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Preview: Dolmen

13 Dec 2021

I swear to whatever deities you care to name, there was a time when “action RPG” did not mean that you were making a game specifically to take on Dark Souls. And I’m going to be honest here when I say that the flood of these particular titles is starting to wear on me.

Now, to a certain extent I get it. If you’re one of the many people who walked away from, say, the first couple of games in this larger meta-franchise feeling energized and finding them inspirational, it certainly makes sense that you would almost immediately want to see your personal preferences if you’re in charge of a game studio. And in further fairness, making a game that is meant to be a Souls-like title is not an automatic problem; the only problem comes when you manage to not quite hit the balance of fairness and frustration that makes these titles work.

Dolmen is releasing at some point in 2022 on PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox One and Xbox S/X, and PC. The Steam version was played for this preview.

Taking Care of Beeswax

If you’re anything like me, Dolmen has a premise that’s going to immediately grab your interest. It’s the future, and humanity is sending out genetically altered “Diggers” to dig up the eponymous dolmen crystals on the planet Revion Prime. These crystals have the property of weakening dimensional walls, which ties into a whole bunch of strange insectoid creatures suddenly showing up and ripping through the mining colony with extreme prejudice. The player character is then dispatched to take control of the situation and, well, deal with the awful infestation. Violently, to be sure.

Of course, as the introduction no doubt implied, this is very much in the general Souls vein, which means the emphasis (from what this preview covered) was far more on the ludonarrative rather than following a careful plot. There’s a lot of emphasis placed on environmental details, noticing the layout, and piecing things together in a cosmic horror setting. This is, at least by my standards, all well and good; while I might prefer a bit more in the way of actual plot, there’s nothing wrong with this om a premise level.

You do, however, have to back that up with gameplay. And, well…

It Just Bugs Me

So remember in the beginning of this particular piece when I talked about the balance of fairness and frustration that makes these sorts of titles work? Well… therein lies my major issue with Dolmen. It doesn’t quite manage to hit that balance to my mind, and that means the whole thing is kind of knocked into the lower tiers right away.

Let me elaborate a bit. I don’t mind when a game like this kills me; that’s kind of its job. I am supposed to get killed, learn, and get better. Problems come when things are so easy that mechanics like stamina and the like become functionally infinite (thus breaking the tension) or the dance of swapping between defensive and aggressive moves becomes unpleasant and fails to provide adequate opportunities for combat (thus making the whole thing irritating). Dolmen, unfortunately, tends toward the latter.

Now, in the game’s defense, there are clearly efforts made to mitigate this. For example, there’s the difference between ranged combat using Energy and melee combat/dodging using Stamina, with Energy being a gauge that regenerates and allows you a couple of instant heals before you need to use your limited-use battery to replenish it. That’s a worthy idea, the sort of thing that could theoretically lead to a very different combat cadence.

In practice, however, what I found consistently happening was that enemies would attack too quickly for me to reliably dodge or interact with them, with no useful tells to make it clear how to dodge or how to deal with them. Enemy attacks came out with minimal telegraphing and were not built to be dealt with except by burning down enemies fast. To compound the issue, my health felt paper-thing; rather than having to make difficult choices about risk while being sure that I could at least take a couple hits from most common enemies, even the most incidental bugs quickly swarmed and murdered me unless I carefully picked them off one at a time.

Heck, this was all compounded at one point when I walked into a new area and found myself getting pummeled by multiple projectiles from different angles before I had even looked around the room, killing me before I had a chance to react or piece together the situation.

It honestly felt less like the carefully balanced experience of the better titles in this subgenre and more like an action RPG that just cranked your health way down and then added a stamina system. Rather than the fun tension and push-pull of existing on a razor’s edge between survival and keeping every asset carefully controlled, it just felt flailing and not fun.

Compound Eyes

There’s no arguing that Dolmen’s still shots look absolutely beautiful. They’re a hideous sort of beauty, gore-slicked corridors and vile-looking insect webbing and corruption stretching across the hallways, but the environments are well-designed and feel off-putting without descending immediately into absolute nightmare territory. You feel like you’re wading into the belly of a beast, which is appropriate.

More problematic, unfortunately, are the animations. Your character’s run animations and weapon swings feel a bit on the flailing side, compounding the earlier issues already raised regarding combat balance. It is perhaps a bit nitpicking, but when you already feel as if you’re struggling to get things to work the way you want to or have appropriate chances to react, feeling as if your character is flailing blindly does not help matters significantly.

While music is minimal, the ambient sound is excellent, with a nice squelching sound effect and appropriately weird noises from your enemies combined with satisfying audible thwacks upon weapons connecting. I’ve got nothing negative to say about the sound design, which is both on-point and well-managed.

Less Buzz

I really went into this wanting to like Dolmen a lot more than I did. It’s not a truly disastrous game, and I can see how a big fan of the Souls-like formula would be interested in the game simply as having new content to go through. But as someone who is not a major fan… well, this preview didn’t leave me thinking that this was going to be another outstanding entry in the genre but rather a more middling entry.

Maybe I’m just worse at this genre than I think, maybe I just wasn’t approaching it with the right mindset, maybe a lot of things. But I found myself feeling as if that central push-pull tension was skewed too far in favor of being frustrating and difficult to approach, and that made the game generally hit me cold.

Hopefully the time between now and release will help tune up that balance in terms of durability, speed, and execution. For now, it’s hard to recommend this to anyone other than hardcore fans who are really interested in having a more science fiction-based chance to take on the formula with some guns to back them up. And that’s just not a ringing endorsement.

Preview copy provided by Prime Matter for PC. Screenshots courtesy of Prime Matter.