Review – Dolmen
You know the first time I covered Dolmen on WTMG? It was back in 2017, the first year in the site’s history. I covered it once again the following year, but soon after, the game vanished. It had a ridiculously promising premise for its time, being one of the first futuristic soulslikes back when that term didn’t even exist. I also have to point out I was cheering for the game’s success, given it was coming from my home country of Brazil, where at the time the industry was still in its infancy. I had honestly imagined Dolmen had been cancelled due to lack of funding, but somehow it ended up being re-announced last year during Koch Media’s online presentation.
A game at least six years in the making. Dolmen was actually going to be released, and with backing from a major publisher. Things were looking good, right? Well, Dolmen would be released in mid-2022, being the first soulslike to come out after the juggernaut that was Elden Ring. There is also the fact that, for 2016-17 standards, its premise was unique. Nowadays, with Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and both The Surge games, futuristic Dark Souls clones aren’t as rare as they once were. Dolmen had to prove its worth more than ever. Considering its stupidly long development cycle, I was expecting quite a lot from it. Only for it to disappoint me…
How and where to even begin? Well, let’s just say that Dolmen might possibly be the dullest soulslike I have ever played. I remember when people used to call Lords of the Fallen and the third Darksiders game the poster children of how not to make a Dark Souls clone, but I never understood the hate towards them. Especially now that Dolmen is out, as those two look and feel like Bloodborne in comparison.
Between its horrendously dated gameplay, bland story, and dull visuals, there wasn’t a lot I enjoyed in this game. In no moment did it feel like a PlayStation 5 title that took a while to be released because of love and care. To me, it felt like I was playing a cheap Souls clone released on Steam back in 2015 or 2016. Yes. That bad.
I’m not one to care that much about ludonarrative dissonance issues in games, but Dolmen‘s initial cutscenes bothered me deeply. Sure, it was setting up a somewhat interesting plot featuring alien invaders, mutations, and tears in the time-space fabric, but it was the final cutscene before the beginning of the gameplay proper that made me wonder if any kind of quality control was being used during the game’s development. We see your main protagonist, your average faceless soulslike protagonist, strolling through one of the most jam-packed armories in sci-fi history, full of machine guns, bazookas, the whole shebang. He proceeds to grab a minuscule hatchet and a weak pistol before risking his own life in a mysterious planet. I mean.. how does that make any sense?
Alright, rant over, game on. Dolmen‘s initial minutes serve as your typical tutorial section, showcasing its gameplay, obviously derived from Dark Souls, as well as its handful of unique features that make it stand out from its peers. Two things grabbed my attention. The first one was the protagonist’s suit’s battery system, which replaced the more traditional Mana/MP meter in other action RPGs. Great concept, but so-so execution. You can use it as ammo for your weapons, you can spend a chunk of it in order to heal yourself, or you can burn it all at once to activate an ultimate, Super Saiyan-esque overdrive mode. I call it a so-so execution because you start off with a paltry amount of it, yet the game pulls no punches from minute zero. You can barely use everything at your disposal due to how minuscule your meter is.
The second interesting take on the Souls gameplay formula is the heavy usage of third-person shooting, which allows you to take out enemies from afar with ease. Sure, Dark Souls had the bow, but no one in their right mind would call that aiming system anything but undercooked. Dolmen‘s third person shooting is actually quite good, if enemies are at a distance where you can use the behind-the-shoulder viewpoint without worrying about being attacked. If you’re close to them, you can lock on them and shoot normally, but that leads to my biggest issue with Dolmen as a whole: its combat.
There is no way to beat around the bush with this one: the combat is bad. I have to call it rushed and unpolished, even though this game took, at the very least, six years to be developed. It boggles my mind when I think about it. As you can already imagine, the hit detection is terrible. You can be one nanometer away from an enemy and you’ll still miss an attack. The enemy can be in a different postcode from you, and they’ll use an attack that will let them insta-hit you as if they were the Flash.
No matter what class you start off as, your character is as slow as molasses once the game starts. Once you press the attack button, you are committed to it. There’s no way to cancel your actions, so you might as well sit back and enjoy you failing miserably at killing a mutated spider due to the combination of not being able to cancel your moves, enemies rarely staggering once hit, and you flinching like a dude being kicked in the groin if you ever get hit by a foe. To make matters worse, most enemies can deal elemental damage that will slow you down or reduce your defenses momentarily, adding insult to injury.
