I’m going to admit something that will only end in angry comment threads: I’m getting tired of games that follow the Souls formula. That’s not a criticism of FromSoftware. They can keep making monumental games that reclassify what a AAA game should be. I wouldn’t dare have a beef with Elden Ring. But the series casts a long shadow that touches so many games, from Metroidvanias to platformers. Sometimes, I just want to make progress without viciously dying, dumping my junk on the floor, and having to trudge back to get it.
Sorry Dolmen, you come at a bad time. If there was an emblem of my argument, this is it. It’s a Soulslike game that desperately crams in as many of the genre’s hallmarks as it can, but doesn’t spend nearly enough time surrounding it with a satisfying game.
A lot of the setup gave us hope, which is probably why we feel so disappointed in the end result. There’s all the components of a sci-fi monster movie here; a B-list Dead Space. We’re at that point in future human history where we are colonising planets for resources, and the latest to get strip-mined is one called Revion Prime. It contains a precious material called dolmen crystals, which act as a bridge between realities. It’s essential for interstellar travel – a precious commodity for modern society.
It’s also precious for space spiders, be-tentacled monstrosities and other beasts from the back of H. P. Lovecraft’s mind. Typical, isn’t it? Just when you find a material important for science, realities crack open and the hosts of hell attack. Well, you are the person they call when this happens, and your job is to clear them out while hoovering up the precious dolmen.
It’s retrograde but fun, and we were on board. The graphics, too, were fine: get close enough in the dark and you start spotting the faultlines that bely the single-A rather than AAA origins of the game. But there’s an impressive immersion on display here, with dank, Giger-esque corridors being creeped around by crawlies. Developers Massive Work Studio have a knack for creating enemies that hide in nooks or dangle from the ceiling, making you scan every inch of the environment before you feel safe enough to move into it.
But as Dolmen progresses, the rusty, Dark Souls cogs start turning.
Combat is a hybrid of melee and ranged, as you have room for two weapons in your build. There’s some similarities to The Surge or Hellpoint here, as switching between them becomes second nature. Fire as an enemy approaches, and then switch to your blades and clubs when they get in your face.
But none of the combat feels satisfying, to the point that you wonder how a game arrived on shelves like this. Take the energy system, for example. Energy is shared by so many fundamental elements: you need it to heal, to attribute elemental damage to your attacks, and to even fire your gun. But it gets sucked up so ridiculously quickly that we spent most of the game with it expended. An empty energy bar cuts out half of the things you can do in the game, which is critical for its enjoyment. We felt like we were playing with our shoelaces tied together.
You can refill the energy with a syringe-like battery, but – again – it’s weirdly hamstrung. You take valuable seconds to use it, and it can be interrupted, which makes it effectively useless in tense boss battles. It’s a repeating issue. Too often, Dolmen mistakes challenge for joyless obstacles.
The combat’s rough as well. It has its moments: the bosses in particular are Returnal B-sides, but they’re still impressive, sometimes forcing you into melee-only or ranged-only loadouts, or bullet-helling the arena so that you spend more time dodging than replying to the attacks. But more generally, the combat keeps tripping over itself.
The melee is ridiculously splashy for a game that foregrounds its combat. You can be merrily chopping at an enemy without knowing, 100%, that you are landing blows. And parrying is even more mystically unknowable: it’s an absolute toss of the coin if you do connect, and there’s no way of knowing whether the miss is because the creature or attack is unparryable, we weren’t successful, or it was just a bug. It’s an absolute enigma.
Killing creatures gives you the odd crafting component that gets dumped on death, which leads you to the meat of the Souls comparisons. Get enough material and you can pump them into a surprisingly limited number of weapons and gear sets. But enemies have elemental resistances, so you’re going to need a wide variety of them.That would be fine if the resources didn’t feel paltry, so you never quite have enough to keep a full stable of resistant armour sets, for example. And if you find something better, then you’re having to grind for mods on them all over again: there is no tear-and-sharing or dismantling of gear to carry mods to your new, hard-won item.
This is all done on some ugly-as-sin interfaces, which have clearly come bottom of Dolmen’s priority list. The opening character creation screen in particular makes about as poor a first impression as you could hope.
There’s a fair amount of substance to Dolmen. There are three biomes here, and they come with their own casts of bosses which are the game’s undoubted highlights. But there’s a gnawing sense of repetition, mostly because of the corridor-like linearity of the game. Don’t get us wrong, Dolmen loves the odd hidden tunnel and a bit of height, as path’s criss-cross into the ceiling, but the general structure is linear. When you think about the genre’s forebears, that linearity is a touch surprising. We found ourselves eager to step off the path and do something else, find a hidden boss or come across lost lore. But Dolmen doesn’t quite have the confidence to let you off its rails. It’s a punishing, joyless rollercoaster.
And you will be repeating the same sections of that rollercoaster. As is customary, death will mean you replay the same sequences after the last beacon you uncovered. But did we really have to fight each boss three times to get the components to make the latest gun or blade? It’s unnecessary drudgework.
As we write, we’re aware that our Souls fatigue has likely coloured the review. Coming off Elden Ring probably isn’t the greatest introduction to a tribute act. But the blame is shared with Dolmen, as it understands what the constituent parts of the genre are, but it doesn’t understand what makes them fun. Too often, the developers were left with a choice between being fun or getting in the way of it, and they opt for the latter.
We desperately want to write “Dolmen? More like ‘Dullmen’”, but that’s undervaluing some fine worldbuilding and a cracking sense of dread. Still, Dolmen doesn’t do itself any favours. It lacks soul and stimulating combat, and there’s a whopping great cavity where they should be.
You can buy Dolmen from the Xbox Store