Date: December 23, 2021
FromSoftware casts a long shadow over gaming, even more so than usual right now with Elden Ring just over the horizon. Honestly, it’s been difficult not to judge any action RPG against the Soulsborne series since they became the standard. With a game as unabashed about its influences as Dolmen, it becomes impossible. So naturally, I played through Dolmen while comparing it to Hidetaka Miyazaki’s masterpieces. Although it certainly doesn’t topple the king, it comes closer than any other imitator I’ve played thus far — and it offers some innovations that make it stand out amongst fellow Soulslikes such as the Surge and Hellpoint.
Dolmen is a sci-fi action RPG, and the first major title from Brazilian developer Massive Work Studio (whose sole previous title is a mobile rhythm game). It’s also being published by Prime Matter, who we’ve seen support other exciting new IPs like KC:D and Iron Harvest. Players familiar with other titles Prime Matter has put out should have a good idea of what to expect from Dolmen: not quite Triple-A, but with new ideas and passion that more than outweigh the jank.
At first, Dolmen appears to be pretty much the same as any other Souls clone. You learn how to do light and heavy attacks, block and dodge, and sprint. If you die, you drop all carried currency (in Dolmen they’re “nanites”) and must return to your corpse without dying in order to retrieve it. So far, so familiar.
Things start to get interesting when the game teaches you how to pull out your ranged weapon. Unlike attacking/blocking/dodging, your pistol requires energy to fire; this resource slowly regenerates over time, like stamina but slower. When I first discovered the ranged weapon system offered essentially unlimited ammo, I was worried the game would be too easily cheesed. Fortunately, Massive Work was one step ahead of me — the more powerful enemies I faced easily dodged my rifle blasts when I was too far away, and I had to get closer in order to damage them. Even so, the ranged weapons made dispatching low-level mobs much easier.
There’s a catch, however. To heal, you must spend some of your energy, reducing your total available energy until you use a battery (which of course are restored only at save points). This trade-off between being able to use more ranged attacks or being full health is interesting, and adds a much-needed wrinkle to healing that most games lack. There’s also another use for energy: you can choose from a selection of “cores”, which provide different passive and active effects — when activated, your attacks use energy instead of stamina. While I don’t think I got very good at it, it’s clear that learning how to use your energy and stamina bars in conjunction will allow skilled players to be much more effective.
The afore-mentioned cores come in three flavors: ice, fire, and poison, and it appears that the same three elements are present on most weapons. Enemies have different vulnerabilities and resistances, and you can use your ranged weapon (or your core) to apply a status effect. Attacking an enemy inflicted with a status effect causes additional damage or effects, depending on the weapon you’re using. This system doesn’t feel too complex to use, and meshes well with the game’s robust crafting, making it easy to equip yourself with weapons of every type.
Of course, none of that matters if the actual rolling and sword-swinging doesn’t feel good. While it occasionally felt a bit clunky, I’d say that Dolmen is about as close as you can get to a FromSoft game without actually playing one. I was reminded of going back and playing Dark Souls 1 after having finished Bloodborne; there’s nothing specific that feels wrong about the movement and combat, but it just isn’t as smooth as it could be.
Still, once I got the hang of the controls, I started having a blast with Dolmen. The movesets on the weapons are great, and swapping between ranged and melee and using the cores is intuitive and fun. There are also more powerful ranged weapons that actually reduce your total energy to fire, adding yet another layer of decision-making to your equipment.
I got to face two bosses in the preview build, and venture through two areas of the game. Both sections had bits that made me go “Woah…” and other bits that frankly looked unfinished, but overall I was impressed with Dolmen’s visuals. The environments are — if not always “pretty” — certainly unique, and they required some wandering around but without getting frustrating. The first boss had a fun mechanic that spawned adds, while the second boss was a tough 1v1 that required a number of tries and some serious pattern recognition. If these two are at all representative of what Dolmen’s boss battles will offer, I’m really looking forward to them.
There’s also a fairly well-developed story in Dolmen, though I only got to see bits and pieces of it during the approximately three hours I spent in the preview build. From what I could gather, some genetically-modified humans called Drillers were harvesting and using Dolmen crystals on a planet called Revion Prime. These powerful crystals ended up opening a portal between worlds and letting some less-than-friendly creatures through. There are also probably some timeline shenanigans going on, given that dying and picking up your dropped currency both reference timelines being erased and destroyed. Basically, if you’re into weird aliens, portals to evil dimensions, and advanced tech, you’ll likely find Dolmen’s plot at least somewhat entertaining.
While it’s mainly a single-player game, Dolmen will let you spend Dolmen Fragments to host multiplayer sessions exclusively to fight bosses. If you don’t need help on the bosses, these same fragments can be used to respawn bosses so you can fight them again — either for the challenge or to collect specific rare crafting materials.
I really hope Dolmen comes out late in the year, once people are all finished with Elden Ring and hungry for another dark, challenging action RPG. While it isn’t ready to compete with the big boys, Dolmen is looking to be a solid game for anyone who likes dodge-rolling and trying to figure out where the heck to go next.
Dolmen releases sometime in 2022 on PlayStation 4 & 5, Xbox One and Xbox S|X, and PC via Steam. It is being developed by Massive Work Studio and published by Prime Matter.
Will Dolmen finally be the Souls clone that doesn’t suck? Think I’m wrong and that Hellpoint and the Surge were actually good? Let us know in the comments!