We are well within the age of the Soulslike. The last decade has refused to let up in providing the industry with game after game that either takes cues from the myriad of FromSoftware titles or wholesale copies their formula to mixed results. Dolmen from Massive Work Studio is another such title using the Dark Souls blueprint to build its own action RPG world with a dark and punishing atmosphere, which we have gone hands-on to preview.
It starts with you waking just outside the wreckage of your crashed spaceship on Revion Prime, a planet to which you’ve been sent to retrieve a resource of great significance. You can hear giant bug-like creatures skittering around. They’ve presumably turned the area around you into a claustrophobic nest of goop and fleshy surfaces. You’re on your own and definitely in danger.
The opening is alien and foreboding, but on the other hand, it’s how many of these types of games have started in the past; it’s familiar. It incorporates all the well-worn trappings: an opaque narrative, enemies that respawn with each death, and a leveling system tied to experience you’re at risk of losing should you die. A lot of the atmospheric tension just doesn’t land because the setup is a retread done to death at this point. However, Dolmen isn’t afraid to try something new.
In addition to your melee weapons and shield, you’re equipped with a gun. Holding the left trigger will pull up an aiming reticle, and you can fire light and heavy blasts governed by an energy bar that factors into an intriguing elemental system. Firearms are the primary way to apply these effects, but energy can also be used to imbue melee attacks with elements as well. There are three elements at play: Light Wave or fire, Cryo, and Acid.
Certain enemies will have weaknesses to certain elements, but it’s their lingering status effects that make their use worthwhile. For example, if you manage to inflict the Light Wave status effect on an enemy, they will periodically discharge flames, hurting themselves and nearby enemies. If that discharge happens to hit another enemy afflicted with Light Wave, fire will ricochet back and forth between them, doing tons of damage to them and any friends caught in the middle. It’s a powerful strategy to help weed out mobs of weaker foes, but it comes with some risk as you’ll burn through your energy bar, which is also your primary method to heal. Using energy to heal sacrifices a portion of your bar and can leave you with nothing to make use of until a checkpoint can be reached.
Checkpoints scattered throughout the area will teleport you back to your ship where you can level up, change equipment, and craft new gear that you can use to cater your stats to the play style you want. The gameplay loop checks all of the boxes to make a competent Soulslike experience, but there are numerous annoyances big and small that eat away at Dolmen and made it far more frustrating to preview as a result.
Probably its biggest issue is that it feels stiff to control. Like in many other games of this kind, attack animations are committal; you need to gauge when the best time is to strike where you won’t be interrupted by an enemy attack. However, trying to make a combo out of attack swings is extremely finicky here. For some reason you have a tiny window at the start of your attack animation where you can buffer the next attack; otherwise, you’ll have to wait out the entire swing, ending lag and all, before you can swing again.
I forced myself to get used to it, but it resulted in mashing the attack button to make sure I could get a flurry of hits out rather than just one. However, all of the attack and movement animations have odd rules like this. Pulling off backstep attacks or leaping attacks all feels more like inputting fighting game combos rather than a reaction to the enemies in front of you, and enemies won’t do you many favors telegraphing their attacks either.
Neither enemies nor their attack animations look particularly threatening, and their short wind-ups and shallow strikes won’t catch you off guard too often thanks to a generous parry window. The feedback from a successful parry is nothing more than a quick flash and an opportunity for several free hits while the creature stands still in a daze. It doesn’t look or feel especially powerful. It is exploitable, but a poor camera and the tight corridors a lot of the early levels take place in disrupted me from taking advantage many times.
I died a number of times due to enemies jumping into corners and taking my camera with them or triggering a cutscene that shows me something on the other side of the room while I’m swarmed by attackers in the area with no control over the character. Repeated death is a known quantity in games like this, but the desire to jump right back in, having learned something critical to future success, just isn’t here in Dolmen in preview.
Visually, aside from some fun color choices in environments, nothing looks particularly polished. I felt assaulted by the game’s awful sound design as well. The supposedly ambient noises of creaking metal or crumbling sediment sounded as if loudspeakers were playing them in my character’s face.
However, what I played of Dolmen for preview is of course not a finished game, and Massive Work Studio has been toiling away on the project for the last several years, now planning a release for sometime in 2022 on PC and consoles. But I’m sorry to say it just isn’t that enjoyable right now. Its sci-fi setting and cosmic horror overtones seek to set it apart, but I fear there’s still a long way to go for Dolmen to break out of Dark Souls’ shadow.