One of the defining attributes of any 'Metroidvania' platformer is freedom, but Dandara is built around a rather striking limitation. Our titular heroine can neither run nor jump. Dandara is a mystically empowered figure who's been awoken from her slumber to rescue an oppressed dream-like world from wicked supernatural beings. She's well equipped to deal with the threats she'll face along the way, but it's a somewhat unorthodox toolset.
When it comes to gravity, Dandara sets her own terms, as she flits between the floor, the wall and the ceiling like they were one and the same thing. You move through the game's mazy, interconnected levels by instantly zipping between nearby flat surfaces. Generally speaking, if you can see the surface to aim at, and it's within a reasonable proximity, you can shift to that position in an instant.
This process is controlled either by aiming with the left Joy-Con stick and pressing A, or touching and dragging the right side of the Switch display. It's that latter method that offers a hint as to the thinking behind this unusual movement system - this is a Metroidvania for the smartphone generation. Developer Long Hat House has rethought the genre from the basis of an iPhone user, and the result is that rarest of games that arguably plays as well using either control method.
That may be so, but it doesn't control perfectly with either system. In particular, when the game introduces combat elements, things come a little unstuck. Situations such as taking down a dog-faced guard while a nearby automated barrier launches a projectile towards you highlight how tricky it can be to manipulate Dandara when under intense pressure.
It affects movement, too. When you're zipping through an empty section, it's possible to make speedy progress - largely thanks to a semi-automatic aiming system that locks onto the surface it thinks you want. When you're under the cosh, such as in the scenario above or in one of the game's challenging boss fights, this slight imprecision can get you killed.
We also found the combat controls to be a little fiddly. Dandara can fire a shotgun-like spread of energy bolts from her hands via the X button, but it's a curiously weedy means of defence. A combination of jittery and indistinct analogue aiming, severely limited range, and the necessity to charge for a full-power shot - not to mention the core inability to move and shoot simultaneously - means that you'll take a lot of silly damage, particularly in the game's first few hours.
This gets mitigated with time, as you improve both your own skills and those of Dandara. It's possible to boost her health, primary weapon, stock of health potions, and special ability refills by exploring levels thoroughly. That said, you may find that the controls never fully click to the extent that you'd like.
Still, we found that we could live with these control quirks, particularly given how they contribute to a pervading sense of freshness. While there's a definite Super Metroid vibe to Dandara's labyrinthine 2D levels, the environmental design and art style has a dreamy otherworldly feel to it that's pleasantly tough to pin down. The cultural wellspring that Dandara draws from is Brazilian rather than the usual US, European or Asian sources, which doubtless contributes to this feeling of newness.
Dandara's is a strange world of benign godlike beings, some huge and distorted, others small and human-like. All can imbue Dandara with fresh abilities that help you to progress through previously insurmountable obstacles, as is the way with all Metroidvanias. The narrative that ties it all together isn't massively extensive or cohesive, but this vagueness works well with game's dreamy, metaphor-rich approach.
The level design itself is a little hit and miss, however. Some sections thrill with their layouts - such as those with rotating or circular platforms - while others seem disappointingly nondescript. Whole clusters can frustrate with their elaborate one-way systems that require you to loop around on yourself when you take a wrong turn, which feels a little like missing a turn in a busy city centre.
There's also a Dark Souls-inspired save system that doesn't always feel like the best fit in a game that's evidently designed primarily to be played on the go. Die anywhere in the level and you'll be sent back to the last campsite you activated, which can be a number of screens back. You'll also lose all of the unspent 'salt' (the game's XP currency) that you were carrying, which you can reclaim if you successfully backtrack.
As you may have picked up on, it's possible to get horribly lost in Dandara. The game isn't in the habit of signposting where you should be going next. If exploring every nook and cranny and poring over map layouts isn't your thing (if you're an impatient so-and-so, basically) it's possible that this isn't the game for you. For all of its fresh touches, Dandara is pretty old-school with some of its demands. Stick at it, though, and this is a game that will reward you with the kind of tense exploration, clever loop-backs, and satisfying 'eureka' moments that most modern platformers barely touch.
Dandara is a 2D Metroidvania platformer that's admirably intent on doing things differently, from its Brazilian folklore-infused narrative to its unorthodox and touchscreen-friendly controls. It can be a little awkward to play as a result, and it's got its fair share of structural niggles, but Dandara provides a genuinely fascinating world to spend some time in.