It is primetime for beautiful, challenging pixelart platformers right now. Celeste is fantastic and devious, an ultra-challenging game that allows some flexibility in how players approach it. Iconoclasts is heavier on puzzles than platforming and beautifully-crafted, with big, unique, clockwork worlds to piece together. Dandara—out today from Brazilian developer Long Hat House—might be the best of the recent bunch, or, at least, the most unique and fearless.
Dandara is an especially trippy Metroid-style game starring Dandara, a funky space lady (based loosely on a real-life figure) who doesn’t walk or run or anything so pedestrian to get around. No, she warps from surface to surface using a mythical power to traverse a massive, mysterious world.
Gravity is also no concern for Dandara. Whichever way she sticks to a surface, that dictates “up,” so, I often found myself in sprawling rooms that oriented themselves around me at different angles, requiring a little more thought and planning as I made my way through.
Structurally, the game splits the difference between Metroid and Dark Souls. On the Metroid side, you explore giant 2D maps of rooms, corridors and hallways, shooting bad guys and opening new areas with acquired abilities. There’s a colorful, distinct 16-bit style to everything, and some areas—spaceships, futuristic cities, alien landscapes—even look a little like Metroid, if Metroid were much funkier and more committed to neon pinks and greens.
As in Souls, every enemy you fell drops salt (think: souls, blood echoes, etc.), which is the only currency in the game, and you need it to upgrade your character. You save and upgrade Dandara at campfires, and, if you die, your souls—excuse me, salt—are all lost, unless you can make it back to where you were and retrieve it, without dying a second time. Healing items are strictly limited (and refill at said bonfires), just like estus flasks. Returning to a campfire means every baddie respawns.
As in both series, though, you face down goliath, sometimes tough-as-nails bosses in order to continue your quest.
Dandara doesn’t really play much like anything I’ve put my hands on before. Much like its heroine, it’s fearless, leaping out into the void with nary a care in the world. It constructs a beautiful, mysterious universe that reminded me, in its best moments, of Fez, with a sense of history and place and time that feels appropriately, wonderfully weird. This is my favorite part of Dandara.
I loved getting a little bit lost in its environments. One early world is a sort of neon-hued artist’s village that's been taken over by the Eldarian army (the bad guys). Some folks are still holed up in their houses, waiting out whatever catastrophe struck their land, and you can convince them to power up their artwork again, lending you shortcuts and paths through the labyrinthine world.
It’s so fun to explore every nook and cranny of an area, to find little secrets and tiny rooms that tell you a little bit more about this place. Their are small rewards for trying out every door. It feels fantastic to flip the screen over and over, in search of new rooms or corridors. There is a chill, almost peaceful vibe in these moments—with very few baddies, there’s nothing to break your rhythm, happily bouncing from wall to wall, in search of more salt.
It’s so fun that I put up with Dandara’s balance issues for hours after I lost my patience.
Running into the bosses in the game, many of them screen-filling monstrosities, is akin to running (or warping?) face-first into a steel bulkhead. You’ll get a nosebleed, a headache, and not much to show for it.
I lost hours of my life to the first real boss, a giant face named Augustus that reminded me a little of Andross from Star Fox, except many, many times more difficult. (Again, the first real boss!)There’s a delicate rhythm to Dandara’s warping: you need to go up and down, avoiding obstacles at all times, but you can’t warp into the path of a projectile. So, when projectiles fill the screen… you are screwed until you get the pattern near-perfect.
It was a rude awakening, since most combat encounters, until this point, are manageable. Everyday enemies die in a few hits, and the patterns are nice and readable. Being thrown to the flames sucked. It sucked in the way similarly rough bosses in Bloodborne—and especially Dark Souls 3—always did for me. (Though nothing as bad as the Abyss Watchers in Dark Souls 3, where I was stuck for 15 in-game hours.)
At least in Dark Souls, you can grind and over-level yourself to shore up for skill shortcomings. But that balance is way off in Dandara. This early on, grinding levels is in no way viable, since you only have low-level scrubs to pick off, and they don’t give up much salt. I threw myself against Augustus’ awful face for hours, until I finally prevailed.
Then, I was back in a flow state: exploring, slipping around the ruins of an ancient library in a vast desert, picking at pieces of lore. It’s tougher than the earlier area, with more enemies that launch fireballs or missiles at my face, but nothing I can’t warp around with a little finesse.
And then—oh no. I’m stuck at a boss that, after a few dozen tries, I have no idea what I’m supposed to do. And so it goes.
I realize this will read as an enticing bit to people who enjoy cracking difficult bosses open, and to you, I give my blessing. But Dandara feels somehow off in this way. It swings wildly from a perfectly enjoyable challenge in the exploration stages, to bosses that make me want to give up and take a nap.
I’m going to keep smashing myself against this boss because the Metroid-y side feels so fresh and fun. As much as that wall-crashing might disappoint me, I like that Long Hat House is mixing things up. I like that Dandara is reaching. Any game that makes me want to face off against hours of challenging fights is something special.