STAFF REVIEW of Dolmen (Xbox One)

Tuesday, May 31, 2022.
by Adam Dileva

Dolmen Box art It’s no secret how popular Dark Souls has been the last few years with each new game, so much so that there’s no shortage of other games trying to replicate their success. While many try to emulate what makes Souls games so popular, very few actually pull it off or are memorable enough worth noting. There have been a few like The Surge (and its sequel), Hellpoint and Remnant: From the Ashes that take the genre and make it their own, of which I actually enjoyed Hellpoint. Developers Massive Work Studio has opted for a Dead Space meets Dark Souls kind of blend, making for a unique backdrop with some interesting design choices, but the question is the same: Will this Souls-like stand out for the right reasons, or be forgotten with the countless others in the genre? While there’s a few things I quite enjoyed from Dolmen, there was an equally amount of issues that frustrated along the way as well.

Taking place on the planet Revion Prime, you’re on a mission to find a substance called ‘Dolmen’ due to its power that it supposedly holds. This incredibly powerful material is going to be very sought after though, not just by you and your team, but alien hostiles as well. This Dolmen allows you to maneuver within different realities, so you can start to see why it is so sought after. There’s cutscenes here and there generally after the main bosses, and there’s a big bad guy, but much of the lore is told through logs and computers you find along the way, so I hope you enjoy searching and reading if you want to piece it all together.

You begin by choosing your class, each varying slightly in its stats and starting weapon, though you’re not locked to playing with that main weapon only by any means, but you’ll want to definitely play to your strengths as there’s no way to respec if you start putting points into the ‘wrong’ stats to change how you want to play later on. Aside from coloring the armor, there’s no character customization whatsoever as you begin. Granted, you don’t ever see your character out of armor, but it was a bit of a letdown to simply have a generic futuristic suit of armor, something you might see in Dead Space or Mass Effect.

As a Souls-like, Dolmen is not only is trying to be like its inspiration, it basically copies all of its mechanics almost exactly. You know when a friend in school wanted to copy your homework and you let them, but made sure they reworded it so it didn’t look like it was blatantly obvious? Think that. With a futuristic setting you can expect the same tried and true game loop that you’ve come to love from your Souls games. Explore levels, kill enemies, manage your stamina bar, earn experience points, use specific points as teleports, kill massive bosses and repeat.

Instead of bonfires you have these pods that act as your safe zones and teleport points. Using these refills all your health and energy, but also respawn every single enemy. Kill enemies for Nanites, the equivalent of Souls, your currency for leveling up a number of different stats based on how you want to spec your character. The challenge is tough, bosses on a whole other level, and you’re going to die repeatedly over and over. Dolmen does do a good job at creating an unsettling atmosphere with its opening environment that’s very organic in nature, eventually changing up some of the biomes and backdrops to more typical sci-fi scenes you’d come to expect.

While the above describes every Souls game ever, Dolmen does do a few unique things which I applaud them for, though I question some of the execution. While it has more of a horror type of setting with lots of hidden enemies and ambushes, Dolmen clearly wants you to play it as a melee type of game, hacking and slashing your way through enemies, but with a ranged weapon you can also shoot from afar as well. More than simply swapping magic using mana, Dolmen uses energy for ranged ‘ammo’, but this refills over time but is also used for a number of other things, such as healing. More on that shortly.

While you can switch between melee and ranged combat on whim (provided you have enough energy), you have your typical Light and Heavy attacks with a Block and Dodge. Block the moment you get attacked and you can parry many attacks and even ranged projectiles, provided they are not the unblockable attacks which seem to be the norm in the later stages. All of these attacks and dodges need to be managed by your green stamina bar, something you’ve become very adept at over the years in other Souls games. I did quite enjoy this dodge, as instead of a typical roll, your character also has this silhouette of themselves from their previous position. Does it add anything to the gameplay? No, but it looks cool. There’s no jumping in Dolmen, yet you’re able to do a jumping attack (running plus heavy attack), so how that makes sense I’m not sure.

Given Dolmen’s horror-like aesthetic, you can expect hidden enemies around every corner and some that even teleport into place just to scare and ambush you. You’re going to need to be aware of what could potentially be above or below you as well, especially in the opening area with plenty of bugs you’ll fight against. The biggest problem I found, even from the beginning, is that enemies are tuned a little high. Their health pool is huge, needing a good barrage of attacks to kill, and even when you start to level up and get new gear, bosses are just massive hit sponges that become a chore to fight against over and over after each death and restart. Melee weapons never feel weighty or do huge damage unless you want to use the giant two handed swords, but even then, that’s not how I wanted to play and I felt I suffered for it trying to dual wield some cool looking blades.

You have an Energy meter that can be used for a number of different things depending on what you need and your playstyle. More than simply a ‘mana’ bar, Energy is used as your ‘ammo’ for your pistols that refills over time and is also able to be used as an Energy Mode, allowing you to imbue your melee weapons with elemental properties and attacks. Lastly, Energy is also used to heal your health after getting attacked, a blend of ranged ammo and an Estus Flask.

So while you can freely simply use it for ammunition for your pistols, as soon as you use your Energy to heal you now have less to use for your shots. This unique approach has you constantly balancing what’s most important at the moment you need it. I tended to favor using my ranged weapons so I constantly relied on my Energy. As soon as I needed to heal and use my Energy, I then had much less ammo to use, forcing me to go back to melee attacks.

