Dolmen is the debut title from Brazilian developers Massive Work Studio. Drawing heavy inspiration from Dark Souls, it is a challenging RPG with a huge emphasis on combat. While its boss battles are thrilling, its moment-to-moment gameplay is dull and uninspiring, with bland enemy and level design.
Over the past decade, the success of the Dark Souls series has spawned a new phrase and sub-genre in the gaming community: the ‘Soulslike’.
The number of Soulslikes available is increasing dramatically. With the runaway success of Elden Ring, this is not likely to change anytime soon. In fact, there are dozens of games planned for release over the next couple of years that would fall into the Soulslike category.
With this genre starting to become rapidly overcrowded, Dolmen certainly had its work cut out for it in order to stand out from the crowd.
A Galaxy Far, Far Away
Working for the mysterious Zoan Corporation, you play as a genetically modified human known as a ‘Driller’. You are tasked with exploring Revian Prime, a planet that is full of useful resources. None more so than ‘Dolmen crystals’ which seem to have mysterious properties the Zoan Corporation wishes to harness. Unfortunately, though, other people and species also want to harness these for themselves.
The story is subtly told through item descriptions and audio logs in yet another homage to Dark Souls. The problem is that none of it is really interesting enough to warrant digging around looking for logs and hidden conversations just to uncover more of the lore. We never really get to know any of the characters well enough to form opinions on whether we like or dislike them.
The roughly 10-hour journey takes you across Revian Prime. From an early crater area through several space stations and experimental labs. At first, the interconnecting area which serves as the tutorial doubles back on itself, opens shortcuts, and introduces secret areas. It gets off to a pretty great start in terms of the level design. Unfortunately, though, it is all downhill from here. And I do not mean the terrain.
There are three main areas in the game, each of which is broken down into sub-sections. Despite varying in terms of the visuals and color palettes, sadly they just are not fun to explore. Often you will be presented with two paths to choose from. But instead of both ultimately ending up at the same point, or one branching off into a previous area, one will usually just result in a dead-end. Forcing you to double back on yourself for no good reason. Most of the areas feel pretty empty too. To a degree, this is understandable, given the fact that it is an alien planet. But there is a distinct lack of atmosphere for large parts of the game, and this is extremely noticeable.
This extends to the audio too. Or rather, the absence of audio. Trudging through the areas you will notice there’s barely any music at all. With the only sounds being your gun firing or the occasional shrieks and wails from the monsters. Revian Prime is a desolate place, and no doubt the developers have tried to really make you feel the silence by keeping the music to a minimum. But again this just comes across as creating a huge void where there should be an atmosphere.
The protagonist regularly communicates with one of his allies via a comms unit. Their dialogue serves to move the story on as the player moves deeper into the planet. There is not much in the way of personality from either of them though. This isn’t helped by the fact that we are never able to see the protagonist’s face. The full helmet he wears is never removed, relegating him to little more than a faceless robot. Some recent fiction has done the ‘helmet on’ storytelling really well and has set the bar high- I’m looking at YOU, Mandalorian– but Dolmen is nowhere near that bar.
Graphically, the game is pretty average. It does not look awful by any means. But if someone told me it was released during the PS3 era, I would believe them. The textures lack detail and the animations are not quite as sharp as you would want. It does run nice and smoothly though. I played on PS5 and the framerate was solid throughout, with next to no performance issues whatsoever.
Getting To The Point
Upgrading your character will be a familiar affair for fans of the genre. Killing enemies will reward you with ‘nanites’, which you can use to strengthen your character’s ability points. Dying will result in losing all of your unused nanites, with the player afforded one chance to get them back by returning to the spot where you fell. Checkpoints, known as ‘beacons’ in this game, serve to restore your health and regenerate all slain enemies (except for bosses).
The upgrading itself is done in a booth on your spaceship which serves as an (albeit very small) hub area. Frustratingly, you will need to teleport to your spaceship and enter this booth each time you want to upgrade. The fact you can’t just upgrade at any checkpoint is a strange design choice.
As well as the usual things to upgrade, strength, stamina etc, you can also use resources picked up around Revian Prime to build new weapons and armor. These new items can be infused with other resources to add buffs such as increased stamina or resistance to certain elements. None of this is very clear to the player though, and the interface menu where you build these items is not particularly well laid out.
There is no way to compare new armor to the stuff you are already wearing, without exiting the menu to manually check, then going back into the same menu. It feels like there should be a ‘compare’ button that is almost commonplace in other games but absent here. Little niggles like this may seem minor, and they are, but when they start to stack up, they become a bigger problem.
