Raw Fury published a pixel-art indie game? Oh, so it’s Tuesday.
To be fair to Raw Fury, they do know what they’re doing, as they’ve become an micro-budget Devolver Digital recently. They aren’t on the same level as Digerati, but they’re nowhere near the hell pit that Maximum Games resides in, that’s for sure. The point is that their track record of publishing isn’t completely stellar, and Dandara is on one of those extreme ends of the spectrum.
Today’s Metroidvania comes to us from Long Hat House, a Brazilian studio consisting of two friends, Lucas and João. They’re the brains of the operation, and have mostly been taking part in Game Jams of all sorts, with their only published games being Dandara and the oddity of Magenta Arcade. Dandara shows a massive evolution of what they could be capable of, so let’s jump in.
You play as Dandara, a demi-goddess who awakens in the world of Salt to find it corrupt and broken down. What was once a thriving world filled with vestibules of creation and wonder has now turned into a isolated and oppressed world on the brink of oblivion. With the help of people who are not so eager to lay down and die, Dandara and her friends on are their way to reclaim the land.
You can tell Dandara wants to be something special as soon as you boot up the game. The slick pixel-art animation, the soothing score, the vistas that translate wonderfully; Long Hat are eager to blow your mind. However, their visions are quite cloudy, near the point of a delusion of grandeur, as evident from the gameplay.
Because Dandara is one of those lazy demi-goddesses who’s spent the last thirty millennia in a bubble, her legs aren’t quite up to the standard of normal cardio. This is remedied by jumping from spot-to-spot and seemingly using your legs as padding once you slam into the hard concrete. What’s supposed to happen is that you dart from wall-to-wall or floor-to-floor like a ninja after a pixie stick, but the actual result isn’t that elegant.
To start off, you can’t jump off and on to any surface possible, otherwise the game might actually be considered fair. No, you’re only allowed to jump off and land on any surface with a err, questionable white liquid plastered over it, meaning that you have to be both strategic and quick with your jumping, which ends up with your demise, usually.
It’s kind of like HoPiKo, a game that’s both similar and one I’m quite fond of, where the platforms and rooms are designed in a way that still employs a static nature. However, in HoPiKo, there weren’t a lot of hazards that needed you to dart back and forth between, and that’s because the platforms dissipated from underneath you. It was all speed, all the time, and Dandara wants you to take a more methodical approach.
In order to achieve this, they cripple Dandara from the get-go by giving her this absolutely pathetic short-range spread shot. With this piece of shit in your arsenal, you really have to cheese some of the opposition when they start becoming more of a threat. If there’s something in this game that can definitely be categorized as “The Absolute Worst”, it’s the enemies.
The beginning isn’t so bad, they’re just furry outfits with a spear, and sometimes that spear can shoot really slow bullets out of it. Venture a little deeper into the world though, and the problem doesn’t come from the new enemies, it’s the fact that Long Hat placed them absolutely EVERYWHERE. Two hours into the game, and you seriously will not be able to have a break, with “Remembrance Desert” being the shit-stained cherry.
Alright, so Dandara is being assaulted at all angles. There’s these stupid plants everywhere, shooting room-spanning projectiles at you through holes in the wall. Holes that you yourself can’t shoot through, due to the spread-shot and range, and the only way they can be neutralized is if you go searching around the map for the one door where you can flank them. Oh, the best part? They’ll respawn after you rest.
As much as it pains me to say this, we’ve reached what I believe to be Long Hat’s biggest inspiration: Dark Souls. It’s the whole “Figuring out the optimal path thing, and remembering what to do over long distances” shit, as places of solitude where you can level up and heal are quite rare, as opposed to a better Metroidvania like Shadow Complex. This route for difficulty and gameplay evolution doesn’t work so much in a game like this, because no other Metroidvania is reduced to this type of gimmicky movement.
Imagine if you couldn’t dodge roll in Dark Souls. Imagine if you couldn’t backdash in Symphony of The Night. Imagine if you couldn’t use the grappling hook in Bionic Commando. That’s the kind of stupidity we’re thinking about here, where Long Hat believe that Dandara can exist solely on just jumping everywhere alone, whereas if you actually gave Dandara the ability to walk, we’d have a better game.
