I know I have said this only recently, but I really do feel sorry for most games that have to follow Elden Ring this year. That utter behemoth of a release, whether intended or not has waged a war on fantasy RPG’s and particularly, the imitators of Dark Souls, a franchise of which From Software left behind when they went big with their open-world opus. By no means obsolete in design, Dark Souls is still an enviable standard to hit and most certainly a game that is still looked up to. However, there is an undeniable sense that From Software has left certain aspects of the game behind in a bid for innovation and to up the ante some.
So where does this leave the competition? It’s a tricky thing. Suddenly, all Souls-Borne style efforts are being compared to the incomparable, despite the intimate threat of a challenging dungeon crawler still being appealing, setting your game in these confined walls just doesn’t have the same impact it once did. Hindsight is also now a problem, From Software and the fans have come to realise and appreciate the less stellar aspects of the older games in the series as quality-of-life improvements replace them in the name of fun and redistribution of priorities.
For a game like Dolmen, which is a fledgeling console effort from Brazilian developers Massive Work Studio; this could be a recipe for disaster. Here we have an unashamed clone of the Souls formula, complete with stat scaling, exploration-based action gameplay, punishing challenge levels and sparse checkpointing. Beyond the use of an underutilised setting for this type of game, you could argue that the systems and concepts have been lifted wholesale from From Software’s epic fantasy. While this is a good framework to use as the basis for your own title, it’s a risky endeavour to borrow from one that relies so much on the balancing of these gameplay elements, especially when some of these have been pushed by the wayside for more recent improvements.
Unfortunately, Dolmen is one of those games that takes what has worked previously and adds a caveat in a bid to try and make it seem different, in that “legally distinct” kind of sense. Take for example the checkpointing system. These are represented by beacons dotted around the landscapes and act almost exactly like bonfires. However, unlike the bonfires in Dark Souls, these are often hidden away from the main path in harder to reach places than they should be. In the From Software games, these marked progression as a reward for defeating a boss or for traversing a difficult area. Instead, the checkpoints in Dolmen seem cruelly removed from the players grasp, often leading to multiple deaths before they are found off the beaten path.
Multiplayer has also been affected by this. To play with others, you use a terminal next to a boss room or in your ship, which is used as upgrade hub of the game. To summon others, you need to collected Dolmen fragments which are dropped randomly from enemies. The only issue with this is that the fragments are found so few and far between, with enemies being particularly stingy between the nearest checkpoint and the boss that you need to face. Joining other players is less of an issue and this plays out like what you would expect. At least for the initial connection.
Playing as part of a team however is another thing. The netcode for this game is downright diabolical in execution. I had one successful session out of the fifteen or so that I tried, with the success coming down to a glitched boss kill that netted me part of the reward, only for my character to fall through the earth when coming back to my single player progress, losing a ton of currency that I had accumulated up to that point. All the other attempts ended in glitching across immediate map, accelerated animations for me and the boss and other horrendous bugs. Considering my solid internet connection at home, I’m going to have to put this down to being unplayable, do not go in if you want a multiplayer experience.
Most importantly to this type of experience, is the combat and exploration. The Dark Souls series would be nothing without the clockwork feel of risk/reward swordplay and the stellar environmental design that compliments it so much. Again though, Dolmen just cannot match up that level. There are a range of weapons to play with, from heavy two hander weapons, sword/board combos or light, quick arms that trade power for speed. No matter what you pick however, each swing of a lazer sword or techy axe feels like hitting enemies with a foam paddle. There is no impact to the attacks, with enemies not flinching and just continuing their attack routines as normal. This is particularly troubling when they have health pools that far exceed what they should and often have one-hit kill techniques that are poorly telegraphed due to the various visual effects masking them.
