Key art for Dolmen, which depicts its main character and one of the antagonists

Review

Dolmen Review

May 19, 2022

By: Joseph Allen

 
 
More Info About This Game
Publisher
Prime Matter
Release Date
May 20,2022 (Calendar)
Purchase (Some links may be affiliated)

Have you ever watched a cookery show or a concert and thought "hey, I could do that"? If so, there are two potential reasons for that: one, you genuinely could do that; two, the presenter or musician is making it look easy, and it's actually incredibly difficult to pull off that particular skill. I'm reminded of that feeling when playing Dolmen, a new sci-fi Soulslike from Brazilian developer Massive Work Studio. It aims to marry science fiction and cosmic horror aesthetics with the typical meaty challenge you'd find in a Souls-style game.

In essence, Dolmen is the "hey, I could do that" of its genre. Superficially, it seems to understand what makes Soulslikes so engaging; it's got the purposeful stamina-based combat, the moody environments, and the varied builds, all revolving around a procession of dangerous levels and powerful bosses to take down. Unfortunately, that's where the similarities end. On the surface, Dolmen looks like a solid proposition if you're a Soulslike fan, but as soon as the game actually begins, it becomes clear that Massive Work has...well...massive work to do before it comes close to truly understanding this genre.

 

Dolmen Feels Flat And Uninvolving

The player aiming a gun in Dolmen
You'll explore some levels in Dolmen, but you won't really know why you're doing it.

The problems begin as soon as Dolmen starts. There's an introductory cutscene explaining the purpose of the Dolmen crystals that will act as the MacGuffin for the rest of the plot. Following that, you're dumped into an area literally called The Dump and told to explore, find out what happened to this place, and if it's not too much trouble, exterminate the monsters that now infest it as well. That's as good a setup as any, but it's also about as engaging as the plot is ever going to get. From this point, Dolmen's story slowly crumples into a boring, vapid mess.

It constantly feels like you're simply progressing through a linear video game rather than exploring a living, breathing world.

Dolmen's world simply doesn't feel alive at all. It feels like a sequence of video game levels smashed together rather than a coherent journey. Aside from disembodied voices on the end of your comms channel, you'll never meet another character who has anything to say about the world or the situation it's in throughout Dolmen. Instead, you're simply hacking through a procession of endless hostiles punctuated by boss encounters, after which you're literally teleported to the next set of levels and asked to do the same thing. There's no cohesion in the world design; it constantly feels like you're simply progressing through a linear video game rather than exploring a living, breathing world.

 
 

One aspect of Soulslikes that Dolmen does manage to get right is the oblique delivery of backstory and narrative, although perhaps not in the way that it would like. Once again, as with many other also-ran examples of its genre, Dolmen gives the impression that not only does the player not know what's going on in the story, but the writers don't either. By the time the credits rolled, I was no closer to understanding what had happened or why I should care about any of it. Yet another Soulslike story begins, coughs and wheezes its way through a series of narrative non-events, then ends with a "climactic" moment that feels unrewarding and unearned. It turns out that telling your story in an elliptical way is much harder than it looks, and Dolmen's will be yet another skull mounted on the pikes outside From Software's cave to prove it.

Combat In Dolmen Sure Does Exist

The player facing off against an enemy in Dolmen
This heavy weapon might look powerful, but it makes combat into a total slog.

Sadly, these problems extend to Dolmen's core gameplay loop, which is (you guessed it) heavily inspired by the Souls series. From a checkpoint, you venture forth into the world, exploring and dispatching monsters along the way. As you near a boss, you'll probably find some kind of shortcut or new checkpoint, allowing you to replenish your health, respawn all the level's enemies, and teleport back to your orbiting ship for leveling up and crafting new weapons. It's a familiar dance, and Dolmen really doesn't seem interested in innovating on it in any way.

 
 

Except that's not true. Dolmen does innovate, but in ways that feel bafflingly ill-advised and poorly designed. There's an energy bar, which sits alongside your health and stamina. Using your ranged weapon and entering the supercharged energy mode both cost energy, but so does healing, so 95% of the time, you'll never use these two features for fear you won't be able to heal. You have vials that can replenish your energy, but in practice, this just feels like having a button that turns on the healing function; another useless step that complicates gameplay. It also means that if you don't pour points into energy (which might not be part of your intended build), you're essentially hamstringing yourself when it comes to healing, as you won't be able to heal as many times before needing a vial. It's an astonishingly inefficient design and it makes combat immensely frustrating much of the time.