One of the bosses in Remembrance Desert is also a good example for this. The arena is an outline of a triangle, and there’s a giant bug monster blocking you from the tip of the triangle, and there’s two pincers blocking his weak point from the top and bottom. What this means is that you have to go in front of the monster and try and just wail on him, but almost immediately his pincers will just chew up Dandara and stunlock you to death. His eyes also shoot orbs as well.
You end up having to do this insane tap-dance routine where you’re going to get damaged no matter what. If the pincers won’t get you, then the orbs will, so you’ve got to grind as much XP out of the OTHER monsters nearby so you can get enough health in order to tank as much hits as possible. What is he guarding? One of the worst design choices in this entire game.
There are four massive permanent upgrades you can get over time that help you traverse the environment a tad easier. Typical Metroidvania stuff, where items and goodies are hiding behind obstacles that can only be traversed when you get the right upgrade. One of these items is the “Rock of Remembrance”, which allows some platforms to move when you’re in their proximity. They also activate forty-thousand more hazards that require more timing, and more precision.
Which brings us to another bullshit addition that actually ruins your flow more often than it helps, and that’s the auto-aim, and it’s an auto-aim that you can’t turn off. To be completely truthful, I’m not even sure if the aiming would be fixed without it, as where Dandara is pointing doesn’t seem correct when compared to my right stick. Would it work better on a different console, or maybe a touch screen? No, probably not, due to how claustrophobic the camera is in general.
A lot of the time where you’re facing these un-killable hazards, the camera will be zoomed in extremely close to Dandara, meaning that the timing of a lot of your attacks and movements are going to be sabotaged. Yeah, you’ll figure out the timing of the orbs, but jump over to the next obstacle and whoops! Turns out that there’s a monster that burrows underneath the ground and jumps out at you over here, and you’ve just lost all your health, you STUPID bastard!
There’s just so many faulty design choices implemented into Dandara, that there’s absolutely no way somebody sane would look at it and go “Mhmm, that’s fair”. Remember, there’s a difference between being fairly difficult and stupidly difficult. Fairly difficult is knowing what the player can achieve with the obstacles in front of them with the handicap they’re given, and stupidly difficult is looking to other games for inspiration, and applying the same rules with your gimmick.
The level design and progression correlates with the continuing insanity, as a lot of the challenge will come from the fact that there’s no actual branching pathways. A lot of the time, you’re restricted to one path, and once you get the upgrade of Sniffing Bumfluff, the path continues, as opposed to Sniffing Bumfluff opening up three new areas for you to explore. The game is more linear than your average Metroidvania, and the only reason that it looks otherwise is because every single bloody area is a literal maze with literal dead ends offering no rewards. The only reward lies in the exit.
If there’s one thing that the game pulls off flawlessly, it’s the aesthetic, which is untouchable in terms of quality. The life, the sounds, the presentation, the feel, it’s all unbelievably brilliant. Every environment fizzles with energy and love, the soundtrack is gorgeous, the variety of the rooms colours and looks is superb, and every time you reach a new area, it feels like a warm hug.
Some of it might come off as pretentious however. Like, you’ll come across an empty room with absolutely nothing to offer visually, and the room will be called something like “Archives of The Unknown & Forgotten”. Damn, Long Hat, it’s only a chair and some sand, don’t get snobby on me now.
The bosses are also okay to fight— actually, no, there was only one that was fun. Augustus was easily worth all of the bullshit beforehand to fight, and his arena was clearly telegraphed and displayed, and the speed of his attacks actually correlated well with your movement. Bella was a snoozefest, and Eldar was an unbelievable hassle.
In the end, Dandara is certainly different, but it doesn’t get any points for it being different if it doesn’t function properly. The level design is asinine and artificially padded, the difficulty is ball-breaking from the get-go, and the saving grace comes from the brilliant aesthetic. Long Hat are certainly creative devs, and it’s clear they’ve got the vision to make a game, but not the brawn.
This review of Dandara is based on the Xbox One version of the game.
A Metroidvania that seeks to defy, and only achieves it in the aesthetic. Mechanically, it's dull and broken.
Owner of the largest collection of indie games in the Western Hemisphere, and TimeSplitters’ biggest fanboy.