Dolmen – described as an “action RPG” by developer Massive Work Studio and publisher Prime Matter – is a game that entertains and frustrates in equal measure. Despite the early marketing and lingering storefront descriptions, it’s just a traditional sci-fi ‘Souls-like, similar to The Surge or Hellpoint. It’s a compact and brisk experience made on a budget – which I’m fine with – but what’s less forgivable are some dubious design choices and a lack of combat polish that has persisted since the preview build. As a result, Dolmen is a game in which you never know if the wonky hit-boxes are going to keep you alive in the final moments of a tense boss fight; or see you hit by a projectile through a wall and flung into an environmental hazard.
Dolmen‘s premise, which takes inspiration from several classic sci-fi and horror tales, is intriguing. It doesn’t take the FromSoftware approach of obscure, indirect storytelling, but the alternative isn’t that much better, with flashback sequences and banter between the protagonist and their ship AI handling 90% of the storytelling. In Dolmen‘s universe, corporations have established mines on numerous planets to extract resources for the colonies, relying on genetically-modified humans to better survive harsh conditions. The robust “Drillers” of Revion Prime – barely human in appearance – have been mining the titular Dolmen, a mineral found only on that planet, capable of weakening the barrier between dimensions when bombarded with energy. It’s your protagonist’s job to contain the outbreak, find any survivors, recover Dolmen samples, and discover a way to prevent future incidents – something they seem to take in their stride despite the novel threat.
If you examine every glowing background terminal, you can learn a little more about a cultish mining corporation that contacted beings from an alternate dimension and decided to invite them in – despite having built their facilities on top of the ruins of the last civilisation that tried. Just don’t go in expecting gear with detailed lore descriptions, bosses with tragic backstories, or any thematically meaningful designs (beyond interdimensional monstrosities). The narrative is superficially interesting, but it won’t win any awards for the writing quality and fails to flesh out the universe if they have plans for sequels.
From a gameplay perspective, the premise allows for more environmental diversity than many of its peers. Interdimensional rifts result in a merging of Revian Prime’s sci-fi facilities, natural cave systems, and hostile surface with ancient ruins and biomechanical hives. Similarly, the creatures and bosses you’ll face range from skittering and flying insect-like beasts, to robotic guards with dual blades and blasters, to armour-clad Alien warriors. Despite its limited scope, Dolmen tries to change up the scenery and potential threats frequently.
If you’ve played a FromSoftware game, or any other third-person ‘Souls-inspired game, the basics will be instantly familiar: slow and methodical movement; light, heavy, jumping, sprinting, and parrying attacks; stamina management for attacking, blocking, and dodging; dangerous enemies that’ll take chunks out of your health-bar if you’re not cautious; a limited number of “heals” between beacons (i.e. bonfires); collecting nanites (i.e. souls) to level up attributes back on your ship; farming for crafting material drops to forge new gear or enhance your own; and dealing with respawning enemies and corpse runs when you die.
Dolmen‘s novel mechanic is the dedicated energy bar that adds a new tactical layer. It can only be recharged by consuming a limited number of batteries – which are replenished at beacons or rarely dropped – so you need to decide when to consume a chunk of it to heal, when to burn through it all to inflict a flurry of elementally-charged melee attacks, or when to keep it topped up as a slowly-recharging ammunition pool for your ranged weapons.
Having played many FromSoftware titles and several ‘Souls-likes, Dolmen was unexpectedly unforgiving thanks to high enemy damage, cheap ambushes, both stationary and mobile environmental hazards, boss attacks that I’m sure are one-hit-kills, and several design choices and technical issues I’ll discuss in a bit. Having said that, Dolmen still manages to tap into that familiar and satisfying rhythm. Despite the odds, your protagonist can also dole out damage quickly but the challenge comes from finding the perfect moment to strike while still leaving time to disengage and avoid retaliation. Mass combat is unwise and you’ll want to isolate enemies early on or use elemental ranged weapon attacks to stagger approaching groups. When it comes to the boss fights, Dolmen features enjoyable one-on-one battles that’ll test your powers of observation and reflexes; though a few rely on spawning mobs mid-fight and the worst are gimmicky, indirect battles that led to several deaths as I tried to figure out what I was meant to be doing.
