Dolmen is a Soulslike. Okay, fair enough, the game that was recently voted the greatest of all time casts a long shadow. As a fan of FromSoftware's action-RPG series, and the genre it has since inspired, I'm hardly complaining. Throw a sci-fi setting into that mix and I am well and truly in. Dolmen is a Soulslike whose opening level mimics the original Dark Souls' Blighttown. Okay, wow, that's a very different sentence. And a very bold move from developer Massive Work Studio.
Because even the mere mention of that wretched poison swampland is enough to turn the stomachs of Dark Souls' most dedicated fans. Its boulder-hurling, acid-spitting foes are among the most twisted in Lordran and beyond; its spider lair boss battle is a slog, and its ambiguously constructed catwalks are a nightmare to traverse. To draw from all of this in your opening zone – when players are still getting to grips with movement, combat, and your game's systems – shows confidence on the developer's part. To be clear: I'm still not complaining. In fact, I feel quite the opposite.
Developer Massive Work Studio
Publisher Koch Media
Platforms PC, PS5, Xbox Series X
Due at some point later this year, there is of course a chance Dolmen will be rejigged in structural terms come release, but I hope it's not. The press demo I'm playing drops me into The Dump, an appropriately-named crash zone and starting area that's clearly seen better days. Broken fuselage arcs over towering piles of larvae-infested rubble, and skeletal, dinosaur-scale fossils double as broad walkways and bridges to higher ground – an ominous glimpse at what lies ahead.
In the meantime, I'm told that the reason I'm here at The Dump, an area situated somewhere on the planet Revion Prime, is to investigate a catastrophic accident involving dimension fissures and a powerful resource named Dolmen crystals. I'm asked to look out for hostile creatures and, before long, I stumble upon a few spider-like, poison-vomiting baddies, who are quickly dispatched by my two-handed sword. I've adopted a Tanker class, you see, which, much like other ARPGs, favours stats such as strength, endurance, and vitality, while leaving little room for hands-on defence. Buoyed by my early victory, I continue marching forward and activate a beacon checkpoint at the foot of the level's main drag. I'll later use these to teleport to and from my spaceship headquarters, where I'll be able to customize my character's appearance, craft new weapons using foraged materials, and level up using 'Nanites' – the latter of which is earned by slaying enemies in the wild. So far, so Soulslike.
And Dolmen continues to double down on its influences as this level wears on. Those eight-legged, poison-spouters from before grow in numbers the deeper I delve into The Dump, often attacking in packs, swarming from all angles. As I climb the precarious ledges of 'The Crater' – The Dump's most central area – fireball-hurling zombie-alikes charge at me from both behind and in front. And, after wading deeper into an otherwise abandoned operations centre, I'm abruptly hunted down by several downright terrifying Alien meets Vega from Street Fighter with a splash of Edward Scissorhands-types, who more than keep me on my toes.
Like Dark Souls, success here is hinged on timing. Knowing when to advance, when to drop back, when to roll and when to parry is key in Dolmen – distinct rules it lays forth from the outset. Unlike Dark Souls, however, a combination of swordplay, shieldwork, and a secondary firearm can and should be used to your advantage. In one particular set-to, I aggravated one of the latter twin blade-wielding terrors with a blast of fire before engaging it in a gruelling duel. After literally chopping lumps out of one another for several minutes, it was the enduring flames from that first shot that claimed my foe's final sliver of health. Much to my delight.
After that, it was onto a boss fight – a gigantic, lair-dwelling version of the poisonous spiders, whose moveset mimicked its little 'uns on a much grander and more devastating scale. It even spawned a dozen or so of the pesky blighters to snap at my feet, a la Bloodborne's octo-legged cousin Rom, The Vacuous Spider, who were best dispatched immediately before returning fire on the big lad.
Upon completion, I was instantly transported to a different, pre-set mid-game save. Here, I was given my first glimpse of the world outside in Dolmen, which in this instance was a sandswept, hostile robot-ridden environment which demanded quick thinking and stealth in equal measure. The sandbox feel of this particular zone broadened my scope for experimentation in combat, which was lovely, but, naturally, in the absence of any form of narrative or explorational guidance, the transition to this admittedly gorgeous part of the game's world was a wee bit jarring. Still such is life (and death, jeez, so much death) in a pre-launch build.
For fans of the Soulslike genre, 'Dark Souls but in space' is an easy sell – but it must be done right. Luckily, I'm convinced Dolmen is on the right track. It's hardly reinventing the wheel. But that's not to say I don't fancy taking it for a spin.
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