You can refill your energy with batteries but these are rare and you only ever get a few at a time. This is where I liked the idea, but the execution is left to be desired. So you’re full health and accidently hit the button to heal? Well, that’s clearly your fault and it uses the Energy regardless. Only missing a sliver of health and accidentally heal? You guessed it, half your Energy gone. It should scale but doesn’t, so you need to wait longer than you sometimes want to if you want to be efficient as possible as to not waste your coveted batteries. Even worse, it takes a full three seconds of standing still use use a battery, so imagine how impossible this is to do during boss fights or when being swarmed when you actually need to in the chaos.

You choose a core reactor for your suit that equates to different elements, from Fire, Ice and Poison. Using your special Energy Mode allows you to use these elements with your melee attacks, negating the stamina use, but uses the Energy instead. It’s a good way to get some extra hits in, useful for openings in boss fights, but again, you’ll drain your Energy almost instantly, so you need to know the best times to do so while you wait for it to refill slowly.

Gunplay plays a large and unique part of Dolmen’s combat. While you don’t need to rely on it heavily, and the game does want you to focus on melee the majority of the time, you can make a fully viable ranged build if you choose. While this sounded fun, as I could essentially play it like a third person shooter, this backfired when I started fighting bosses that essentially negated ranged attacks. You can lock onto enemies, though of course this gets dicey when in closed spaces and fighting multiple enemies at once.

While you’ll need to learn the best strategies for taking on every type of enemy, though there’s not too many, you can expect to be punished for the smallest mistake when you do inevitably make one. Even regular enemies can hit hard and take a ton of damage to kill, but the bosses are on a whole other level. Bosses are meant to be challenging, but when they have so much health and take well over fifteen to twenty minutes to kill, it becomes tiresome, especially attempting the same boss for well over an hour from constantly dying. Bosses start out with a decent challenge then spike in difficulty after a couple, eventually destroying the little enjoyment I was having as I slowly became more stronger and competent.

One of the other interesting things Dolmen does is how it handles crafting. Armor and weapons don’t actually drop from any enemies throughout your adventure. Instead, killing enemies will net you crafting materials and blueprints, with bosses obviously having the better and rarest materials you’ll want to seek out. This encourages farming, which is possible, but quite tedious. You see, when you defeat a boss, it’s dead for good. You can respawn them, but you need a special currency that doesn’t drop often, but this currency is also used for fighting bosses in multiplayer, something I’ll explain shortly.

You can craft melee weapons, ranged weapons and armor from helmets, arms, legs and chest, as well as shields. This is of course if you have the blueprints and enough materials to do so. The higher the tier of item you can actually add components to the item before crafting that will raise its stats in different ways depending on the catalyst you add. Using your special boss drops will greatly improve your items when crafting, but do you use them on lower gear to get a bigger boost early on, or save for later when you can add multiple components for higher tiered items? You’ll need to constantly back out and compare gear in a clumsy menu system though, so prepare to take notes before doing so.

While there is a multiplayer component to Dolmen, it’s so poorly implemented that you might as well pretend it doesn’t exist. If you’re expecting to play alongside a friend in co-op to get through the story and game as whole, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Boss battles can be done in co-op, though to host or join a lobby you need a special currency that randomly drops from enemies. Yes, you need these fragments to play co-op every single time. Oh you’ve died? Yup, you’ve lost your Nanites and these special fragments that are on your corpse.

So while you could farm bosses for the materials, you’ll need to farm regular enemies and hope for these fragments so you can event attempt a boss with a co-op partner. Of course I tried this, hosting a lobby and had someone help me kill the first boss. We beat the boss, which I was grateful for, but then it instantly kicks out your partner and refreshes your game. I don’t know if I had a bug or not, but this co-op kill didn’t count for my story progression, so I had to do it solo afterwards for it to count anyways. You can also respawn bosses if you wish to farm, but then you’re using your shards for this instead of co-op kills. If I could have played alongside a friend for the whole game, Dolmen would have been much more bearable, but the way co-op is implemented here is mind boggling and an utter disappointment.

While I enjoyed Dolmen’s gritty aesthetic taking place on a planet that feels organic in some parts, it does look dated at best. While there’s two visual options, I chose Performance for seemingly better framerates over some slightly better reflections and lighting? The environments themselves look decent and varied when you go from area to area, but the majority of the indoor hallway sections without much to look at can become dull after a while, exasperated with the stiff animations of your character. The audio soundscape is done well in the sense that you constantly hear some creaking and monster noises through the doorways, putting you on notice, but aside from that and your attacks there’s really nothing else worth noting. There’s very little ambient sound, almost to the point of being silent, and while that may be what developers were going for to get the ‘deadness’ of the planet's mood across, having empty audio just feels off. There’s an oddly catchy little song that plays when you go back to your ship to level up and craft, but other than a song here and there with boss fights, don’t expect much else.

For being developer Massive Work Studio’s first major release, I have to appreciate what they’ve done with a small team. Trying to be a Souls game can be very difficult, as you’re going to always be compared to the best of the best in the genre, and about half way through and a handful of bosses in, I simply wanted it to be over. I never really felt more powerful by a large margin when I upgraded my gear and even standard enemies have way too much health. Bosses infuriated instead of making me feel dominant when I was finally able to defeat them, knowing that I’d be slogging through just to reach the next boss gate and preparing myself to die a dozen times.

For those that truly enjoy Souls games, even budget titles, Dolmen should give you a good twenty or so hours of content to get through, but at its current high price I can only suggest waiting for a massive sale for the rest of everyone else curious. While I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as say Hellpoint, I have to commend their bravery releasing this so shortly after Elden Ring. There’s some good ideas here, and with some more polish and refining I probably would have enjoyed my time with Dolmen much more than I did, but as it stands now I simply wanted it to end.

**Dolmen was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 5.0 / 10
Gameplay: 5.0 / 10
Visuals: 6.0 / 10
Sound: 4.0 / 10


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