Upon researching Dandara after finishing it, I was surprised to find out it was also a mobile game. As far as mobile titles are concerned, this is the highest possible praise I can give one. Sometimes, as a medium, they tend to feel distinctly different from console titles. Despite this design limitation, Dandara manages to shine bright among its console competitors.
Dandara: Trials of Fear Edition starts off fairly bleakly. The story takes place in the world of Salt which is on the brink of collapse and the citizens, once free spirits, are now oppressed and isolated. This is where Dandara awakes – a badass ready to set right this innate imbalance. Dandara’s story is solid but relatively minimalist for the most part and lets you get on with the game. Its political undertones work well for its general narrative and world-building. Drawing from your own experience is always a good way of connecting with the audience and I connected with it immediately.
This naturally brings us to the gameplay loop. In a directionless world, Dandara’s central powers are more part of the metaphor and story then they are the gameplay loop. Dandara can jump from surface to surface but only when it contains a layer of salt. This works regardless of physics as the game doesn’t have any – at least not in the traditional sense. If stopped mid-way through a jump, you merely freeze. You don’t get pulled down or up, it almost feels like you’re trapped in space. This adds tremendous depth to the ethereal spacey feeling the game exudes. You can’t just get carried forward by the inexorable flow of time and gravity. Every step you take is deliberate and intentional.
Initially, every jump takes a bit of thought so as to be most efficient in going forward, but the entire game has a steady progression. Areas get tougher, puzzles harder and platforming more complicated. It often feels like a fascinating mix of VVVVV and classic Metroidvania. You initially start off with a basic jump and a shooting mechanic that can be accessed at a click of the A and X button respectively. It gives you time to adapt to these with some relatively easy enemies and platforms before shaking it up and letting you access its central mechanics. As mentioned, it takes elements from Metroidvania and VVVVV but it always takes inspiration from Dark Souls. I know, I’m comparing another game to Dark Souls, but this has precedent.
You see, the salt system is very similar to the soul system. You gain basic experience in the form of salt from each kill you make. This can be brought home to a camp to level up your health, powers or healing ability. The twist is, if you die you must go back and collect all that salt or you lose it forever. Furthermore, staying at the camp resets all non-boss enemies. This sets up a fascinating risk-reward system. Do you go back and level up now or take on a few more enemies to level up twice? Now that you know where the boss is, would you like to restore health whilst restoring enemies or just take him on? These are questions you ask yourself frequently and it works very well here.
This loop is constant throughout Dandara. You scout out the area you’re in, prod the enemies to see what they do and fight your way to the boss. You then work out your best route, find any chests and take him on multiple times till he finally caves. In true Metroidvania fashion, this often comes with a new ability shedding light on previous areas in wonderful new ways. Some standout new abilities are a long jump, a musical moving brick and a rocket shot.
The Trials Of Fear Edition adds even more to the base game. It adds three new areas, fresh powers, a new boss and lots of bonus music. It is, for the most part, more chaotic and trippy, feeling thematically in line with the end of the base game. To top this all off, it’s a free expansion. Thematically it adds a great deal to the base game. It helps to establish different tones and fleshes out the story more with its style and music design.
Speaking of this, the music and art design in Dandara are top-notch. There is a pretty murkiness to the entire game. The art style in a vacuum is lovely but becomes darkened by the surroundings. The same can be said for the music. It often features pretty electronic swells damaged and dampened by background dissonance. There is a beauty distorted and disrupted by a sinister mechanical overtone. It doesn’t need to be said how well this works for the general theme, but I’ve said it anyway.
There are some negatives to Dandara despite its brilliant aspects. While the mechanics, for the most part, feel quite steady, there are some downright frustrating platforming sections. Occasionally, the marker will not go where is intended or the desired platform is just a little bit too far. This normally ends here but occasionally a platform cannot be jumped to regardless of it being close and in eye line. This can often be fixed by leaving and coming back or readjusting, but the speedrun nature of the game design contrasts these two issues in frustrating ways. Dandara is a game that works at its best when you act and jump fast and this often grinds progression to a halt in jarring ways.
Furthermore, whilst the difficulty usually feels natural and progresses well, the final boss is far too easy. There is a sense of catharsis in the destruction of each boss throughout the game as you raise your fist in the air in glory, yet the final boss does not provide this. It feels almost hollow, betraying the oppressive atmosphere that most of the game portrays. These are minor grievances but they stick out an unfortunate amount.
Overall, Dandara: Trials Of Fear Edition on Xbox One is a well crafted, thematically consistent title with some truly great design, but this is displaced with occasionally mediocre platforming and a terribly disappointing final boss. The Trials Of Fear expansion certainly adds enough content to justify another playthrough, and I personally cannot wait to see what Long Hat House do next.