Aside from the melee combat, you have basic gunplay to use also. For most builds, this means a sidearm or shotgun that can be used to take down enemies from afar. However, this is by no means a tactic that can be used exclusively as everything is governed by an energy system that is responsible for healing your character, shooting weapons or as a reserve power source when dealing with world hazards. This is a finite resource and can only be replenished by a limited supply of energy batteries which refresh only at checkpoints or rarely picked up in the world. The energy system does offer a glimmer of hope, as it offers a decent alternative to the way health items work in similar games. However, the battery recharge animation makes it often very risky to use as it roots your character to the spot and renders them unable to defend during. Making some boss battles incredibly difficult as anything can outpace a stationary target.
As a result of the above, it gets to the point where the combat just doesn’t feel as rewarding or as fun as it should do. Now, fun in a souls-like could be considered entirely subjective, with some encounters resulting in players wanting to avoid the foes at all costs. Yet in Dolmen, I ended up wanting to avoid all encounters as they were simply too much of a nuisance to consider engaging by choice. When that includes just basic enemies that should be overcome after some minimal work in the title, even after a few hours of playing, that is a sign that things aren’t quite the way they should be.
As one of the few glimmers of hope, it would be remiss not to mention the upgrade system which genuinely has some good ideas. Throughout the journey through Revion Prime, your character can pick up crafting materials and ingredients of various rarities. With these you can create new armour pieces and weaponry. What sets this apart though are the ingredients that can be used to modify your character beyond the typical numerical stat boosts, enhancing stats such as fire resistance, acid damage, energy consumption and more. This is the one thing that makes the game feel somewhat unique, even if it is a well-executed, yet glorified socket system for gear.
Couple this combat malaise with the world around your character and things don’t get much better. The alien world of Revion Prime is an inhospitable and downright ugly place at times. Particularly in the starting moments which, aptly named ‘the Dump’, this is an organic maze of pulsating walls, wrapped around over-polished generic sci fi walls, complete with the occasional blinking light. It’s an aesthetic that attempts to bring in an element of cosmic horror, but unfortunately Dolmen fails to capitalise on It with meaningful locale or enemy design.
Enemy placement caps off the combat woes by making them spaced either too far apart or by creating ambushes which are impossible to see coming on a first play through. While other games of this genre use similar tactics to keep players on their toes, there is always the sense with those that with careful movement and planning, you could protect yourself against this. However, Dolmen appears to take the trial-and-error approach, which is no fun when you have collected a ton of upgrade currency, only to be sucker punched by three tentacle dogs that spot you long before you can see them.
If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned the story yet, it’s because just like other Souls games, it is more of a tertiary matter to attend to. The jist is that you have crash landed on Revion Prime, which has been suffering a smattering of rifts that are clashing dimensions together. Causing aliens, and warring extra-terrestrial factions to collide with each other. As a tooled-up researcher, it is your job to investigate what is going on and to collect Dolmen crystals from the invading creatures. It doesn’t much to write about as it struggles to draw a true narrative, with sparse cutscenes and disconnected dialogue between your character and their remotely linked team providing little more than a slight steer in a rough direction through the world.
Some of this could be forgiven, if like other games Dolmen could dot a few narrative clues in the item tooltips or make use of worldbuilding outside some random monitors displaying text or discarded documents. Unfortunately, the game and world just feel lifeless, other than the spongey, tank-like enemies that have little motivation other than making your day the worst. As a result, everything about Dolmen feels flat and unfinished with little redeeming quality aside from its admittedly good upgrade system. In a genre that is soon to be filled with more like-minded entries, Dolmen just feels like a tired, me-too experience that has little to offer other than association. Making it impossible to recommend, even to those that hoover up Souls-likes for fun.
+ Attempts a sci-fi setting, which is underserved for this kind of game
+ Demonstrates what makes the Souls-borne games good by highlighting what shouldn’t be done
- Easy to learn enemies that take way too long to kill
- Bland, sometimes ugly design
- Ropey controls and often horrendous collision detection
- Unplayable multiplayer with awful netcode