author: Giancarlo Saldana
Dolmen Review: Dead Space
Dolmen is years in the making and should feel like Dead Space mixed with Dark Souls. But do some design and technical issues make it feel more dead than deadly?
I played a lot of Soulslike games during PAX East and Dolmen was one of those games that I actually had to give back to the developer to finish because I kept dying too much. I figured a game like Dolmen simply required more time to fully understand enemy attack patterns and figure out how to out-maneuver the tricky bosses you are faced with. I mean, that is essentially how someone plays a Soulslike.
Now that Dolmen is out and I have spent hours navigating through its Lovecraftian tunnels, the game still feels hard, but it’s not because I simply can’t figure out how to defeat a certain enemy, but more due in part to the game’s jankiness. There is a lot to potentially love about Dolmen, but the bread and butter of a Soulslike game is its combat system; mess that up and what you are left with is just empty carbs.
Setting the Mood
Dolmen takes place on the alien planet of Revion Prime and follows your character who is on a mission to investigate an interdimensional rift causing alien creatures to infest its once rich mining station. Suffice it to say, Revion Prime is now a hostile environment filled with dangerous creatures waiting to kill you at a moment’s notice. The plot, while it slowly develops as you explore via cutscenes and radio communication, doesn’t fully grab your attention, but the exploratory elements of the game do.
I loved the idea of exploring the dark, creepy tunnels you find throughout the game not only because you have no idea what to expect, but because they contain a mix of futuristic backdrops and areas that seem like they are alive. Even the enemies you face feature a mix of alien-like creatures with nightmare-inducing monsters that are both scary to fight because of their difficulty but also due to their design. Dolmen’s setting is truly its high point as you will want to keep playing simply to see what else there is to discover.
- Creepy environments that set the mood;
- A moving soundtrack that also complements the game’s setting.
- Combat feels clunky;
- Inconsistent hitbox issues;
- Linear corridors that leave you wanting more;
- Bland designs and menus.
With that in mind, its visuals won’t win any awards but do their best in setting the mood. Your character, for example, looks rather basic and the various pieces of armor you can equip aren’t very exciting and seem more generic than anything else. Even its menus are awful to navigate and make equipping items a pain to get through. Its soundtrack, however, with its creepy atmospheric arrangements and sometimes quiet moments, gives the game a nice unsettling feel when the action dies down.
Much of your time with Dolmen will involve running through corridors and fighting enemies. This is a Soulslike, after all, so expect linear levels that have you exploring an area, discovering a few scattered beacons that act as checkpoints, and then making your way to the level’s boss near the end. It’s a system that rewards discovery, but brings with it much risk if you aren’t prepared for battle. When you die, all of your experience points (called Nanites here) are lost until you go back to where you fell to retrieve them.
Dolmen features a familiar combat system that is akin to most Soulslike games. You can pull off light or heavy attacks with your main weapon, block or parry at the right time to lessen the damage you take, dodge, and heal if you have enough energy. Doing attacks and dodging drains your stamina bar and firing your guns uses up your energy bar instead of ammo, interestingly enough. Only healing permanently drains your energy bar, but it comes back if you use items to restore it or visit a nearby checkpoint to fully heal yourself.
In addition to your regular attacks, you can also equip various reactor cores that grant your character a temporary charge infusing your attacks with that core’s element: fire, ice, or acid. In this mode, you gain a buff that element brings with it like extra stamina or health, and your energy instead of your stamina is used for attacks. This lets you take an aggressive approach to combat, allowing you to use up all your stamina on attacks and then switching to your reactor to do even more damage. Of course, this also leaves you vulnerable as you will need to wait until you bars refill to recover health or dodge out of the way.
Dolmen gives you an average experience that invites you into a mysterious world but is plagued with hitbox issues, linear hallways, and bland design choices that bog it down. It does have some redeeming RPG qualities, but you will often find yourself fighting with the game more than with the enemy in front of you.
Much of what makes Dolmen tedious, though, is how unresponsive combat feels when you get in the zone and start mashing attacks to hit an enemy. I often found that the animation didn’t link with the attack I was doing putting my character in a spot I didn’t want to be, leaving me open to getting hit. You can target enemies, sure, but even that isn’t always accurate so your attacks could very well miss their mark. Some enemies also have weird hitboxes so don’t expect to dodge every attack even if you thought you timed it right.
Enemies also have some unique attack animations that make it hard to fully read them or to parry them in time. This made the block/parry button nearly useless in my experience as every time I pressed it, it felt like my inputs were delayed or just not matching with what I was seeing onscreen. Also, even when you block, you will still take damage—even more so than you would expect.
Another issue I had with how combat played out is that Dolmen features many areas where enemies just surprise you out of nowhere but in a way that makes it feel cheap and unfair. Yes, Soulslikes are known for their jump scares, and Dolmen does a good job at setting the mood for them, but I often found enemies just popping in out of thin air. Instead of being easy kills because they came in groups, they were tough battles that were more frustrating than rewarding.
Boss battles are actually more fun than the regular enemy encounters because they give you time to think of how to approach these usually massive creatures and learn how they attack. Of course, not all attacks can be blocked or parried and some bosses also have one-hit kill moves, making some fights feel more like trial-and-error than anything else. The same issue about hitboxes plagues bosses too, so it feels even worse dying simply because your attack didn’t connect or you were hit by some attack you thought you dodged.
What does feel good, however, is teleporting to your ship every so often to use up your well-deserved Nanites to level up. You have full control over how your stats are allotted as you level up and you also craft more powerful weapons with all the items you farm from enemies. In fact, sometimes farming is what you will need to do to make progress to craft better armor and items that keep you in line with the enemies you face. Its crafting system is straightforward and nothing exciting but gets the job done.
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If you want more rare loot, you may also need to go back and fight bosses again by using up dolmen crystals you may have picked up from previous battles. Here is when you can team up with up to three players in online multiplayer. You lose your crystal if you lose the battle so even going online and attempting to fight a boss again can be a frustrating experience worsened by the game’s already mentioned defects.
From afar Dolmen looks great. It is the kind of game you want to love simply because it looks creepy, interesting, and is modeled after past Soulslike games that really challenged you while rewarding you with that feeling of satisfaction. Once you start playing it, however, you will realize there is a lot more that could have been done to really take the game to another level.
Dolmen gives you an okay experience that invites you into a mysterious world but is plagued with hitbox issues, linear hallways, and bland design choices that bog it down. It does have some redeeming RPG qualities, but you will often find yourself fighting with the game more than with the enemy in front of you.
Giancarlo Saldana | Gamepressure.com