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Brazil of Games: Dandara is a cultural metroidvania

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Promoted from our Community Blogs

[There are some corners of the world where the video game development scene isn’t spotlighted quite as well as others, and that’s a shame. There’s so much cool stuff being put out into the universe from really unexpected places that we don’t hear about nearly enough. Community member Nior is here to tell us about a game called Dandara, which was created in their home country of Brazil, and why it means so much to them to see their culture represented in this industry. - Kevin]

The Brazilian gaming industry has made quite a lot of progress in the last ten or so years. Part of that stems from the rise of a new generation that grew up playing video games who have now become developers themselves, and partially thanks to Steam and other methods of online distribution, our games have finally been allowed to reach a much wider audience. One side effect of that upbringing is that the majority of games coming from these lands are nostalgia-fueled rides.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing though, since without that nostalgia we wouldn’t get titles such as Horizon Chase, Blazing Chrome, or Knights of Pen & Paper. Fantastic games for sure, but to me, they lack that cultural touch that just screams “this was made in Brazil.” Kinda like how you can look at STALKER and tell that it was made by a team of Slavs using TI-84s. Still, sometimes I get my wish and some developer comes along to explore a facet of my culture, be it the Amazon Forest, the local folklore, or just the uh, crude humor, to put it lightly (yeah I’m saving Bad Rats for a distant future, don’t pressure me). Today’s game falls very much in that latter category. It's a beautiful little gem called Dandara.

Dandara Trials of Fear

Before I even talk about the game, we need a brief history lesson. Between the XVI and XIX century, Brazil had a peculiar relationship with slavery. Namely, there was a fuck ton of it. It lasted for far too long, and it only really ended because Britain wanted a bigger consumer base and pressured the Brazilian government to shut it all down. For over 300 years, millions of Africans were made slaves, removed from their lands and forced to become the driving force of each and every economic activity, be it the sugar plantations or cattle farms.

I hardly need to explain to you why this is fucked up, and the consequences can still be felt to this day. During that time, revolts were not uncommon, something that led to the creation of settlements formed by African slaves that escaped from their prisons called “quilombos.” That wasn’t the only way a quilombo could form, but for the purposes of this lesson, that’s the one that matters. These communities became a symbol of their resistance, a way to reconnect with their culture and families. By far, the most famous of these was Palmares, located in what is today the region of Alagoas.

This leads us to Dandara the woman. Her life is an enigma even to this day. The only things we know for absolutely sure are that she was the wife of Palmares’ most notorious leader -- Zumbi -- she was the mother of three, actively fought against slavery, and in February 1694, when Palmares was subjugated after almost 100 years of existence, she chose to throw herself off a quarry instead of being captured and made a slave. 

Everything else about Dandara is open to speculation and debate. We don’t even know her face (though interpretations do exist). She’s an extremely fascinating person: definitely real and a symbol of freedom but shrouded in enough mystery to give her an air of legend. A trait that her video game counterpart shares wholeheartedly, and this finally brings us back to Dandara the game. True to the woman, the world the developers at Long Hat House created is one that feels straight outta the pages of a fairy tale but with one big difference: the whole thing is just rife with Brazilian culture.

Freaking duh, I know, but the reason I feel the need to mention that is because Dandara is pretty much everything I want to see out of the Brazilian gaming industry. It's a product that embraces its cultural roots to create something distinctly its own. Something that is a reflection of the people that made it and the culture surrounding them, while also being innovative in its own right. Case in point, this is a metroidvania with a unique twist: the titular Dandara can’t move, not in the traditional sense at least. Dandara can only jump between predetermined spots, in this case, surfaces that have salt on them. But, this world is also one where gravity doesn’t exist, so up, down and all around is but a matter of perspective.

What this means is that the simple act of reaching the other end of a room is way more of an active task than in other games, asking you to aim your jumps all the time. And thanks to a pretty generous auto-correct, you only need to be precise during boss encounters (more on that in a bit). This also makes the upgrades you’ll encounter a lot more interesting. Since Dandara herself is already moving like she’s doing the Maximum Spider, the upgrades you’ll get instead are more geared towards combat or opening areas of the map.

Dandara video game surreal

The whole game has a surreal air to it.

Speaking of exploration, thanks to its unique movement mechanics, the level design in Dandara presents some interesting challenges, mostly involving movement-based puzzles. It’s honestly impressive how it never gets stale or gimmicky. There are platforms that rotate on an axis. Some move using the inertia of your main attack, some revolving walls make for one way jumps, and that’s not even accounting for the ones you’ll require key items to interact with. There are rooms where simply getting from A to B is a puzzle in and of itself, and accessing the final area of the game will require an epiphany that made me go “okay, that’s pretty clever.”

