Review: Dolmen

23 May 2022

While I tend to lean more towards fantasy over science fiction in video games, there has been the odd franchise or two with the latter type of setting that I’ve gotten into. The Metroid series comes to mind here, along with some sci-fi based shooters. Bearing in mind the relatively neutral perspective I have on the setting, let’s have a look at Massive Work Studio’s first game, Dolmen – a third-person sci-fi horror title straight out of Brazil. They seem to be seeking to show that a good game can come from anywhere, but does it measure up?

Dolmen was released on May 20, 2022, for PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One/Series X|S, and PC via Steam. The PC version was played for this review.

Joining Universes

At some unspecified point in the future, scientists from the Zaun corporation on a planet known as Revion Prime discover crystals of a substance they refer to as “Dolmen,” which makes it possible to link different universes together and revolutionize space travel. Pretty deep stuff. Unfortunately, as you no doubt probably expect, when this is done it unleashes a horde of bloodthirsty aliens upon the planet.

Your mission is to teleport down to Revion Prime, exterminate these aliens, and bring back samples of the Dolmen crystals as well as materials from the aliens. I would think that breaking the link with the other universe or universes would be a higher priority, but I guess this is Zaun corporate greed we’re talking about.

That’s the story in a nutshell. As you explore the planet, an individual named Seba, of an alien race, guides you from your spaceship with some occasional voiceovers. Most of the rest of the story is told though text from various objects such as Star Trek-like tablets and computer screens strewn around. For the most part, it is just you vs. the aliens.

It does achieve through this some of the kind of claustrophobic horror seen in the Metroid universe, but it feels less inspired and rather generic. Also, localization errors can make the details hard to follow, though the voice acting (what little there is) is actually decent, with the errors only being in the text.

Aliens Abound

Dolmen positions itself as an action RPG, though really I’d frame it more as a third-person action game with some light RPG mechanics thrown in. It really doesn’t have the depth of story to really be called an RPG, as mentioned before. It does, however, offer a reasonably fleshed out combat system.

You have a pretty standard light melee attack combo, along with a heavy attack that leaves you more vulnerable, and a sidearm that allows you to shoot at enemies from a distance. You also have the ability to block and guard attacks. While far from unique, it does cover all the bases with enough variety in your moves to deal with the different kinds of enemies you encounter. A special mode which changes the resource you use for attacks and adding elemental damage to them adds a welcome bit of depth. Healing is a problem though, because it permanently reduces your Energy resource each time you do it, until you use/find special battery pickups to restore it.

The RPG mechanics come into play as you defeat enemies and acquire various materials, as well as “nanites,” which essentially amount to experience points. You’ll be able level up and increase the stats of your choice, allowing you to become tougher, focus more on ranged attacks or melee, the usual stuff. If you die (and you will), you leave a hologram of your former self where it happened and lose all the nanites and such that you were carrying. This leads to the most frustrating aspect of the game.

The enemies are very strong right from the get-go, and until you get used to the combat system, you will die very easily. This goes against typical conventions of starting a game off easier and adding challenge in increments. The environment itself is also quite dangerous, with many areas of the game having a lot of verticality to them, making it very easy to die by falling. This also makes the lack of a jump button rather problematic.

If you can get back to the last spot you died, you can recover the stuff you lost on that death, though dying again before that means you lose those items forever. However, falling in particular can often make that difficult and makes death very punishing. Even more frustrating, you don’t level up immediately when you collect enough nanites; you must return to your ship and enter a special machine to spend your stat points, which means you may have to fight your way to the next portal or backtrack to a previous one just to level up.

Because of this, I found myself forced to grind a lot. I would locate a teleport point (where you can access your ship) that has some enemies fairly close by. I would take them out for their nanites, return to my ship, go back to the planet to have the enemies respawn, and kill them again repeatedly until I collect enough. It really took too long before I felt strong and confident enough to make it to the next part of the game. Defeating bosses will grant access to those next parts of the game, but you have to remember where the barriers they opened are, as there’s no map screen or radar or anything like that to help you.

As I kept playing, I found more negative quirks. The menu UI is extremely basic, consisting of mostly just plain text with a few icons. No flair or style. Minimalism makes sense for a HUD, because you don’t want the the HUD info to cover up too much of the action on the game screen, but in the menus, this is an odd design decision. While you have an equipment inventory, it’s hard to locate your material stock to know when you can craft new items. The game does not contain the usual warning so many games today have: “This game uses the auto-save feature. Do not close the game while [an icon] appears on the screen.” But yet, the game does save automatically, and doesn’t seem to indicate to the player when this happens. The quit button in the menus does not ever say “you will lose unsaved progress” or anything of that nature. The game also has no pause feature. You can be attacked and killed while in the menus.

Finally, there is a multiplayer feature the game doesn’t really mention until you discover it as a menu option. But the developers gated this behind material requirements; it requires dolmen crystals, which drop from enemies occasionally. Perhaps it’s because co-op makes fighting easier? It really seems like poor design to gate multiplayer behind something like this, as it actively discourages using the feature. Playing with a friend is something you do because it’s fun, not purely because of any advantage it might give.

Digging In

On to something more positive: the environments look pretty good, and make good use of Unreal Engine. The one weakness is the overall color profile of the game is very dull, with lots of brown, reddish brown, and bluish brown. Lots of brown. I think that this, combined with the generally dark and slightly desaturated nature of the environments, was designed to facilitate a horror feeling, which it does. But you can still use more color while maintaining that feeling.

This is somewhat of a nit-pick, coming from the Unreal Engine 3 era, when this kind of coloration and overall graphical feel was common. That said, sometimes it’s appropriate, and I think it’s reasonable to say that it was here.

The sound is, on the whole, good, though it does feel somewhat generic. It’s all… fine. It doesn’t stand out, but it’s all appropriate and fitting for the environments in which it is used. The voice acting, as mentioned earlier, is surprisingly decent. Despite the numerous localization errors in the text, the voice acting sounds natural.

Teleporting Back

I feel like Dolmen has a good deal of untapped potential. The developers seem like they were on the right track – all the necessary features are here and the game does have its moments. But I feel like there was a communication breakdown or something between team members.

A lot of effort seems to have gone into certain aspects, such as the level design. But the game is held back by some poor gameplay design decisions that incur frustration, a UI and controls that feel rudimentary, a multiplayer feature they seem to not want you to use, and a lack of inspiration.

If this game cooked for another six months to a year, the devs could take it beyond just having the basics to being something truly special. But as it stands right now, this game does not really offer enough satisfaction and enjoyment to be worth its asking price.

~ Final Score: 5/10 ~

Review Copy provided by Prime Matter for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured Image courtesy of Prime Matter.