Unfortunately, since the best Dolmen can achieve is mediocrity, that means its worst qualities stick out like sore thumbs.

This system also doesn't gel with Dolmen's more aggressive approach to combat. Many enemies and bosses won't give you time to back off and replenish your energy so you can heal. They'll stay on you constantly, meaning you've never got breathing room. Often, this turns combat encounters into phenomenally tedious "attack once, then back away" affairs. This is exacerbated by a horribly slow stamina recharge rate and the fact that most bosses recover almost instantly from vulnerable states, so you'll never have time to land more than one attack before you have to back off, especially if you're using a heavy weapon. All of this comes together to give the feeling that Dolmen's combat was hastily thrown together and then never tested, so winning encounters feels like exploiting the system rather than ever truly understanding it. That's also true of the animations, which are poor enough to make combat feel like a floaty, weightless chore.

There's Just Nothing Interesting About Dolmen

The Corrupted Dementula boss in Dolmen
Boss fights in Dolmen feel predictable and boring, like much of the rest of the experience.

In many ways, Dolmen feels like an experimental attempt to take everything that makes Soulslikes interesting and flatten it down to something dull and hopelessly generic. The aforementioned combat problems might not have been terminal if Dolmen's world or story were in any way fun to explore, but the best you're getting here is sub-Halo alien waffle that never coheres or examines itself in any meaningful sense. Slick insect hives, alien bases, desert planets...we've seen all of this before. Dolmen doesn't execute any of its ideas in a way that suggests it has any real reason to exist in a market that already offers much better alternatives for everything it's trying to do.

Unfortunately, since the best Dolmen can achieve is mediocrity, that means its worst qualities stick out like sore thumbs. Dolmen's developers recommend you use a controller to play it, but the menu interfaces clearly weren't built with a controller in mind, so pausing the game to look through my inventory filled me with foreboding every time I had to do it. That's not even mentioning the bugs I encountered, some of which caused me to die prematurely. One particularly nasty bug got me stuck in the floor while fighting a boss I had on the ropes, while another caused enemies to clip into walls, making them untargetable. In a game trying to evoke immersive tension, as this one is, these bugs are frustrating at best and unforgivable at worst.

 
 

Perhaps the moments when Dolmen comes closest to transcending mediocrity are in its level design. Most of Dolmen's stages are warren-like mazes with plenty of different avenues to explore. Early on, these levels loop back on themselves in slightly pleasing ways, although the visual design and general lack of inspiration make them boring to actually explore. Nevertheless, the level design here is perhaps moderately better than you'd expect, and exploring usually yields a useful resource that you can use to augment your weapon or armor. Unfortunately, that single bronze medal is counterbalanced by a baffling lack of even the slightest jump or hop maneuver, meaning that shin-high walls prove insurmountable obstacles. It feels incredibly annoying to hit a wall because you can't climb an obstacle that you could easily just step over.

Dolmen | Final Thoughts

The Queen Caniptei boss in Dolmen
If you want to play a Soulslike with absolutely no standout features or interesting mechanics, then Dolmen is for you.

Perhaps the kindest thing one can say about Dolmen is that it's yet another mediocre Soulslike to add to the pile. In reality, Dolmen aspires to Dark Souls, but it can't even best Deck13's The Surge, which was itself a deeply flawed experience. In fact, Dolmen feels more like a Surgelike than a Soulslike; it has the same sci-fi trappings, the same floaty, weightless animations, the same lack of attack impact, and the same fractured storytelling, but it executes them all slightly less successfully. If you're absolutely desperate for a Soulslike and you've forbidden yourself from replaying From Software's back catalog for some reason, then Dolmen might give you a few hours of fun, but it's safe to dodge roll out of the way of this one.


TechRaptor reviewed Dolmen on PC via Steam using a code provided by the publisher. It's also available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S.

Review Summary

Review Summary

4.5
Dolmen is yet another Soulslike that proves this formula is almost impossible to get right. It's a flat, boring experience with none of the spark and vigor it needs to transcend its many technical flaws.

Pros

  • Occasionally Decent Visuals
  • Passable Level Design

Cons

  • Floaty, Tedious Combat
  • Dull, Uninspired World
  • Uninvolving Story
  • Horrible User Interface