Since their creation, 2D platformers have all followed a similar formula. Players typically execute a series of diagonal jumps from one platform to the next, often in varying widths or moving in certain patterns in order to traverse the landscape and reach an end goal. Dandara, developed by Long Hat House and published by Raw Fury, dares to turn that formula upside down, however. The game begins with the world of Salt, a directionless universe where free spirited civilians have become oppressed. With Salt on the edge of collapse, the heroine Dandara is born within the Crib of Creation and it is here that the story begins.
From the Crib of Creation, players will enter an area that serves mostly as a tutorial space for learning the unconventional controls for Dandara. Rather than using thumbsticks to walk the character across surfaces, Dandara warps from one point to the next. She can only attach to surfaces that are salted, and thus appear white in the world. The thumb stick is used to select a direction for Dandara to warp, and a green arrow will appear in the area where Dandara will land provided it is a surface she can actually move to. Pressing A carries out the motion, and there is no limit or waiting for it to recharge. Dandara’s movement is only limited in how far she can warp at once, and it can be done as quickly or as slowly as players are comfortable with. In addition to her warp ability, Dandara is also equipped with a 3 bolt charge shot initially, though there are upgrades for this weapon hidden throughout the world of Salt.
The majority of the gameplay experience with Dandara is exploratory, with players seeking out chests hidden throughout the world, as well as to seek out and interact with what remains of the free spirits of Salt. Seeking out the painter, Tarsila, in the Valley of the Artist allows Dandara to interact with paintings in the world that will move platforms, changing the landscape just enough for Dandara to reach new rooms that had previously been inaccessible. These rooms occasionally contain chests that provide valuable upgrades for Dandara, like the life giving Essence which can refill a single heart, or an extra arrow for her charge shot. Dandara serves as a metroidvania, so often times acquiring these upgrades or new abilities means backtracking to previously visited areas in order to access new rooms.
The exploration of the world of Salt is not without danger. There are several varieties of enemies that Dandara will encounter in her journey, but the majority of them can be eliminated with a simple hit from her charge shot. The greatest frustration with the combat is that the shot does have to charge up between hits, slowing progress down quite a bit when there are multiple enemies. Speedrunners will often just use Dandara’s warp to zip right on by the enemies and pay them no mind, but taking them out does offer up the potential for Dandara to collect Pleas of Salt which can be used to upgrade health at the campfires that serve as checkpoints. If Dandara falls to an enemy, the player can continue their run from the campfire they most recently visited, but they will quickly discover that the Pleas of Salt they had collected up to the point of their death is now gone. Should they attempt to make it back to their previous death location, however, they will find that a ghost of Dandara that can be collected to regain their Pleas of Salt. There can only be one ghost in the world at any time, so if the player dies a second time before they recollect their Pleas of Salt, then the previous ghost (and the Pleas of Salt along with it) are lost.
With practice (and health upgrades), the amount of deaths the player will rack up in the world become less frequent. The boss battles, however, are a dramatic increase in difficulty over the game’s basic combat experience. These frustrating battles quickly sap the joy out of any progress you’ve made by throwing your back to the last campfire, leaving the player to make the absurdly long trek back to the battle in order to try again. These long travel times are multiplied by the fact that Dandara is incredibly difficult to actually navigate. The game does offer up a map in a treasure chest fairly early on (if you’re lucky enough to find it, that is.) but because the rooms are not static – that is, they rotate direction based on which room the player enters through – the map feels just shy of useless. The map also does not rotate, unlike the rooms, and it isn’t until you find yourself going through a door and pressing the view button to pull up the map do you realize you’ve wasted several minutes going the wrong way.
Dandara is a unique, genre-bending take on the 2D platformer that also offers up a fascinating backstory with a strong, brave woman of color as it’s protagonist and all of those things are worthy of commendation. The pixel art style is beautifully rendered, and each section of the world does feel very different from the others. All of that said, the difficulty spikes for the boss battles may lock out more casual players from being able to enjoy the game to its fullest.