Xbox One, PS4, PC, PS5, Xbox Series X
May 20, 2022
Massive Work Studio
Dolmen is a self-described Soulslike adventure. Featuring a soldier suited up in technologically advanced armour, wielding swords and guns, players must escape the alien planet known as Revion Prime. Dreadful cosmic horrors such as martian soldiers and arachnids await, confronted only with your methodical movement and combat. All these elements and more make up for a modestly sized and joyously atmospheric game. Even when it’s not the most prestigious, shiniest, or polished entry in the genre, it, like yourself, puts up one hell of a fight.
A cosmically horrifying world
It’s indelibly easy to notice how much inspiration Dolmen takes from the works of Lovecraft and Giger. Your nightmarish journey is broken down into three environmental chunks: the horrific depths of The Dumps, the sand drenched surface of The Wastelands, and an eery facility at the heart of it all in the Old Lab.
In these areas, Dolmen delivers a feeling of dread quite well. The Dumps are home to alien arachnids waiting to hatch out of their egg at any moment, along with bloody membranes that twist and tangle around the half cavernous, half technological walls. Drone patrols and tough Martian militia litter the surface. The Old Lab’s entrance room is big with ceilings so high they eventually give way to nothingness. Delve further and horror fans will be delighted to find imagery such as your first boss, the big mother spider Dementula, or the failed experiments that have gone horribly wrong deep inside the lab. These examples and many more are all thrilling and are a testament to the art design and style, as the graphical fidelity, at least on its PS5 version, isn’t the most mind-blowing.
Though each section does well in building upon the next, actually getting better the more you play, there are a handful of ways the experience will waiver from time to time. Most of this boils down to Dolmen being an ambitious game with limited resources. While published by Prime Matter, a newer sub-division under Koch Media, it’s still by no means a Triple-A experience. Dolmen was developed in Brazil by Massive Work Studio. Evidently, there are times when it feels like the game nears buckling in on itself.
“It’s indelibly easy to notice how much inspiration Dolmen takes from the works of Lovecraft and Giger.”
For one, there is plenty of environmental storytelling in Dolmen. A lot of this comes through readables you’ll find around the place. The only issue here is, at times it’s hard to ascertain what items are and aren’t possible or meant to be interacted with. Open one up and the text appears in a small box at the bottom of your screen, not dissimilar to how subtitles would display. Less pervasive, sure, but it also makes for a harder and less pleasant read. The same can be said for most of the HUD. Whether it’s working out what’s changing in your stats or just accessing menus, it takes a bit of time to wrap your head around.
Dolmen also takes the formula of other Soulslike’s world design, making it all interlinked via connecting areas and shortcuts. Though none of it is done on the same cinematic and rewarding scale. Players won’t slowly open a big heavy door only to discover they’ve looped back to where they were five hours ago. More often than not they’ll find a panel or switch that unlocks a previously locked door, enter the said door, and then have a jarring cut in and out of a brief loading screen. Oh, how those brief few seconds rob the game of a deeper feeling of interconnectivity.
Your hub is a ship where you’ll often go to level up, craft new weapons and gear, and find some more readables. This refuge is welcome but isn’t the best designed. At first, it’s difficult to make heads or tails of which room is purposed for what. Before long, you’ll discover some rooms are designed to just be dressing, with one minor item you can interact with in a corner. Bummer.
If I’m honest, it’s hard to stay angry with these flaws all that long. Instead, it kind of becomes charming in its own way. I’m reminded of titles like Elex II, where the experience is all the more fun when you meet the game on its own terms. Dolmen may not be European made but damn does it feel like a game that should belong in the Eurojank genre. If you’re at all into experiences like that, I too think you’ll find the jank on offer more forgivable.
Carving a space in a well-trodden genre
Not only does Dolmen distinguish itself in the Soulslike genre in its setting, but in some of its core gameplay mechanics. Players are equipped with melee weapons and a gun—not one or the other. Both are obviously important in your survival, especially when you consider that there are three gauges to be monitoring in your play—health, stamina, and energy. Energy is the most crucial here and comes as an intriguing balancing act. How filled this meter is is determined by the batteries players will use for their suits. Players only have so many batteries they can get their hands on in-game, starting with three and getting more each time they topple down a boss. This energy is used as ammunition of sorts for your equipped gun and to also heal. Using the light fire for your gun only temporarily depletes your energy and will hence come back, whereas the weapon’s alternative fire and healing will actually take chunks out of it. The same can be said for when you enter an elemental mode, used to exploit weaknesses and preserve stamina by instead chewing up energy when you swing your weapon.