I mentioned attacking before, so this is a good hook to talk about the game’s combat. Dandara has only one attack, an energy blast that fires multiple arrows a set distance from her. It’s interesting that it requires you to charge for just a second before you can fire (the charge itself can also serve as propulsion to move certain platforms). This makes it so that combat doesn’t devolve into a crazy festival of spamming attacks and jumping mindlessly. It’s a little more methodical than that, and to compensate, enemy projectiles are all slow, giving you precious time to get the hell outta dodge.

There are secondary attacks you can find exploring the map (with only one of them being mandatory to finish the game) that run on a limited resource (Salt Essence), but the upside is that they add some versatility to your arsenal. For example, the purple lightning ball of death can bounce off walls, being greatly effective in closed spaces or to hit enemies at weird angles. This is double true for bosses, and good heavens, those are a spectacle!

Easily the highlight of the game, these encounters will put all of your skills to the test, and their presentation is just… How do I make one of them chef kisses in text form? You know the sound, just imagine it in your head. The fights are memorable, with multiple phases, dynamic set pieces, and just incredible music. There’s not a lot of bosses, but I can still remember each and every single one of them. A case of quality over quantity. Symphony of the Night this ain’t.

Dandara video game painting reference

A blatant reference to this painting right here.

Now that I have summoned the game that is pretty much everyone’s point of reference when it comes to metroidvanias, allow me to say that Dandara is not a very long game. My first playthrough took me about four hours, and then about an extra hour hunting down the true ending. As much as I would’ve loved to play more, I found this to be the perfect length. It made every area memorable in some way, and none of them overstayed their welcome.

From the familiar places portrayed in the Village of the Artists to the Golden Fortress where you’ll find the final boss - which fittingly reminded me of Bioshock of all things - every area in Dandara has something to offer in the presentation department. Much of that is thanks to the fact that this game is unmistakably Brazilian. The pixel art might evoke memories of the SNES days, but the art direction will take you on a mini-tour through our culture.

The aforementioned Village draws a lot from the real city of Belo Horizonte, where the developers are from. That means a plethora of familiar street signs, graffiti, and buildings. Some rooms are named after real-life locations, TV shows, or musical groups, and some characters are blatant references to famous Brazilian painters, down to the name. There’s even this one late-game location that reminded me of a surrealist painting from my old art classes.

The antagonists are a military oppressive force, and the first boss has a uniform that closely resembles that of the Brazilian Military Dictatorship that happened between ‘64 and ‘85. All of that and more are accompanied by a soundtrack that I kinda lack the vocabulary to describe. Like the rest of the game, it’s a distinctly Brazilian sound, with acoustic instruments accompanied by flutes, pianos, and percussion that closely resembles traditional African drums sometimes. I really wish I could do it justice with words alone, so I’ll just shut up and let the music do the talking.

Dandara is a pretty good game on its own, but its themes and ideas make it ever so special to me. Though its story can be vague and doesn’t touch on the literal themes of slavery (something the developers didn’t believe themselves qualified to explore, and a decision I can respect), symbolically, it represents a fight for freedom. One that’s no stranger to Brazilian history. It’s something our forefathers fought for, died for, even. Be it the African slave trade or the dictatorship, that pursuit is something that marked Brazilian history, and seeing it here, even if just as an allegory, just brings a smile to my face.

Dandara herself is treated as this legendary figure that comes in times of dire need, to free those that have been imprisoned or oppressed, and I doubt it’s a coincidence that most of the named characters in the game are artists, the group of people most oppressed during the times of dictatorship. This game has a charm all of our own, a product that could only ever be made right here in these lands. A piece of ourselves for the world. One that might not be perfect, but it’s as authentic as you can get.

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Nior
Nior   gamer profile

Writer for fun, professional amateur and 16-bit dreamer. Brazilian man born and raised, under the hot sun where I spend most of my days. Currently working on a series dedicated to the documentat... more + disclosures


 


 


Also on Destructoid: Dandara   (5)   From our database:

  • Review: Dandara - Kevin Mersereau
  • Metroidvania-like Dandara is right at home on the Switch - Steven Hansen
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    Filed under... #History #Indie #Metroidvania #Promoted Blogs #Promoted stories

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