While it's usually pretty easy to understand what a game will be about based on standard game genre classifications, sometimes a title comes around that completely bucks the trend. Such is the case with Dandara, the new game from developer Long Hat House that could and perhaps likely should be described as a retro-inspired Metroidvania, yet manages not to feel like one. While the familiar notions of room-to-room exploration and the gradual acquisition of abilities are all present and in good form, Dandara sidesteps the genre's typical gameplay by removing the basic ability for players to run or even walk. As a result, the game feels less like a throwback adventure and more like an experimental new way to approach the genre — and that means it comes with a substantial learning curve.
By far the most outstanding component of Dandara is the game's limited moveset. Dandara herself can't run or walk, only jump — and even then, she can only jump in a straight line and can only land in specific areas of the environment. Aiming jumps can be accomplished either by using the mouse, by making swipes on a touch screen, or by using a controller's right analog stick, with the latter choice providing handy guides indicating current aim direction as well as the currently-targeted landing area.
Jumping is quick, and with a little bit of practice, players can whip around different environments with surprising speed. Much of this speed comes down to the game's jump aim assist, which is likely there to help ease players away from the need for constant precision. Unfortunately, the auto-aiming mechanic is also tied to the game's requirement for Dandara to land within specially-marked areas, which means the game is often sending the hero toward landing zones that aren't within the player's own sights.
Coupled with environments that are sometimes designed to be navigated in just one direction, I often found myself jumping to places I wasn't aiming for and landing in places I didn't want to be. As a way to move around, this method certainly works, but it sometimes makes basic exploration feel more frustrating than it should be, particularly toward the beginning of the game. This feeling is exacerbated by the game's unusual lack of traditional gravity, where players often land on what was once a ceiling or wall only to have the camera perspective flip to accommodate the new position.
Nailing The Old-School Form
Aside from unusual methods of locomotion, Dandara does offer a fair amount of Metroidvania-styled content. Dandara herself can make use of a projectile attack that functions almost like a short-range shotgun blast, the likes of which can be aimed in the same manner as jumping. Destroying enemy creatures and objects around the environment will also drop Salt, the commodity that players will use to expand Dandara's own powers. Hidden areas and treasure chests scattered throughout the map offer up different items and abilities, the likes of which players will need in order to progress to the later stages of game, and numerous environment-based traps mean the player often has to move both quickly and carefully.
As far as presentation is concerned, Dandara is a sort of mixed bag. The graphics certainly call back to the 16-bit era of gaming, with both creatures and environments rendered in a fantastic pixel art style that makes me feel all warm and cozy inside. The sound and music, while certainly appropriate to the old-school aesthetic, were a little less pleasing — not grating, but not really memorable either. And while the brief instances of dialog or of plot exposition felt well-written, there's so little of it to be found in general that it's hard to find the game's story particularly compelling.
Unlike many other games in the genre, Dandara is not a lengthy experience. Most of what's there can be seen in ten or 15 hours, and that's with consideration to a fair amount of backtracking, including return trips to Dandara's ethereal form to reclaim stores of Salt that are left behind after dying. Still, players who can quickly come to terms with the game's control scheme should be able to blaze through the whole adventure in less than five hours — in fact, two of the game's Steam achievements are tied to game completion speed: one for beating the game in less than two hours, and another for beating it under one hour and 17 minutes.
Saltier Than Expected
The time I've spent with Long Hat House's latest title has forced me to reevaluate my expectations of the Metroidvania subgenre. On one hand, Dandara is a perfectly serviceable romp through a series of well-designed and attractive environments; on the other, it's a deliberate yet confusing sidestep of well-established gameplay conventions. It may be that Dandara's atypical traversal mechanic will click with some players, particularly those who pick up the game for the Nintendo Switch or mobile devices, but others may find that the game's middling charms aren't enough to make up for its potentially-frustrating controls.
This review is based on a download code provided by the publisher. Dandara is available in retail and digital stores on February 6 for $14.99.