You have to be brave releasing a Souls-like in the same year that FromSoftware has unleashed Elden Ring upon the world.
The fact that Dolmen by Massive Work Studio has a sci-fi theme with cosmic horror elements at least makes it somewhat unique. And it has some fairly interesting mechanics, too. But a number of issues mean that only the most ardent of Souls-like fans are likely to stick with it until its end.
In Dolmen, it’s your job to explore a hostile alien world in order to find samples of a mysterious crystal called Dolmen. What makes them so special? Well, they allow interaction between multiple realities, apparently. As you can imagine, that’s pretty exciting, especially when you consider its useful applications for things such as space travel.
After creating your character with the paltry options that are on offer, you’re literally thrown onto a Dump. The character class you’ve chosen determines how you progress from there, but as with most Souls-likes, ultimately your loadout is up to you. You can start as a melee-focused warrior with a giant sword if you wish. Then you can either stick with that, or switch over to dual-wielded blades. It’s just a case of levelling up your character appropriately.
What’s particularly interesting about Dolmen, though, is that there’s also ranged combat to seriously consider. And we’re not talking about magic. No matter what class you choose, you’ll be able to equip guns. Build your character to make full use of strength-scaling weapons and they’ll be of limited use to you. But if you’re able to pump points into Skill or Science, playing Dolmen like a third-person shooter is somewhat viable.
We say somewhat viable, as the usage of firearms is limited by the amount of energy you have. Unleash shots from your gun in quick succession, and you’ll have to wait for your energy to recharge before you can fire again. The trouble is, certain abilities – like using your energy to heal – reduces the amount of energy you can generate. To restore it, you either need to hit enemies with melee attacks, or consume a battery. The latter leaves you vulnerable for valuable seconds. Plus, batteries are limited.
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Energy has other uses, too; it’s not just valuable to firearms users. With the press of a button you can turn on an equipped reactor core, granting a range of elemental bonuses. We’re talking things like making your blade do additional fire damage and the like. And in this state, melee attacks consume for energy rather than stamina – useful for when you want to capitalise on an opening.
It can be pretty hard, then, to choose how to develop your character. It sure is handy to be able to shoot enemies at range and do meaningful damage. But your damage output being so dependant on energy can be problematic.
In any case, Dolmen is actually pretty enjoyable to play. It makes a bad first impression with its low quality video scenes and loading screens, but once you’re actually in the game it doesn’t look too bad at all. But more importantly, the combat is reasonably solid. The animations aren’t great, and mechanically it pales in comparison to any of FromSoftware’s output, but there are some tense battles to be had.
There’s a neat crafting system in Dolmen, too. Strange stones not only provide places of respite, but also allow you to teleport to your ship, where you can use the souls – sorry, nanites – you’ve gathered to upgrade your character. And it’s also there that you can craft new armour and weapons using materials. But it’s the fact that you can tweak their stats by adding catalysts and other materials into the mix that makes it interesting. Plus the bonuses each piece of equipment provides to one or more technical trees, providing valuable perks. The fiddly menus might drive you to despair, though.
There are some notable gameplay issues, too. It’s neat being able to use firearms, for example, but it’s not all that fun when enemies use them again you. Huge chunks of your health can disappear in an instant, without you even knowing where the shooter is. There’s also the issue of some bosses having instant death attacks which is a pain. And while Dolmen does have co-op, you’re required to farm Dolmen fragments to use it. They’re dropped with your nanites when you’re killed. If you can’t make it back to your corpse they’re lost, forcing you to farm them again.
As far as sci-fi Souls-likes go, Dolmen sits somewhere between Hellpoint and The Surge in terms of quality. It can offer a rewarding experience to Souls-like fans, but it falls short of the bar set by the creators of the genre. Still, for those who have patience and persistence, and like the idea of exploring a new, futuristic setting while engaging in challenging combat, it’s worth checking out.
Dolmen Review – GameSpew’s Score