Dandara is a Brazilian game from developer Long Hat House that's been released on a number of platforms, from iOS and Android to PC and consoles, so once we'd heard about it we booted up our Switch to give it a go. After all, the Switch has both the affinity with the mobile platforms as well as the consoles, so it seems like the perfect place for Dandara to get the best of both worlds, and we're very glad we chose the Switch as our platform of choice, since it was the perfect game to both dedicate intense concentration to and deal with in short blasts on the go.
The story is a bit vague if we're honest, and has something to do with a world of Salt that, in a brief opening cinematic, is revealed to be on the brink of collapse with its citizens oppressed and in hiding. Like with classic retro platformers emulating the games of yesteryear though all you need to know is this: the world is in trouble, and only you can save the day, so in steps in protagonist Dandara to fulfill that role and rid the land of evil.
Dandara (the game, not the person) rides the fence between traditional and unorthodox in a number of ways. For instance, the game is your typical Metroidvania in the sense that you gradually unlock sections of the map, and to unlock more you need to unlock more powers to access different areas, so there's a lot of back-and-forth exploration you'll need to do. On the other hand, not a lot of Metroidvanias of old require your hero to jump from wall to wall like some energetic Spider-Man, which is the central mechanic in Dandara.
Patches on the walls of each level indicate what you can and can't jump on, and it's by darting in between these that you move around the world, using your left analog stick to aim and A to jump (on Switch, remember). Add your basic shooting attack with X into the mix, and there we have the basis of Dandara in all its simplicity. Of course other elements like stronger shots and health potions are added to the mix, but in the end it's all about exploring the land, shooting the bad guys, and progressing further.
You might find yourself impressed with how quickly you're progressing early on in the game, and may even think Dandara easy, but things get tricky real fast. Even though Dandara can move at lightning speeds between walls, you'll still be tested to your limits as Long Hat House throws taxing platforming sections, tons of hostiles, and obstacles aplenty in your way. There are some sections where you're not even given the luxury of standing still to heal as well, and so there'll be a lot of cursing and rinsing and repeating to get past these levels.
That's why upgrades are so important. It seems cliché to compare games to Dark Souls these days, but Dandara is very similar in that she can rest at camps (complete with bonfire, as if the analogy wasn't clear enough) and upgrade her abilities by using the energy she collects around the levels. Like with Dark Souls though, the energy gets lost if you die, although you can pick it back up again by revisiting the site of your demise, and also like Dark Souls, you can get health potions that you refill at every camp, and you can upgrade their potency and get more of them by finding rare chests in the world. At camps you can also spend energy to unlock more health and energy for attacks, so grinding is advised, especially if you don't want to be replaying the same level over and over again because you just can't stop dying.
The whole game is retro in the visual department as well, being filled with pixel-art and sprites aplenty to get your nostalgia tingling, but the fast-pace feels very modern, especially since the controls are so quick and responsive to use. The levels are equally retro in design as well, as you'll see your placid forest greenery early on before moving into dark castle corridors, mechanical hallways, and more later on, all of which wouldn't look out of place in any game from the SNES era.
It's not all about the drastic dodging and darting action though, as we also have some arenas where we're thrown into boss battles, one of which is a giant head reminiscent of those like Phantoon from Super Metroid. Here your skills are tested even more as you have to keep an eye out for attacks to dodge as well as the crucial point to launch an attack on your foe, and this helps spice things up rather than leaving you just wandering round looking for the next place to go or the unexplored area you might have missed (which may well be the case when the map starts opening up).
One of the most satisfying things about Dandara is that the world feels like it opens up gradually, rather than just roadblocking you and leaving you stuck for hours at a time. Instead, you often get to areas where something looks like it needs another ability to use, letting you make a mental note of where that is and what you'll need in order to advance, and then you go elsewhere to find the ability you need to move on. Of course there's backtracking and head-scratching involved, sure, but that's a key ingredient to any Metroidvania, and Dandara does a good job of balancing exploratory challenge with accessibility.
All-in-all balance is the key word when looking at Dandara, whether that's a balance between tried and tested mechanics of old and new and interesting ones, or the balance between challenge and accessibility. There's elements in here for both young casual gamers to enjoy as well as seasoned veterans of the Metroidvania genre, and the fact that it boasts such wonderful visuals and a delicate soundtrack is just the icing on the cake. Sure, it's not always the easiest, but the hardest journeys are often the most rewarding.