully, there wasn’t any grinding required — until the challenging final boss. A lot of this is very Dark Souls, and Dandara will even drop her Pleas if she falls in battle. Players will have to trek back to that spot to recollect the Pleas, otherwise they’ll be lost if Dandara falls in battle again.
Like the environments, each of Dandara’s abilities and upgrades make perfect sense within the context of the broader narrative. A lot of “Metroidvania” games have upgrades that don’t make sense within that world but are forgiven because they were in Super Metroid or Symphony of the Night. That isn’t the case with Dandara — every ability or special attack that Dandara acquires is crucial to the game’s subtle narrative and doesn’t feel out of place. There aren’t any energy tanks just lying around since Dandara increases her total health through Pleas of the Salt, for instance. Instead, there may be Essence of Salt or Infusion of Salt hiding at points around the world, and these act as vials that replenish Dandara’s health and energy for specials, respectively. The Essence and Infusion of Salt that Dandara collects refill at each campsite — I finished the game with six Essence of Salt and five Infusion of Salt.
There are only a couple boss battles in Dandara, but each one is more epic and challenging than the last. Like basic combat encounters, boss battles require players to leap from surface to surface avoiding incoming projectiles while they fire off attacks of their own. Dandara will frequently leaping from surface to surface upside down because the boss arenas are so large. Overall, each boss battle is a culmination of the new concepts that Dandara introduced to the player during the adventure up to that fight. The music in Dandara is fantastic, by the way — and especially so for boss battles. I had that theme stuck in my head for days.
I finished Dandara in a little over nine hours with fully maxed-out stats, 98% exploration, and all of the abilities and upgrades, minus a couple Essence and Infusion of Salt. That’s incredible value for an already outstanding game — especially since it’s only $15 on the Nintendo Switch eShop.
System reviewed on: Nintendo Switch.
Disclaimer: A review code for Dandara was provided by Raw Fury for this Dandara review.