Dolmen Review: "A Dull, Incompetent Clone"
There are few remaining examples of Dolmen - three standing stones with a flat rock atop - in my country. They were used to honour the dead in burials, but they often had other uses, dating back thousands of years, not to mention being quite a sight to behold. Unfortunately, Dolmen the video game isn't nearly as inspiring, taking the Souls formula and butchering it every step of the way, to the point where the game we're left with is merely a cracked shell of the FromSoftware franchise.
Imitation As A Form Of Flattery
Dolmen is an action RPG that very much follows the design of Dark Souls, but with a horror sci-fi setting, taking influences from the likes of Dead Space and Event Horizon. The set-up of the story is that a mining planet called Revion Prime has been overrun by monsters from another reality, brought here in part due to the substance they are mining here, called Dolmen.
You play as the Commander, a lone warrior sent to the planet to find and retrieve samples of this Dolmen substance, and if you save some lives and kill some monsters, that would help too. The Commander is a faceless avatar, there isn’t much in the way of character creation here outside of choosing the colours for your various armour panels. Then you can choose your class, which determines your starting weapons and where your initial skill points are invested. Once you are ready, you are teleported to the planet and sent on your merry way.
Familiar, But So Very Different (Worse)
If you have played a Souls game before, you will quickly recognise you are in a Souls-like tutorial. There are markers on the ground, and walking over them will bring up tips that explain how to play the game. Unlike Elden Ring, you aren’t going to accidentally miss this tutorial because the hints are unavoidable. They will teach you how to do all the basics like locking on, dodging, blocking, you get the gist. It also explains the unique energy system, which consists of an energy meter that gets used up in three ways: healing, shooting, and using your powered up Energy Mode, which makes your melee attacks do elemental damage. You need to balance energy use between these things, as you only have a limited supply of spare batteries.
As well as melee weapons, your Commander is outfitted with a firearm. Your gun is your main method of dealing out elemental damage, allowing you to burn, freeze, or corrode enemies from afar. How the gun actually works is a bit of a mystery, it drains your energy but that energy will replenish, provided you don't overuse it. If you do overuse the gun it will fire slower and completely drain your energy, resulting in no gun for you.
While that's all logical, what didn't make sense was the inconsistent fire rate. Sometimes it had a very deliberate pace, sometimes it felt like a semi-automatic, then other times it fired in bursts seemingly at random. The combat loop of the game leans toward peppering enemies with shots, activating status effects, and then moving in for the big hits with your melee weapon. On paper, it is a perfectly serviceable idea for a combat system but in practice, Dolmen’s combat does not hit the mark.
A Lack Of Impact
This is one of the things Souls-like games can often get wrong - creating weighty, meaningful combat. It is hard to properly define why combat feels so good in something like Elden Ring, but playing Dolmen certainly helps to give some perspective. It simply doesn’t feel very good to hit things with your weapons. Enemies hardly react to a massive axe smacking them in the face, in fact they often power straight through with their own attack animations (unblockable or not), making combat feel very panicked and rushed.
There was an attempt made to replicate the deliberate nature of attacking in a Soulslike, where pressing the attack button is a commitment you cannot break. In Dolmen this feeling is very inconsistent. Sometimes you'll be swinging your sword with reckless abandon and can stop on a dime, other times you press the attack button, the swing goes wide and you have to wait an age before you can do anything else.
Inconsistent is a good description of how most of this game feels to play. Sometimes the weapons work fine, other times you'll be all up in a monster’s grill, mashing the attack button and somehow missing every hit. On more than one occasion, I pressed the dodge button, and a full second later my character rolled in a completely different direction from where I was pointing. One time that sent me off a ledge and into a bottomless pit. I’d say this was frustrating but to tell the truth, Dolmen made such a poor impression on me so quickly that I did not care enough about it to even be annoyed. Being beaten by tougher enemies doesn't fire you up to go at them again, it just encourages you to give up because there's zero satisfaction to be found here.
Eight Legged Freaks
On the topic of enemies, it's thankfully not all bad. There is some decent variety as you progress through the game, although enemy types are fairly simple and easily read. There is a substantial range of size, speed, function, and looks. The first enemies you encounter are these large, alien spider-like creatures. Mostly they just scuttle about and swing at you, then some will hurl acid projectiles at you.
Just as you’re starting to get a bit tired of the spiders, you will encounter the second enemy type, the half-melted toy soldiers who shamble about and throw fireballs at you. The only issue is that this is about when you'll realise the enemies in Dolmen enemies are not very smart. Not that I was expecting tactical geniuses or anything, but when I was defeating enemies by closing doors or watching them walk off ledges entirely of their own volition, it really felt like the wheels were falling off the cart.
Of course, you cannot try to create a Dark Souls successor without having proper, chunky boss fights. A number of Souls-like games have found their way onto my desk during my tenure reviewing games, and often where a title can go wrong is by making boss fights punishingly hard without understanding that just pure difficulty isn't the only draw of a Souls-like. So the fact the first boss of Dolmen is one of the easiest fights in the entire game, you can see the problem here.
Yet Another Spider
Dementula is a giant version of the spider creatures you'll have been fighting up to this point. This is not a bad idea at all, because an early boss being a super-powered version of what you have already been fighting is a great way to ease players into how boss fights work, it gives them some prior knowledge to work off of. Dementula was not only an easy boss fight, it was easier than most of the fights leading up to it. It effectively has three moves; spit acid, charge attack, and spin around. The projectiles are extremely easy to dodge, and both of the melee attacks are completely telegraphed.
So the method is simple; dodge projectiles while hitting Dementula with your own, then go in for a melee attack after the boss attacks and is stunned momentarily. Your only other concern is the smaller spiders that Dementula calls in. Most of the time though, they just stand around aimlessly and died by themselves. I beat Dementula first try with little effort, got a massive pile of crafting items I never used, and moved on with the game. I continued forward, mostly dodging enemies where I could because fighting them felt like a massive waste of time, made my way to another boss, and would you believe it, it was Dementula again. This is where I stopped giving Dolmen any of the precious time on this Earth I have left.
The Unfulfilling Conclusion
There are so few positive things to say about Dolmen. It combines Dark Souls and Dead Space together into something not nearly as good as either. It is such a generic game, that it looks like someone bought a bunch of sci-fi assets from the Unity store and hastily slapped them together. Even still, it is so unoptimized, it could be running totally smoothly one second and then start chugging the next. It is riddled with bugs, one day there was absolutely no sound and the next day the game tried to launch SteamVR every time I started it. The framerate is so inconsistent, especially during cutscenes, most flipbooks are smoother viewing experiences. Dolmen is a dull, incompetent clone of a FromSoftware game whose reach far exceeds its grasp.
Reviewed on PC. Code provided by the publisher.