Dandara serves itself up as a unique 2D platformer that doesn’t place its weight on the traditional gameplay that we typically see from these sorts of games. It’s never a bad thing to change things up or innovate, but unfortunately, Dandara’s unique selling point is also its one major fault. The game centers around the titular Dandara, and takes place in the world of Salt, a once beautiful utopia that has since fallen to oppression and isolation. It’s a story that doesn’t quite come together as well as intended, and although all of the plot points are in place to deliver something meaningful, it just fails to truly connect. That’s not to say that there isn’t anything to withdraw from the story of Dandara and the world of Salt, but the vague delivery doesn’t nearly prove to be as exciting as the concept of it.
With Salt now resting on the edge of desperation and solitude, all hope has extinguished for the citizens within. That is, until heroine Dandara awakens to bring freedom to this directionless world. It’s here in which the player immediately takes control of the protagonist, which is also going to be the make or break point for many that invest. You see, Dandara doesn’t walk or run. Instead she will (Link hookshot-esque) dart from platform to platform via the use of analog direction. It’s a system that took an awful lot of adjusting to before I felt confident enough to play, and perhaps even enjoy it. This is clearly a game that was built for touchscreen first, and initially feels way out place on home consoles using the controller.
Dandara’s reach is of course limited, meaning that players will need to act swiftly and put some thought into their movements as the adventure pushes on. Dandara will land wherever you aim, be it a wall, a platform, or even the ceiling. Despite the steep learning curve as far as the controls are concerned, the system remains accurate and intuitive throughout. I found that once I had bonded with the mechanics, traversal almost became a second nature. Though with that said, this personal milestone didn’t come without a thick wall of frustration and confusion beforehand. It’s fair to describe this game as more of a puzzle adventure than an actual platformer, seeing as each new environment tends to bring its own challenges along with.
This, again, is another problem that Dandara poses. There are sections in the game in which the player is given time to suss out the correct way forward. During these moments, the game shines at its brightest. On the flip side, there are sections in the game that require quick thinking and rapid movement, be it to get from point A to B as quickly as possible, or to avoid deadly lasers that will kill you upon touch. Here is where Dandara’s movement system becomes far more irritating than it’s worth. The controls for Dandara are clunky, but when you’re given enough room for error, it alleviates the problem. However, when you’re not given a second to compose yourself, the game seriously begins to grate. Several times did I take a dirt nap for a system that often felt like it was against me, rather than working with me.
When the game works as intended, the charming allure of the adventure is far beyond satisfying. It’s just a big shame that these cattle-prod sections are hardly few and far between. What I will say in defense of Dandara is that the level design and presentation are often well set. Each new screen is full of wonder and intrigue, not just in relation to the various tasks, but because it’s a genuine treat to observe. It’s also inventive too, with several pathways branching off in different directions. I thoroughly enjoyed the design, and as a big fan of pixel art, that’s quite a commendation coming from me. The world is full of detail, and the varying NPCs and enemies are equally as such. The same can be said about the boss designs, with many of them looking totally unique. This is all tied to a solid soundtrack that captures the soul of Dandara remarkable well.
Salt offers up campsites that double up as a save feature and a means to upgrade your arsenal via the use of salt, the game’s currency. The twist here is that if you die, you only have one chance to pick up your dropped salt, or else lose it forever. This adds a great deal of risk vs reward to the mix, because if one thing is certain in Dandara, it’s that you’re going to die, a lot. Dandara comes equipped with a projectile weapon, but until later abilities are unlocked, this weapon takes a few seconds to blast. This prevents the player from constantly button mashing against an enemy, and adopts a more of a forward thinking approach. Still, regardless as to what abilities you will earn, the key to survival constantly lies with the aforementioned hit and miss movement.
This isn’t the case for boss encounters, which are often better structured and arguably more rewarding. Dandara comes together really well when the platforming and the boss encounters merge to a wonderful result, truly making you feel accomplished, which is what’s always been a magnet for me when it comes to the genre. It helps that each boss encounter plays out differently to the other, despite the linear gameplay design. It can take several attempts just to work out how to overcome each towering and devastating opponent, which is always a sound payoff once met. I could apply that same notion to the game’s exploration. As mentioned above, a lot of the environments within offer branching pathways. These typically lead to new treasures that collectively go to Dandara’s overall progression. It’s a great implementation that strongly encourages level engagement. It’s just unfortunate that this also rests on the tedious movement.
Dandara is an endearing adventure that offers up excellent level design and unique gameplay. It’s a shame, however, that the movement system within often hinders the overall experience due to clunky controls. Dandara certainly stands out on the merit of its concept, but the execution isn’t quite as commendable. Having said that, if you can overlook these flaws, it’s a journey worth taking.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.