The soulslike game genre is vast and filled with potential, from the pixel-art boss rush Eldest Souls to the gothic and bloody Bloodborne. A setting rarely explored in the genre, outside of maybe Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, is the many wonders of science fiction. Dolmen attempts to fill this void and woefully whiffs on achieving almost anything of note, ultimately leaving no impact on the genre as it quickly drifts into obscurity.
Dolmen is about an unnamed and unfaced space explorer investigating a mining station and the horrors populating it. The objective is to find dolmen, crystals that somehow create links between realities. The appearance of this mining station – with alien corridors resembling intestinal tracts mixed with drab metallic man-made structures – indicates some sort of blending of realities. There’s bits of lore scattered around for you to stumble upon that offer up backstory about an ancient alien society connected to the dolmen, but it may or may not hold your interest.
The story is simply a way to justify your space explorer going toe to claw with the monstrosities who populate Revion Prime. Dolmen’s combat will feel familiar to anyone who’s played a soulslike before. You use the right bumper and trigger for light and heavy attacks, respectively, block and parry with the left bumper, and swap weapons with the D-pad. It’s pretty standard in terms of soulslike and lacks any element that can set it apart from the genre’s namesake, like Bloodborne’s rally mechanic, Sekiro’s posture, or Nioh’s stances.
The only real thing that feels new in Dolmen is its integration of firearms. They’re more viable than bows in fantasy-style soulslike games and sometimes I found myself having an easier time with enemies by trying out a new firearm – the shotgun is a favorite – than trying to melee them to death. Do guns make Dolmen a reinvention of the genre? Far from it.
I wasn’t a fan of Dolmen’s healing mechanic, which shares its bar with your firearm’s ammo. Shooting temporarily depletes the bar, but healing permanently takes away energy until a battery is used to refill the bar. Annoyingly, using a battery takes what feels like forever when in the heat of battle (in actuality it’s just about two seconds). Too many times in boss fights I would try to run away just to initiate the consume battery animation to replenish my energy bar only to have to roll out of the animation to dodge attacks (the dodge animation, with a silhouette trailing behind your character, is pretty cool though).
Combat does grow tiresome after a short time, unfortunately. You’ll quickly learn that enemy health bars are deceiving – they may look small, but holy hell do even the lowliest of enemies possess HP out the ass. You’ll need to string together combo after combo just to defeat the opening area’s bug enemies, and it only gets worse from there.
What may be more annoying than enemies’ insane health bars is the fact that your opponents can take a giant sword to the face and not even flinch. You can’t stagger enemies back with a well-executed combo or break their posture like in Sekiro. Enemies will attack you as you land your hits and gleefully kill you while you’re left wondering why your attacks are so pitiful in comparison to theirs.
These elements hint to the core problem of Dolmen – its difficulty isn’t because the game is difficult, but because it’s cheap. The combination of enemy health and your inability to stagger them make for frustrating encounters. One of my favorite parts of soulslike games is when, upon being defeated, I can point to a specific reason why an enemy or boss bested me and then go into the next fight with a new and improved gameplan. Maybe I’m too greedy when attacking and need to get out of harm’s way sooner. Maybe I’m mistiming my dodges and need to slow down and remain calm. Maybe I’m trying to block unguardable attacks and need to instead parry or dodge. Dolmen doesn’t have this element. Because enemies can power straight through your attacks without getting staggered or losing too much health, the only thing you need to learn is how to extract a modicum of enjoyment from these by-the-numbers combat encounters.
If you’re hoping for memorable boss fights to save Dolmen from the depths of unremarkable soulslike games, you’re bound to be let down. Like with most enemy encounters, Dolmen’s boss fights lean closer to frustrating or boring than to fun. The fights aren’t frenetic or exhilarating, and instead you may find yourself annoyed at having to find a nice corner of the arena to heal in. You can replay the boss fights to gather boss materials to craft special items, but the boss fights are so lackluster I don’t know if the items are worth the trouble.
Now, there were a few times when I genuinely had fun with Dolmen. When my dodges were on point and I found the right combo of giant sword and shotgun to deal damage, I found myself having a good time in spurts. The mechanics, on a very simple level, are the same as some of my favorite games, and I’ve had plenty of fun in the past playing variations on those mechanics. However, even when I did procure some enjoyment from Dolmen, I couldn’t help myself from thinking I’d be having even more fun playing Elden Ring, which hasn’t left my disc drive since February except when I’ve wanted to watch a film (yep, I’m someone who still watches movies on blu-ray).
Dolmen so obviously wears its Dark Souls inspiration on its sleeve. However, it fails at too much of what makes a From Software game amazing. The level design is subpar, for starters. Instead of intricately designed levels with shortcuts and verticality, Dolmen introduces you to boring gray hallway after boring gray hallway early on. NPCs are simply there to give you crafting materials. Don’t expect any interesting side quests or “Prepare to Cry” stories here. And – maybe most importantly – there’s very little sense of fashion in Dolmen! No community is going to come together a la Fashion Souls to share… palate-swapped generic spaceman armor? It lacks the variety of armor choices that From Software’s games are known for. Yes, these games are about championing against difficult foes, but they’re also about looking good while doing it.
After playing Dolmen, I’m not sure what about it can make it stand out in what is quickly becoming a crowded genre. Sure, the sci-fi/cosmic horror setting is very appealing, but a freaky atmosphere isn’t enough to carry a game. The gameplay is about what you’d expect from a souslike game – except now with guns! – and Dolmen simply relies on souslike mechanics as opposed to innovating upon them. I really wanted to enjoy Dolmen, but came away from it wishing my time had been spent playing other games.
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