Steam Cleaning #12: Dandara: Trials of Fear Edition

Dandara is a game about movement. It controls differently from any other game in existence, as far as I’m aware, sending the titular character rocketing through zero gravity to connect to magnetic-ish surfaces. Angling my control stick and taking rapid-fire leaps from surface to surface looks and feels amazing; the feedback from the screen and my controller’s rumble sends my brain the happy chemicals.

The game is also a metroidvania, which I love. It has beautiful pixel art, which I am biased toward.

So why am I struggling to want to finish it, even after completing two main bosses (out of three)?

Was it the bosses? Not really, the floating Nazi head was pretty awesome, and the second boss was one of the best parts of the game so far.

No, I think it is a combination of the repetitive environments, my lack of interest in the story/world/atmosphere, and the inherent limitations in the moveset.

Some of those points speak for themselves. While the game is beautiful, it lacks a sense of direction in the exploration. Most places look very similar. The story boils down to ‘The world is corrupted, people are isolated and hiding, and Dandara was created to fix the problem.’ Woo. The game music and graphics are gorgeous and functional, but never evoked a sense of wonder in me.

And then there’s the amazing control scheme. It’s novel, it’s a neat idea, but in practice… At any given point in the game, I can either jump in any direction to a platform, or stand still and shoot something. That’s it. It’s a unique approach, and it makes movement feel cool and memorable, but the variety and strategy is lacking.

Take Hollow Knight, for example. At the beginning of the game, before you get any abilities, you can slash in multiple directions, move, and jump. Your positioning and direction can vary, you can pogo jump on enemies, and your movement is very precise and spacially-based. In Celeste, another of my favorite games, you can play with momentum, climbing, dashing, wave dashing, interacting with the environment…

In Dandara, the options are to point and then either jump in a straight line or shoot in a straight line. That’s it. It’s not very dynamic at all, as cool as it feels. The upgrades in this metroidvania game include health/energy potions and other types of projectiles like missiles and miniturrets. Nothing that adds more dynamic gameplay. Most unlockables appear to be new switches or environmental interactions.

My game designer brain wants to fix this problem, but I’m not sure if that is possible. The main movement mechanic, beautiful as it is and amazing as it feels, just doesn’t lend itself to the kind of gameplay variety I’m accustomed to in a metroidvania. Nor does it lend itself to any other particular genre without things getting much, much messier.

Dandara is a really good game. It has a central mechanic that it pulls off very cleanly, and it uses that unique mechanic to the best of its potential. Unfortunately, I don’t think that potential is as high a bar as it needs to be to rank this game among the truly great.

Verdict: A bit over two hours played, two of three required bosses beaten.

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