Dolmen is a new sci-fi Soulslike, the latest from fresh publishing label Prima Matter and Brazillian developer Massive Work. The pitch is a mashup of sci-fi and cosmic horror, with a little genre action on top. Dolmen brings some interesting ideas to the table, including a weird angle on meter management and a distinct emphasis on ranged weapons. Dolmen makes a solid first impression considering it was made by a small team with an ostensibly low budget (relative to a FromSoft joint), but as the hours go on the game struggles more and more with itself.
The titular “Dolmen” is a new element discovered out in the spooky outer space wilderness, and it’s so powerful it can impact time and space. So naturally a bunch of corporations are fighting over it to make weapons and stuff. Things go predictably awry at a mining facility, so it’s your job to go down there and destroy everything that moves. The storytelling doesn’t really seem interested in sticking around much, and often feels like the least important part of the game. Especially when you get to dialogue exchanges between the player and a support com that are so flat I forgot what they were about the moment they were over.
From Prima Matter’s initial reveal not so long ago, Dolmen had my attention. I was into the sci-fi horror vibes and a demo I played at PAX seemed solid! But with the finished product in my hands, Dolmen simply runs out of steam. The horror never really delivers or frankly shows up at all, and the world was often more about trudging along linear paths between fights, with little of interest happening along the way. I hate to use the term “generic,” but aside from some cute flavor text (when you die an entire “timeline” is erased from existence, and getting your stuff back restores it) it’s hard to describe Dolmen’s identity beyond “sci-fi.”
Being one of them Soulslikes (points for Dolmen not having “Souls” in the title by the way), most of your game is spent fighting monsters, dying, fighting more monsters and leveling up your abilities one stat point at a time. Physical combat feels okay, but there’s a lack of impact that makes things like bigger weapons feel awkward. It’s like you’re waving around a big piece of foam but incredibly slowly, and there isn’t a great sense of connection when stringing little combos together. And sometimes it seems like there are hit detection issues, but I can’t say for certain.
Ranged fighting is interesting, though. Since we’re looking at a futuristic sci-fi setting, of course that means we’re shooting guns. Aiming and firing feels good, and there’s a lot more of that “impact” missing from the melee gear. But most importantly guns really take center stage with Dolmen’s elemental weakness triangle. Fire, Ice and Poison are present in every piece of gear, but often it’s backing up and popping off enough shots to get a status effect going that makes it stand out. So actually figuring your equipment out (with two sets you can instantly swap between) becomes an interesting balance of choosing how you want to arrange elemental properties.
Meter management came up earlier, and that also ties into shooting guns. In addition to the usual health and stamina, you have a third “energy” meter in Dolmen. This meter can be cashed in for several purposes, including an instant heal, a power up based on your armor type and fueling your guns. Guns take energy but not permanently, allowing it to recharge. But that’s only for guns, and overextending your energy healing will leave your gun without ammo. Of course there’s a consumable battery item, but the tradeoff for the instant heal is a not so instant casting time to recharge. It’s an interesting little system that’s tough to do much with early on, but opens up a lot more as you level up.
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What doesn’t feel as neat and open is Dolmen’s crafting stuff. You get parts from enemies and bosses, then go back to your ship to make weapons and armor. But there’s a severe lack of variety, especially with armor. You end up pumping a bunch of resources to make a piece stronger, then you get access to the next “tier” of that set. So you’re just pumping numbers into armor that really doesn’t change much, and you aren’t finding anything exciting out in the trenches for the most part. It’s all grind and no glam.
Bosses do add another weird wrinkle to Dolmen’s whole vibe. Bosses drop unique parts that you can use to make more interesting weapons. But they don’t respawn on their own for farming. So, there’s another resource you can get from random drops you have to pay to make the bosses come back to life. This is the only resource besides exp (Nanites) you lose on death.
That’s kind of strange but makes sense, right? The thing is, this resource is also tied to multiplayer. If you want to squad up for a boss fight you’re struggling with, there’s a good chance you’re out of the stuff you need to even initiate multiplayer! So in addition to making your way back to the boss room, you also have to make sure to grind a few gimmicks so the game allows you to get help. Seems counter-intuitive.
None of this stuff is bad or experience-ruining. Dolmen just can’t hide its non-AAAness for better and for worse. There’s jank, but not so much jank it takes over. The UI looks… store bought (those damage numbers look so out of place)? It’s a solid game with neat ideas, but doesn’t stick enough of a landing on any of them to make it stand out. Dolmen’s biggest problem is how boilerplate its entire aesthetic is, which makes the smaller problems stand out more. Frankly Dolmen’s an impressive project as a non-AAA from a small team. Unfortunately there’s no shortage of Souls derivatives out there in games today, and this one seems vulnerable to getting lost in the shuffle.
- Energy management changes the Soulslike flow
- Ranged combat is neat
- Lots of enemy and environment changes
- The cosmic horror aspect is pretty weak
- Doesn’t establish a distinct identity
- “Jank” is certainly present
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review.