Unable to step, changing the mould.
You can’t dive into Dandara’s world without noticing what makes it different: you can’t take a step, at all.
Long Hat House’s 2D action-adventure game, which debuted back in February— months before The Great Metroidvania Deluge of August 2018— is this year’s most innovative entry into indie gaming’s most crowded genre. And look, a game that combines platforming and pinball came out this year, so competition is stiff.
But, from its rad, harem pants- and Afro-sporting black female protagonist to its history-infused science fiction story, Dandara is different from anything we’ve seen in the 2-D platformer space before.
Most significantly, Dandara changes the game with its approach to traversal; eschewing running and jumping in favor of a Nightcrawler-style fling that sends the player whooshing from wall to wall. While, at a glance, the game presents as a platformer, where leaping over obstacles is key, Dandara embraces locomotion that feels more like shooting, requiring the player to constantly rotate the thumbstick to line up their next move.
This feels incredibly unique and the gravitational pull that the mechanic exerts molds the rest of the game to fit its shape. One of Dandara’s taglines effectively sums up what the game tasks players with doing: “Explore a Directionless World.” The map sprawls in all directions—in much the same way that Metroidvania maps typically have. But, it plays like the purest expression of this kind of world design. Because there is no gravity, the game world twists to fit our heroine. Often, upon entering a room, the screen takes a moment to reorient itself, swinging quickly to put Dandara back in the center of the action.
The game’s unconventional style of movement would fall flat were it not for Dandara’s successful execution of the (conventional) basics. Importantly, enemies are recognizable at a glance. This instant readability ensures that while players may not be able to pull off a jump as quickly as they might in a Mario game, when enemies appear the player will always grok exactly what to do.
Snarling, spherical, purple-and-gold monsters will always build up their energy for a beat before charging along a straight path at the player. Toothy, star-shaped humanoids will always unleash homing attacks that turn in rigid right angles from their glowing midsections. Red-eyed bugs will always approach the player in uneasy, shot-skirting zig-zags.
None of this is revolutionary, and that’s the point. The aspects of Dandara that are new and experimental only work because the game’s foundation is built on exceptionally executed fundamentals. You can’t rely on reflex here. I can speed through Green Hill Zone in my sleep, but Dandara’s equivalent tutorial section requires substantially more thought. For the first hour or so, you will be ungainly, struggling to shoot and move, as your sweaty thumb slides twitchily around the thumbstick. Dandara turns seasoned gamers into yearlings attempting to walk for the first time. You are used to being Seabiscuit. You are not Seabiscuit anymore.
You can also read – Interview: Long Hat House on Dandara’s origin and women representation in games
But, Long Hat House isn’t cruel. They know that it will take some time for players to get acclimated to their new mechanic, and so they make their enemies easily readable. If you’re having a hard time, you can scope out battles from the edge of the fray, analyzing enemy placement. If you’ve seen the enemy once, you know how they will act for the rest of your playthrough. In the same way that Into the Breach let players see what their opponents’ next move would be before they made it, Dandara gives each enemy one move which they can always be counted on to perform.
Dandara will be remembered for the wild, new approach to traversal it brought to the table. But, its core works at all because of a mastery of the basics undergirds everything novel that it attempts.