Every time you boot Dandara up, the first screen you see reads, "Dandara's actions will not be forgotten." This screen remains on the screen until you manually click through to the title screen. Dandara is a game about a badass Black woman, Dandara, fighting to save her people from the Golden Idea which created an imbalance in their world and caused oppression to spread throughout the World of Salt.
Dandara is an odd game where there is no up or down, stories are told in snippets and the atmosphere is thick with symbolism. I've been looking forward to this game since I first saw it during a Nintendo Direct in 2017 but does Dandara live up to the hype? Well, a bit yes and a bit no.
Context is Key
At first glance, Dandara is a game characterized by vague storytelling. It doesn't tell you what's important and often opts not to explicitly explain the story of the game. This initially bothered me but Dandara is a game fixed within its external context. As a service to it and to Dandara, herself, I'm going to launch into a brief lesson in context. Stick with me, if you can. It's important.
In 1605, 40 enslaved central Africans escaped slavery and fled into the the hills on the northern coast of Brazil. They built a settlement which would become the greatest community of Maroons in the Americas. This community which would be eventually named the Kingdom of Palmares would resist the Portuguese authorities and remain free until it's ultimate suppression in 1694.
Dandara Dos Palamres was a master in capoeira and queen of Palmares. She fought alongside husband Zumbi dos Palmares and hundreds of Afro-Brazilian warriors to protect her kingdom. There she would show her might as a warrior and guile as a tactician for many years until she was eventually arrested in 1694. On February 6th, 1694 rather than be enslaved, Dandara took her own life. Dandara is a symbol of freedom, of anti-slavery, and anti-colonial resistance.
The developer of Dandara, Long Hat House is a Brazilian developer. The game was released February 6th. These details are not coincidences. The game is a meditation on the very same things we remember from Dandara's life filtered through a abstract lens. Rather than deal in a direct storyline, Dandara tells a story which is ultimately linked to the ongoing battle against oppressive power structures in our world.
Directionless World/World Without Direction
Dandara controls a bit usually for your typical metroidvania. Instead of free movement, Dandara controls exclusively through leaping from specific spots denoted by a white surface. I played on Switch so directional control was handled by the left stick and pushing the A button would send Dandara flying through the air. Your main attack has a small charge time and handles targeting in the same way as your jump.
The lion's share of the game is spent wandering around the myriad of environments dodging projectiles from every direction and environmental hazards through good timing and spacial precision. While the foundation the game was built on is sound, the controls never felt quite right for me. Try as I may, I never really got the level of precision needed to master the game. This could be a personal shortcoming but the controls felt loose to me. In moments where I had to move fast, often I'd have a landing space in mind and the high sensitivity of the analog stick would land me a short but lethal distance from where I wanted. This made the combat heavy portions or the many bullet hell-esque sections difficult for me to enjoy.
I longed for a sensitivity slider so I could tune things to my level of comfort. This may have worked better if the game was not also asking for a high level of precision. A single missed step could set you back a huge amount and methods of recovering health were scarce. But my frustrations aside, when I was able to get the timing right, combat was fast and fulfilling but the feeling was too elusive to call successful.
This lack of consistency in quality was a pattern in Dandara. Certain ideas were brilliant and others not. The game had a huge focus on a lack of defined gravity. You'd often be standing upside down from platforms or hanging out on the side of the room. However, when entering a new map screen, the entire screen would turn to give the player a certain perspective based on how they entered the room. This made navigation a nightmare.
At times I went through passages which appeared like they should have led to one room but ended up leading to another because the way the room turned me around. This read as a contradiction to the game's basic lack of importance of direction. These small design contradictions riddled the game.
A Beautiful, Wreck of a World
Though the movement was sometimes a pain, I enjoyed exploring the world of Dandara. I could tell that developers really cared. Each of the many map screens has a name dictating what was before, whatever happened, happened. You travel through abandoned streets, abstract depictions of bars, museums, wilderness, and more. The once free souls of Salt are now enslaved, isolated from the lives they had. All the while, the bare bones musical score plays quietly in the background. It was melancholic but at the same time, it made me want to push on. I became the hope the world so needed or more precisely Dandara did. Often fighting against unlikely odds and unreliable controls.
Tthere was the old metroidvania unmitigated joy of unlocking items which gave access to new areas and power-ups. My favorite of these moments by far was when I collected a skull which gave me access to new areas but then opened up an entire can of new hazards in areas I had been through more than a couple of times. This kept these new areas feeling new as I backtracked through the level getting my ass kicked by static elements of the environment come to life. As I conquered the environment, the environment shifted and tried to punish me for it, and I surmounted it again.
This feeling of hope and battling doggedly was what Dandara an experience worth having. Each time you died, if you returned to your soul, you'd see, you died because of critical injuries but you reclaim your body. Every moment you miss a jump, you try the jump again. Even if you only make a bit of progress, it makes the next run a bit easier. It's a good metaphor.
Dandara as a whole is extremely experimental. It uses everything it can, its form, control scheme, environment, and outside context to paint a clear view of the concepts it wants to deal with. I find everything about this game truly compelling but I didn't have fun playing it. I don't mind that very much though all things considered. What I got out of the game can't be measured in fun. This brings me to a standstill in this review. As a game I don't find Dandara that successful but as a piece of media, I love it. This is why reviews are irksome.
*Game was received prior to release via a review key distributed by Raw Fury