There was a time when we’d get a new Castlevania game every year or so that featured awesome level design, exotic enemies, and fun special powers. We didn’t know how good we had it back then because they eventually dried up and we went years without games filling the genre that became known as Metroidvania. Times have drastically changed with the rise of the indie game developers and now we often get several high quality releases in this niche every single year! Dandara is a daring new take on the classic formula, but it interweaves mechanics and gameplay concepts that not everyone will adore.
From the moment the game begins you’ll notice traversing the levels is quite different from most games of this nature. That’s because you can’t walk or sprint – only jump! The game allows your character to leap great distances from specific pieces of landscape that are usually colored white. You move a white line that shows your trajectory and then hit the jump button to fly over to that spot. This means you’ll be attaching to the ceiling, walls, and floors to get around the world. In some very basic ways this reminds me slightly of Bionic Commando on the NES – a unique way to move about the stages, which in itself can create challenges while at the same time offering a breath of fresh air to the controls. For those interested, you can use the touch screen to move about in portable mode as well.
Besides jumping around you also have a power that allows you to shoot shotgun-like bullets at enemies. Some foes will drop clumps of salt that you can then pick up and add to your inventory. As you move about the areas you’ll eventually begin to find campsites that let you save your progress. This is also where you’ll spend the salt you’ve earned to upgrade your character’s health and other things. The sense of progression is important in these types of games, and Dandara does this well. However, not everyone will like that if you die out in the world (and you will) you lose all of the salt you’ve been collecting. At first I was really ticked off because I had been trying to get enough for an upgrade and thought all was lost. Instead the game treats most deaths like Shovel Knight – where if you can make it back to your dead body without dying you can reclaim your lost salt. The problem is this is sometimes easier said than done, especially if you died on a boss. Some will no doubt appreciate the heightened level of pressure put on them to avoid death, but I found this system more frustrating than fun.
Exploring this vast world is extremely fun; especially once you get the unique jumping system down. You’ll constantly be jetting from one spot to the next, precariously timing your jumps on rotating structures and avoiding traps and enemies. There is plenty of button pressing to make a nearby door open and treasure chests scattered about to discover. The different zones have distinct looks to them and honestly the entire world just has a dreamlike aesthetic to it that’s not seen very often in games. One moment you’ll be spelunking through a cave system and the next room reveals what appears to be an underground city, complete with street signs and traffic lights. A few screens later you visit a giant creature squeezed into a tiny house. It’s all over the place, but it really works well and the sense of discovery really made me curious to see what I’d find in the next set of corridors and rooms.
It helps that the game looks pretty nice as well. At first I was put off by some of the dull colors and bland backgrounds, but as I progressed through the world I found a variety of cool looking NPCs and enemies as well as some great environments. The game is fluid and easy on the eyes, but it won’t win any awards on a technical level. The background art is where the game really shows off its strengths in the visual department and there were several times where I just stopped to take in the view. Also the animations are smooth, especially when you venture through a door and she just floats up, flips around and flies through it. Small details like grass blowing in the wind or flowers spinning around really add to the atmosphere as well
The soundtrack adds some mystery to the game with ambient tones and changes in tempo when fighting bosses. The game doesn’t feature voice acting, but the sound of text appearing on the screen is strangely satisfying. The music isn’t melodic so it probably won’t get stuck in your head, but I like what they’ve done to set the mood.
When it all clicks, Dandara is a wonderful world to discover with unique art design, maniacal labyrinths to explore, and unique gameplay mechanics to master. The problem is that the game is unable to fire on all cylinders at all times, with frequent difficulty spikes and frankly a game that feels artificially challenging in ways that can feel unfair to the player. In this regard it’s hard not to compare this game to Celeste, since both launched in the last few weeks. That’s another very challenging game, but the difference is that when a mistake is made it doesn’t feel punishing and more times than not it’s obviously my fault. Here it’s often due to finicky controls or brutal enemy placement that brings death knocking and much of my progress (collecting salt to upgrade my character) can be lost forever – making the game more devious than it really needs to be. That being said, if you enjoy difficult games that require mastering the controls and where death means serious business, this one’s for you.
Dandara was reviewed using a final retail Nintendo Switch download code provided by the publisher.