Dolmen Review: Forging an Exciting New Path
I’m not a video game developer. I have never been a video game developer. Because of this, I can’t exactly say what I’d do if I decided to open up a game development studio. Maybe start with something small-ish? Something fairly manageable that would, you know, let us “get our feet wet” as developers while trying to make a bit of money. What I don’t think I would do is attempt to make some kind of robust soulslike title—or, better yet, a robust soulslike that attempts to create a brand-new niche within the genre. But, hey, maybe that’s why I don’t work at Massive Work Studio—because that’s exactly what they did with Dolmen.
Technically speaking, I believe Dolmen is actually Massive Work Studios’ second game. However, given the fact that 1.) their first title, Tap Hits, was a small, rhythm-based mobile game, and 2.) they appeared to have scrubbed its existence from the Internet almost entirely, Dolmen really is their first game that’s actually, well, you know, a game-game. And, boy howdy, what a game it was!
Taking place on the fictional planet Revion Prime, Dolmen is a cosmic horror all about the horrors that could—and probably would—come about from messing with things well beyond our understanding. Oh, and greed—you can’t forget about greed. As with everyone else who’s made this particular planet, you—taking the role of what appears to be the commander of a 2-man crew (and, no, your ally never joins you)—have made the trip to Revion Prime to seek out a material known as “Dolmen.” It’s said that Dolmen holds within its very cells a vast amount of power—power that, if harnessed properly, could even let you surpass the limits of space and time. What’s more, that appears to be true! And, just how do you know this? Because, upon your arrival, Revion Prime appears to have undergone a hideous transformation—becoming a horrible, mutated shell of its former self.
I’ll just come out and admit it—I kind of got lost partway through Dolmen‘s story. While the basics of the game’s narrative are easy enough to discern, there’s something about the way that it’s set up that makes it feel a little… scrambled? Messy? I’m not even sure how to explain it, the story just feels “off.” There were several points where I found myself saying, “Yeah, okay, why am I doing this, again?” While that’s bound to happen every so often in a game, it shouldn’t exactly be the norm—and, unfortunately, that’s kind of what it was in this case. And that really stinks, because was a neat premise! At the end of the day, Dolmen isn’t a story-driven game, so it’s not totally the end of the world—but a more cohesive plot definitely would have helped it a bit more.
For the most part, Dolmen isn’t set up too differently from any other soulslike—you go from area to area, killing monsters and gathering game-specific EXP (which happen to be nanobots this time around), you fight a boss, rinse, and repeat. Oh, and you’ll probably die a lot. Because, you know, that’s how these games go. Dolmen doesn’t exactly follow traditional soulslike tropes 100% of the time, though. This is because it’s attempting to include two things that you wouldn’t normally find in a soulslike game; horror (most soulslikes favor grimdark or dystopian elements), and a very heavy emphasis on ranged combat.
In order to accommodate for things that are a little less straight-up Dark Souls, a little more Dark Souls meets Dead Space. The level design makes it feel as though it’s firmly planted in some alien territory (no pun intended) in between the soulslike genre and the iconic shooter/horror sub-genre. It’s really bizarre—but it works much better than I had expected initially expected it to. Games within this genre already have a proclivity to be tense—adding a dash of good old-fashioned cosmic horror. And, if you ask me, it’s done very nicely!
So Anyway, I Started Blasting
As with its level design, there’s a lot about Dolmen‘s combat that feels very traditionally designed. You’ve got your light and heavy attacks, a collection of light and heavy melee weapons to choose from, the ability to block and/or dodge the attacks depending upon the situation—and a Stamina system ensuring that you can’t do all of that indefinitely. It’s very standard soulslike fare, and Dolmen honestly does a nice job putting it all together. But there’s one other thing (and I already kinda ruined the surprise here, I guess) that Dolmen lets players do that really helps to set it apart from the rest of its ilk—fight from a distance.
Now, I’m not really sure what the general consensus would be on adding ranged weapons into a game that played almost identically to, say, Bloodborne, but I’d imagine that it would be a no-no for most people. Generally speaking, enemies are designed in such a way that, even when they’re fast, they’re still not as fast as they might be in another game. Movements are, generally speaking, deliberate. That kind of gets thrown out the window in this game.
While enemies do still have predictable attack patterns, tells, and the like (which they should, given the game’s soulslike status), a lot of the enemy behavior feels much more fast-paced in this game—both offensively and defensively speaking. To make up for this (or, perhaps because of this), Dolmen allows players to enjoy a bit—or even a lot if you spec your character right—of gunplay. And, you know what? It’s really fun. Despite what you may think, adding ranged attacks doesn’t destroy the balance of the game. In a way, it almost makes it harder. Giving the player access to firearms means that enemies are also allowed to use ranged attacks. Which they do. Frequently. Sure, this is kinda why the game drifts away from being firmly in the soulslike territory a bit, but I honestly think that it was a great idea and wonderfully executed overall.
Combat, for the most part, is smooth. But it isn’t entirely without issues. Throughout the game—all the way up until the last boss—I found myself running into enemies whose attacks had hitboxes that felt slightly off. Not all enemies, mind you. In fact, it wasn’t even most enemies—just a few here and there. However, in a game like this—where every hit you take matters—you need to know where the safe zones are. Having them not being entirely cleanly defined is a total faux-pas, you know? Additionally, while not entirely related, the camera and lock-on system could use some work as well. I always felt like the inability to properly lock onto things unless they were right in front of me to be rather annoying.
All Dol-ed Up
This game’s impressive just by virtue of it being Massive Work Studios’ first. But it wouldn’t be fair to only give it credit for that reason. Dolmen is a fun, and exciting cosmic horror-themed soulslike whose unique (and successful!) inclusion of ranged combat helps it to stand out from its peers. If this is just the beginning of what Massive Work Studios have to offer, I can’t wait to see what’s in store for us down the road!
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PlayStation 5 (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC; Publisher: Ska Studios; Developer: Massive Work Studios; Players: 1 – 2 ; Released: May 20, 2022; ESRB: M for Mature; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Dolmen given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.