You start off weaker than a twig. You get pounded in three to four hits, even by the weakest of enemies. You have the stamina of a fat guy who smokes three packs a day. Furthermore, you are dealt fall damage if you ever so dare to jump down a ledge three feet higher than you. For a guy supposed to be a badass space marine, Dolmen‘s protagonist ended up feeling like the kind of fodder enemy you defeat in bunches in the beginning of other soulslikes. I get that you are supposed to level up and feel stronger as time goes on, but I didn’t need to feel THAT weak at first. Yikes.
The secret to succeeding in Dolmen is to deal elemental damage with your ranged weapon, weakening your foe in the process, and finish them off with your melee attack. It’s not the most exciting of combat systems as a result. I would have completely given up on farming for experience points if my character wasn’t so horrendously weak at first. You have to grind. There’s no choice. Once you beat a boss, you will unlock a new area to explore, where enemies are much stronger than you. As a result, you rarely feel like you’re actually evolving. There will always be a brick wall immediately after you spend a crap ton of experience points acquired from a boss battle. Thankfully, you can actually revive bosses in order to farm their XP and materials. Dolmen wants you to grind, but its combat system is too annoying to convince you to do so.
The game does have a neat crafting system, letting you create armor and weapons with materials acquired from downed enemies. Furthermore, you can customize your gear by infusing them with other enemy remains, giving them additional stats, Monster Hunter-style. Once again, excellent concept, terrible execution. It all boils down to Dolmen’s atrocious UI, both in terms of its cheap-as-hell looks (the font usage is cringe-worthy) and botched design. For a game hell-bent on shoving tutorials at you whenever something new happens onscreen, Dolmen was pretty coy in properly telling me how these crafting systems worked.
When it comes to its presentation, Dolmen is a mixed bag. Design-wise, sure, some enemies looked interesting, and the level design is actually quite cool, with the first area alone being very vertically oriented and impressive to look at. But it does look cheap. Animations are clunky. Particle effects feel like they were taken from a Nintendo 64 game, and that’s being generous. Dolmen doesn’t look THAT impressive for a PS4 game, let alone a PS5 title. This is one of the main issues of it taking so long to come up: it didn’t catch up with the rest of the gaming world, not even the AA spectrum. At the very least, its framerate is stable. I would have been shocked if it wasn’t.
Finally, the sound design. At times, Dolmen sounds great. At times, the voice acting sounds really competent and professional. There are other instances in which it sounded like Metal Wolf Chaos at best. It was really bizarre, since most of the dialogue revolves around your main character and a commander, but the quality of their performances fluctuated more aggressively than the cryptocurrency market.
The same can be said about the sound effects. For every fantastic atmospheric sound, especially when you’re exploring the desolate ruins of this alien planet, you get battery sound effects similar to a bad Casio keyboard, and robots one step away from literally shouting “beep beep boop boop”. My favorite sound effect in the entire game, for all the wrong reasons, was what my main character uttered whenever he ran out of stamina after sprinting, panting like a fat bulldog after a walk in the park. Lovely.
More than just a really bad soulslike, Dolmen is a major disappointment. After more than half a decade waiting for this game, as well as constantly losing faith in it ever being released, I was expecting for these constant delays to result in it feeling more polished, more akin to more modern soulslikes. What we ended up getting was the complete opposite: a clunky, shockingly behind-the-times husk of an action RPG which would have been considered dated back in 2016, let alone today. How did it end up feeling so rushed despite being in the oven for more than six years is something I’m sure I’ll never be able to comprehend.
Dolmen doesn’t look impressive for a PS4 title, let alone one for the PS5. Even if its level design is decent and the framerate holds up fairly well in performance mode, its UI is horrendous, its animations are janky, and its particle effects feel like they were taken from a game from at least twenty-five years ago.
Some good ideas thrown into the mix, such as the battery system and some nice crafting mechanics. On the other hand, this is one of the clunkiest soulslike combat systems I’ve played since the dawn of the genre.
There are moments in which the voice acting sounds great. There are other moments where it sounds beyond amateurish. Some sound effects are decent, others feel like cheap stock sounds. All in all, a mixed bag.
Dolmen just bored me. In no moment did the game feel like a polished, semi-competent soulslike from the 2020s. On the contrary, it felt clunky, dated, and downright unpleasant to play for longer periods.
Final Verdict: 4.5
Dolmen is available now on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, and PC.
Reviewed on PS5.
A copy of Dolmen was provided by the publisher.