Appropriately, those boss fights feel like significant roadblocks, especially given you can reach them in quick succession after traversing relatively small environments. However, it was at the end of the first chapter, after committing maybe a dozen attribute points into my build, that I realised the escalating upgrade cost made grinding conventional foes pointless. Then, while sifting through the crafting menus, I realised the best gear required multiple components only dropped by defeating a boss. At this point, it finally clicked for me that Dolmen wants you to grind the bosses to bolster our character. The payoff is, initially, quite satisfying. The gear you craft increase your affinity with one of three perk trees – Human, Revian, and Driller – each with a distinct focus: energy and firearms, endurance and melee weapons, resistances and nanite gain respectively. There’s not a massive number of items to craft, but higher tier gear offers affinity boosts across multiple perk trees and allows you to socket more bonus material – which also comes in different rarity tiers – to further modify armour resistances or elemental weapon damage.
Despite this revelation, numerous issues become more apparent the further I got. Dolmen fragments, a resource infrequently dropped by basic foes, are used to both summon multiplayer support for boss battles and respawn defeated bosses to grind for nanites and crafting resources. Bizarrely, these fragments also drop on death – annoying enough if you died repeatedly in a new area and just want to respawn several bosses to grind, but it also means if you fall to a boss playing solo and require assistance to progress, you have to grind for three more of these for each multiplayer attempt (you can’t collect your “echo” and flee the arena). Unfortunately, there’s a more fundamental problem – the combat is just as janky and inconsistent as it was six months ago. Movement is stiff yet floaty, switching rapidly between melee and ranged weapons can cause the camera and lock-on to bug out, choreographed attacks range from obvious to nonexistent, and hit-boxes are inconsistent. There were times I’d be hit by an unblockable attack despite dashing well out of animation range, whereas other times I was caught by a stunning attack only to have the follow-up blows pass right through me harmlessly. At times, I was thrilled I survived an encounter with a sliver of health, but all too often it meant messy fights and excessive healing.
Moving back to the positives, Dolmen can look great for a budget title, offering up a ray-traced 30fps “quality” mode and 60fps “performance” mode for current-gen consoles. Although the ray-traced reflections look fantastic in many areas with shiny or slick surfaces, the fluidity and responsiveness offered by the performance mode is a better fit for this genre. Most environments and creature models veer towards generic, with few distinctive or thematic elements, but there’s enough diversity to keep things interesting. The one notable downside is the segmented nature of the world, with distinct areas you load into and no real sense of connected space. When I did find a path leading back into another zone, it mostly felt like a redundant checklist feature as you can teleport between beacons anyway. While I didn’t find the music particularly memorable, the ambient soundscape kept me on edge as I tentatively pushed forward, and loud weapon impacts made the combat feel visceral (assuming your blows aren’t passing through enemies).
Looping back to my opening statement – Dolmen leaves me conflicted. There have been plenty of budget ‘Souls games released over the last decade but even those with a similar scope and streamlined mechanics – think Lords of the Fallen or The Surge games – had tighter and more consistent combat. With an interesting premise, tactical energy management system, streamlined crafting, and impactful gear-based perks, Dolmen has decent foundations. However, several frustrating mechanics and the wonky hit-boxes undermine the experience. At launch, Dolmen is best suited for gamers that consider the ‘Souls-like genre their bread-and-butter and are willing to endure some jank in the pursuit of a new challenge. Casual players might be better off holding out for several patches to further polish the experience.
A Review code for Dolmen was provided to Gameblur by the Publisher.
Dolmen (Xbox Series) ReviewDolmen (Xbox Series) Review
- Tactical energy management mechanic
- Simple but versatile crafting and perk system
- A diverse mix of environments and creatures
- Striking visuals and immersive ambience for a budget title
- Janky and inconsistent combat needs a patch or three
- The multiplayer and boss respawn system needs an overhaul
- Dated, segmented world design