You can also customize the color of your character’s armor from the hub area too, should you wish to mix things up.
Combat is King
Like many other Soulslikes, Dolmen puts the emphasis on frantic, tough combat, which can see even the simplest of enemies kill you in an instant if you lose focus. The standard light/ heavy attacks and stamina meter are present. You have a health bar, a stamina bar, and an ‘energy’ bar. But Dolmen does attempt to put its own stamp on proceedings.
There is a ‘reactor mode’ which you can activate temporarily. Doing this will basically give you elemental damage for a short time, and also means attacks will drain your energy meter instead of your stamina. This seems more like a gimmick than having much actual use. Damage output increases slightly but that is about it. I can count on one hand the number of times I used this throughout my playthrough.
As well as a melee weapon, of which the variety is limited, you are also given a gun. This serves as your ranged weapon. It is also able to inflict elemental effects on enemies. The guns are not particularly powerful though, so those wishing to adopt a ranged build and fight from a distance will not get very far. They are best used by complementing your melee build. Switching to them mid-fight allows you to do additional damage when the enemy gets out of melee range.
The use of your gun drains your energy meter temporarily. In an interesting mechanic, healing also drains the same energy meter. You have a limited number of refills for this meter, and they refresh when you reach a checkpoint. This means you will often be forced to make strategic decisions mid-combat- do you want to heal, or use the energy to go on the offensive with your gun instead?
The combat in Dolmen is weighty and pretty responsive. There are times when it is not quite as snappy as it should be though. Occasionally you will be locked into an input when you want to cancel out of it, and of course, this usually happens at crucial moments, resulting in your death.
It is also extremely hard to stagger enemies, meaning you will regularly be interrupted mid-combo. Whether this is a deliberate design choice or not, it is frustrating more than anything else.
Aside from collecting resources used for upgrades, there are no consumables in Dolmen. No potions, no temporary buffs. Nothing. This seems a little bizarre and it severely limits your options in terms of tipping the tide in your favor.
Like a Boss
The standard enemy design and variety in Dolmen is poor. Spiders, flying insects, and other creatures make up the bulk of them. None are genuinely thrilling or exciting to fight. I found myself bypassing large numbers of them, instead just making a beeline for the next checkpoint.
The bosses, though, are completely different.
Dolmen‘s boss fights are undoubtedly where the game excels. After easing you in comfortably with a couple of straightforward boss encounters, the difficulty ramps up incredibly quickly. Make no mistake, some of these bosses could stand toe to toe with a couple of Elden Ring‘s finest, and handle themselves comfortably.
The arenas, the music, and the variety of these encounters help to ensure that each one is memorable in its own way.
The lack of consumable items in Dolmen means you are literally on your own against these bosses. There is a multiplayer element that works in a similar way to summoning in the Souls games, but this was not live at the time of the review playthrough.
Overcoming these monstrosities will take perseverance and dedication. Attack patterns must be learned in order to find openings. A couple of late-game bosses will really test your skill and this is very likely to put some gamers off.
These fights are probably as close as the game comes to Dark Souls, and the developers have done a brilliant job in replicating some of FromSoftware’s boss formula.
The icing on the cake is that these bosses are actually replayable at any time. By simply visiting a machine at the site where you initially fought them. As long as you have enough Dolmen crystals (accumulated randomly by defeating enemies and breaking boxes), you can replay any boss encounter as many times as you like. Doing so will reward you with powerful upgrade materials and extra nanites to upgrade with.
Final Thoughts on Dolmen
For a developer’s maiden title, Dolmen is a really ambitious project. In some places, it works. The boss encounters are the high point and for Soulslike addicts, they alone are probably enough reason to check the game out.
There are, however, some glaring issues that prevent this game from getting anywhere near the heights of a Dark Souls, or even a Nioh.
Poor enemy and level design, lack of visual or audial atmosphere, and a story that doesn’t engage the player. The list goes on. On balance, the bad probably slightly outweighs the good.
Too much emphasis was placed on difficulty, without ensuring there was enough meat on the bone in other areas of the game.
However, for Soulslike fans, there is certainly enough here to warrant a look, especially at its launch price point.
The raw difficulty, and the tough, engaging boss encounters, provide more than an ample challenge for those looking for their next fix in this post-Elden Ring world.
Note – A review code was provided by the developers for the purposes of this review.