So, players will have to be more strategic than ever. Not only are you required to keep track of your normal stamina, along with the attack animations of yourself and your foes, but many other moving parts, too. Sure, you can spend your time slowly combing corridors and corners, firing off your light ammunition, but that’ll take more precision and patience. You’ll have to heal yourself eventually, but then you can’t use the elemental mode to let out stronger attacks and preserve that needed stamina. Now, your gauge is lower and you can’t even do much of anything except plain old melee anymore. Oh, the constant on the fly thinking that awaits…
Probably my favourite part of games that share this same ilk, featuring that loop of getting to know the environments and your enemies as you progress, is the inevitable payoff for your hard work. Dolmen features that and then some. This is largely due to the fact that one of the other combat features is a rock-paper-scissors mechanic where enemies will be strong to two elemental type attacks, but weak to another. This became an integral part of my learning and the rhythm that comes with the game. For instance, I discovered right at the very beginning area of The Dumps that a spider is weak to ice. When I stumbled upon this same enemy later on, I was ready for the fight and quickly switched out to my pistol that had an ice affinity.
As for the bosses, predictably some will be a tough egg to crack. I won’t spoil too much on each and every baddy you’ll face, but there will be some familiar archetypes in there if you’re one of the twelve million that have played Elden Ring this year. Foes five times your size will throw their weight around, there’ll be those closest to you in size but more frantic in attacks, and arenas will require careful footing as you dodge projectiles and areas of effect… the list goes on.
If you’re a genre expert, these fights shouldn’t give you too much trouble in telegraphing, but despite your best efforts, others will just have you at times scraping by the skin of your teeth. I can’t count the number of times I died to a late boss and was greeted with that cruel ‘Timeline Erased’ death message after being hit in a seemingly unavoidable way. Occasionally, bosses would hesitate in their animation cycle, requiring poking and prodding before they get moving again. Somewhat par for the course if you’ve played enough of these types of games, but still something to be conscious of.
An approachable grind
Perhaps the best news is that Dolmen is the most approachable Soulslike experience thus far this year. While not featuring an open world for you to go off and explore and hopefully find easier areas, the ability for a variety of different builds and to respawn bosses for grinding is an appealing counter offer. As you’re hacking at foes, slowly putting a point into x stat, you’re also gathering a plethora of materials. These materials can be used to craft new armour and weapons. Some are found on any old enemy, and rarer materials (and weapon blueprints) are obtained locating hidden people of the Driller race, situated off the beaten path, further rewarding exploration. You’ll also want to pay attention to not only the stat bonuses these can offer but the branch of technology they’re manufactured from. Equip enough weapons and armour that have points in Revian, for example, and you’ll see bonus perks such as more hit points and the ability to slightly heal when you deal melee damage. Yet another example of how it pays to experiment in Dolmen.
The other item you’ll be picking up is the precious Dolmen crystal. These are a little rarer, dropping seemingly at random from different foes. What these allow for is the ability to summon in other players for co-operative play but also respawn bosses so you can grind out materials unique to each boss and score a sizable chunk of beloved nanites, used to level up. This was more than a welcome means of spending my time the few times I found myself hitting a bit of a wall. Gone is the need to enter ‘New Game +’ if I want to re-tackle a formidable foe, I can just load up the instance all over again. From now on, I need more games to offer this feature.
All things considered, the sum of Dolmen’s parts makes this more than worth your time. I think fondly to those nights I spent grinding through creepy foe after creepy foe to reach the refuge that is that next beacon, teleporting me home. I even love the bizarre oddities and choices that left me scratching my head, all the more curious and enthused as I make heads or tails of the weird design and world provided. I’m in on Dolmen, flaws and all.
- Atmospherically enticing
- The risk vs reward of the energy related skills is a delightful mechanic
- Gunplay and rock-paper-scissors mechanic make for fun means to mix up the combat
- Experimentation of builds and armour sets is rewarded
- The ability to respawn bosses is a godsend
- Not as many revelatory, jaw dropping moments when you unlock a shortcut
- HUD can be a bit confusing to make heads or tails of at times
- Ship hub could've used some more things to do and see
- Bosses will occasionally sit in place until you prod them
You don’t need me to tell you how much of a tough sell Dolmen is this year. Still, if you’re at all a fan of the Soulslike genre and willing to forgive a little jank that comes with slight overambition and a smaller budget, I recommend giving it a go. For every frustration I had for not having quite as many “Aha!” moments when opening a door or discovering some lore, it’s equalled with other ways the game is working to impress. On offer is a solid nightmarish journey from the darkest depths to the dreadfully eerie conclusion at the world’s own horrific ground zero. This is held up by clever combat implementations and a rewarding sense of experimentation and exploration. Atmospherically enticing and fun to play, Dolmen is a game I won’t let you all forget. Even if I’m one of the few banging my drum, championing it.