Dolmen (PC) Preview

Is Dolmen just another sci-fi ‘Souls-like pretender to the crown?
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Dolmen is an upcoming action RPG from developer Massive Work Studio and publisher Prime Matter. Now, “action RPG” has become almost as meaningless a term as “action-adventure”, so it’s more appropriate to describe Dolmen as a new sci-fi ‘Souls-like, in the vein of The Surge or Hellpoint.

Based on two runs, through a roughly 2-hour preview build, it’s a good mix of traditional Dark Souls combat and encounter design, with streamlined elements. The story is presented without being vague or obtuse, the effect of levelling your attributes is clear, the crafting menus are intuitive, and beacons (think bonfires) are more reasonably placed.

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To Dolmen’s credit, dodging space dragon laser beams was a novel experience. With a bit of timing, you can also lure enemies into the blast.

Story

Despite offering a choice of genders, name, and light customisation, you’re ultimately placed in the boots of a defined and voiced character, guided by a Zoan corporation AI referred to as “Control”. In this universe, humanity has colonised several planets for resource extraction, with corporations using genetically-modified humans to better survive harsh conditions. The “Drillers” assigned to Revion Prime have been mining the titular Dolmen, a mineral capable of allowing interaction between dimensions when bombarded with energy. In typical video game fashion, a group of scientists – with a religious or cultish streak – contacted beings from another universe and decided to invite them in. It’s your job to contain the resultant outbreak, recover Dolmen samples, and discover a way to prevent future incidents.

The narrative is primarily conveyed through cutscenes at key moments or before boss encounters, though you’ll also find several terminals and PDAs scattered around the world. These offer throwaway one-sentence messages that flesh out background events leading up to the incident. As someone who thoroughly enjoyed the sci-fi setting of both The Surge games, the premise and world feel suitably novel for the genre, but the storytelling feels perfunctory. Lines feel overwritten, and several responses feel like ‘90s action-movie cheese, but maybe that is the vibe they’re going for and it was the disjointed nature of the preview build that made it feel tonally uneven.

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Keeping a cool head and observing attack patterns remain a core part of the experience. Respawning and defeating bosses is also the best way to farm rare crafting material and nanites.

Gameplay

On the gameplay front, many of the basics follow classic ‘Souls conventions: dangerous enemies that’ll shred your health-bar if you let your guard down; stamina management for attacking, blocking, and dodging; the ubiquitous light, heavy, jumping, and sprinting attack variants; baiting out attacks and openings based on your distance from a foe; a limited number of “heals” between beacons; collecting nanites (i.e. souls) to level attributes; respawning enemies and corpse runs to recover nanites when you die (“restoring the timeline” in Dolmen-speak); and farming creatures for gear drops or the rare resources to forge or enhance your own. Any ‘Souls fan will pick up Dolmen and feel right at home within minutes. However, that’s not to say it doesn’t have novel elements.

The most obvious new addition to the ‘Souls formula is a dedicated energy bar, which can be recharged with basic attacks but is primarily refilled by consuming batteries (think Estus flasks with a limited number of charges). Energy is consumed to heal a chunk of your health bar, but is primarily used by your firearms or to trigger “Energy Mode”, both of which play into the elemental-weakness system. Firearms – think elemental pistols, shotguns, and rifles – are automatically drawn when aiming and consume temporary energy, which slowly recharges after use. When activating Energy Mode, melee attacks are enhanced and use energy instead of stamina. Depending on your gear, this imbues your melee weapons with elemental effects (fire, ice, and acid).

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Things can get weird at times, and I’m sure the multi-dimensional narrative and timeline mechanic could be used for some entertaining twists.

Both these attack types are vital, as conventional physical damage, even with all your points pumped into strength, will only take you so far. Many foes, especially bosses, seem to have an elemental weakness you need to exploit to whittle them down quickly. In addition, these elemental effects also affect speed, resistances, and damage output – something that applies to both enemies and the player when hit by elemental attacks. Certain gear also seems synced to certain elements, triggering new attacks when your target is affected. Of course, you burn through energy quickly, ensuring you can’t cheese enemies with firearms and need to save energy mode for a crucial moment. Oh, and finding time to consume a battery mid-fight is always a challenge.

Other variations on the typical ‘Souls formula include a technology skill tree based on the buffs provided by your gear. Three upgrade paths – Human, Revian, and Driller – offer a distinct focus – think energy and firearms, endurance and melee weapons, or resistances and nanite gain – which provides an additional layer of depth and a reason to find and craft all the gear you can. Another nice touch was the ability for shields to reflect most projectile-based attacks (in addition to the usual function of blocking a portion of damage at the expense of stamina). The last aspect to touch on – which didn’t work for me in the preview build – is multiplayer. You can find specific boss beacons, which allow you to summon in other players by consuming Dolmen crystals (playing into the multi-dimension lore) or respawn previously defeated bosses for resource farming. For those concerned, Dolmen doesn’t seem to do boss runs, so most beacons are always a short, enemy-free jog away when you respawn.

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Both the traditional attributes page and gear-based technology upgrades feel refreshingly simple and transparent about what they affect, with no vague or unexplained parameters.

Presentation

Now, I was initially concerned about accepting a PC preview build, given I primarily play on consoles these days and my gaming notebook is going on 5-years old, but Dolmen proved surprisingly scalable for an Unreal Engine 4 game. With an i5 8300H, a 4GB GTX 1050 Ti, 16GB 2,600MHz DDR4 RAM, and Dolmen installed so a SATA-connected SSD, I could play the preview build of Dolmen at 1080/60, at Epic settings, with AMD FidelityFX smoothing out any dips using the “Balanced” option. Dolmen looks good from an environment- and creature-design perspective, but it’s not the most technically impressive release and this bodes well for both current- and last-gen console versions. On the audio front, combat and enemy sounds are loud and chunky, but the soundtrack felt underwhelming, and I can’t recall any standout moments.

Some Concerns

When it comes to aspects of the game that can still improve before launch, my hope Massive Work Studio focuses on attack animations and hitboxes. Swinging away at enemies still feels floaty, at least when you’re not landing elemental attacks, robbing a lot of the combat of impact. More problematic was the inconsistent range of some attacks in comparison to their animations. The first boss in the preview build – a massive insectoid creature – had an unblockable claw strike that excelled at hitting my character despite clearly making no contact. The second and final encounter features a swordsman with massive sweeping attacks, that often missed my character despite the weapon model passing through him. Given Dolmen is already a tough game – especially when dealing with multiple enemy types concurrently – and these inconsistencies just ramp up the frustration.

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I had less success against the second boss with the high-strength, glass-cannon build the preview provided. It was also a fight that highlighted a disconnect between hitboxes and some attack animations.

Final Thoughts

Overall, Dolmen feels like a competent sci-fi take on Dark Souls, with all the genre basic in place, modified by an interesting energy-management system, flexible secondary upgrades, and a focus on exploiting elemental weaknesses. I enjoyed my playthrough – figuring out how to swiftly dispatch the first boss, surviving the massive jump in difficulty in the next area, and being repeatedly trounced by the second boss – but it still felt too familiar. It now remains to be seen how deep these additional systems are, and whether the setting and story will amount to anything more than a perfunctory backdrop to the action.

A preview code for Dolmen was provided to gameblur by the publisher.

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