Dandara (Switch eShop) Review
Your enjoyment of Dandara will come down to one thing: the control scheme. Built primarily for touch-only controls, Dandara’s entire design is built around the main character’s immobile state. Rather than move along an X-axis, you must instead manually aim at flat, white wall pads and press a button to then fling to that spot and stick in place. The movement then becomes a kind of leapfrog affair, although the game does a decent job of auto-aiming, which sometimes allows for small moments of free-flow. However, these are rare and the movement system, combined with level design that is extraneously overdesigned, results in shunted, unsure hops and player frustration against various other design elements.
This is a Metroidvania-style game, in that there’s a sprawling map and you must unlock new abilities to get past its many roadblocks, but to put Dandara in the same sentence as those games seem far too generous. I found this incredibly frustrating from the beginning and only the fact that I had to review it kept me going. At one point, I was completely stuck for two hours, mostly due to level design that actively leads you through the longest possible route to anywhere (imagine entering your house, then being forced to go all the way around the block just to use the back door). With no hint system and the inability to warp between safe camp spots, Dandara becomes a frustrating exercise in retreading old ground.
It presents well, however, with a clean pixel art presentation and nice animations and effects. The animation as you enter a door looks like a graceful plunge, which enforces the game’s strange, no-gravity aesthetic. The game even turns the world on you as you enter some rooms, while others are mirror images of each other and act as thoroughfares to even more warren-like areas. This leads to another frustration: the map, while functional in showing where you’ve been in an abstract sense, does nothing to help you navigate sections or work out where you are meant to go next.
When the world turns, the map keeps its orientation, so you’re left to figure out if a door that is to your right is up or down in relation to the map. Furthermore, there are no symbols in rooms to indicate why you can’t go any further, so I was constantly taking laborious trips to rooms with unopened doors, only to realise when I got there that it was one of those rooms that I didn’t have the correct skill to get through yet. A symbol for concrete barriers or long jump, for example, would have saved me these treks and let me narrow down where the next power might be found.
To begin with, enemies aren’t too aggressive, and you can kill them with a shooting attack that takes a second or two to build up. Once you start unlocking new areas, though, things ramp up ridiculously, to the point where Dandara becomes almost sadistic in its attempts to grind you to death. Although you can upgrade your health (represented by hearts) with salt found around the place and taken from defeated enemies, the pure aggressiveness of more advances enemies (some of them you can’t even hurt until you’ve lured them out of the walls and then moved to shoot their backs – and remember there’s a build-up to your gunshots, which only adds to the ridiculousness) results in many unjust deaths as the movement system itself hinders your ability to move out of the way effectively. Indeed, you’ll often move into the line of fire simply because there’s no other option due to foes that float around independently and others that can shoot through level geometry. Bosses are similarly designed for difficulty. I’m sure they were meant to feel satisfying, but to me, they just felt needlessly difficult and prohibitive to game flow.
Dandara looks and plays smoothly both docked and handheld, though the latter suits the graphics a bit more. That said, it might be prudent to play on a larger screen just to try and train your brain to get past the movement system. In my hours of play, I never managed to overcome it. This is a case of a game being far more difficult than its design permits and, unfortunately, one that I cannot recommend to any but the most dedicated players. The game can be played not only with the controller but also the touchscreen, the larger screen of the Switch compared to say a phone doesn’t lend itself to the game as it feels like the game was designed around a thumb span, not your palm.
While I enjoyed the opening hour or so of Dandara, it soon descended into repetitive, hamstrung gameplay that kept upping the ante before I’d managed to adjust to the original challenge of just moving around and shooting in time. Hardcore gamers might enjoy the challenge, but this reviewer did not.
Rating: 2.5 / 5
+ Nice art design and atmospheric music
+ Small moments of flow with the interesting yet flawed movement system
- Totally overdesigned map
- No map cues for exploration or perspective turns
- Movement never feels right
- Too difficult and frustrating