In games I often want to be whisked away to somewhere much different from the ugly world we call home. Somewhere void of the stress of life and instead full of an imaginative adventure. Somewhere I can call home for the hour of free time I have at the end of the day. Though big, sprawling role-playing games can often do this right away, I haven’t had nearly the same experience with pixel art indies. Don’t get me wrong, games like Super Meat Boy can be fun time spent, but it isn’t exactly the escape I often yearn for. Dandara, by Long Hat House, manages to create this magic of escapism while also being a pixelated indie with its own vision.
Immediately after starting the game, you’re introduced to a world in endless peril where strange creatures and stylized characters hide from the odd beasts you’ll find while traversing its many caverns. The aesthetic was by far the most noticeable advantage Dandara had going for it. The pulsing of colors highlighted the dangers of a place that you could only possibly dream of, your character’s flowing tallow scarf making mince meat of the obstacles in her way. It was Alice in Wonderland made modern and, most importantly, made extremely grim. The predispose of the end of this world is just as interesting as the many mechanics which Dandara tends to teach you organically.
Traversing Dandara entails negotiating a system of sticking to walls by shooting yourself across its many narrow halls. This way of traversing is very cool, but you also have to be very calculated in the way you move. No button mashing and random hops will get you to the end of the game, nor will it get you to the sparse number of checkpoints sprinkled around the game’s map. That was probably the most odd thing about getting started in Dandara. Upon learning these mechanics of traversing and shooting the random beasts, there’s a surprising amount of space between the start and the first checkpoint. Die anywhere in between those points, and you’re sent all the way back to the beginning. I’m all for difficulty, but replaying parts of a game I already fully understood became frustrating very quickly. Even more, ramping up to the occasional boss battle sometimes culminated in having to do large parts of the game over again. That’s a shame, because those battles often featured superbly crafted enemies with equally impressive level design. This all wouldn’t be so frustrating to redo upon dying had Dandara not been plagued with a really weird map issue.
Upon pressing the minus button, Dandara’s odd world is hidden beneath an incredibly hard to read map. Color-coded to represent different rooms, the map barely helped me as I wondered which way was which because of the lack of a definitive “ground” in the game. This meant that instead of fluidly adventuring around in this Metroid-like maze, I often took ten minutes or so to fully understand where I was and where I needed to be. In a game that’s really about fast-paced gameplay and wonderfully accurate shooting, this lack of a helpful environmental layout made my time spent in the world that much longer. But I had no quarrel with that personally because of the beautiful pixel art and dream-like score that clouded my mind and sent me into a trance while playing Long Hat House’s newest title.
From the quick “whoosh” you hear while hopping from platform to platform to the slow keys of a piano, Dandara’s style practically beckons you to get lost in it. Every now and again, I caught myself fully entrenched in the world Long Hat House introduced to me piece by piece. Dandara took no effort to try and tell you what it was, instead it let itself be discovered by you with every heart-pounding inch. Every so often, you’d find something new, only to be prompted to experience its dangers. There are simple enemies that are ostensibly nothing to blink at on their own, but when they’re arranged in certain patterns or numbers, then those same enemies become difficult to manage. Even more, every heart you obtain in Dandara is held dear to you because you don’t know when the next one could find its way to the surface of a hostile world like this. Long Hat House have provided a masterclass in creating a believable yet fantastical world that is easy to get lost in. It’s just a shame that simple gameplay obstructions kept me from enjoying that world even more.
As far as progression goes, Dandara also lacks a bit. While collecting salt (the game’s currency) from boxes and enemies, you’ll have the chance to buy enhancements for your character as you go on. These enhancements range from improving health regeneration to dealing out more damage. It’s not so much the fault of this progression directly, but the fact that checkpoints were spread so far meant I rarely upgraded my character. This not only made me feel like progression only relied on getting better at Dandara’s mechanics, but it also made my character feel weak as the game went on. As I reached the game’s conclusion, I’m sure I didn’t make it to the most powerful level that my character could have reached, but then again, I was too busy trying to figure out the game’s map to even try.
Dandara was a game I thought captured the essence of why I play games. It had me in awe at its fine art style and thumping rhythms, but unfortunately, Dandara failed to satisfy fully in the gameplay front. While the central mechanic of gliding along walls was innovative, it’s the supporting mechanics that ultimately left me wanting more. The map, poorly spaced checkpoints, and boring progression meant Dandara was not much more than a dream; a dream I had fallen in love with until the seams of that facade wasted away and the nightmarish realization that it was another average video game truly came to light.
Developer: Long Hat House
Publisher: Raw Fury
Platforms: PC, Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Android
Release Date: 6th February 2018