This review for Deck13’s The Surge will try not mention, allude to, or reference in any way, Dark Souls. At this point you’re probably scoffing at the sheer impossibility of such a task, but it just seems that being compared to what many consider a hulking goliath of (near) perfection is going to cast a huge shadow over The Surge. That being said, The Surge is…only okay. While it has some neat ideas throughout, there are wild spikes in the difficulty that just slam the brakes on the enjoyment, and the lore of the world is just a tad lacking. Overall, the whole game was trying too hard to be something else, rather than its own creation, and for that, it lacked the spark that makes so many other games so memorable – you could say The Surge has a dark soul.
Our hero Warren is wheelchair-bound in the opening sequence, and you guide him through an oddly deserted series of rooms and corridors. On your way, promotional videos for a company called CREO play on the various monitors and screens within, telling of their efforts to save the planet, and how they need workers to help them do that. Enter Warren. At this point it’s worth mentioning that disaster hasn’t befallen the world yet, so the absence of any other character is a little unsettling, but it does make for an intriguing introduction.
And then disaster befalls the world. Warren wheels himself into a room to get exosuited-up and start his work for CREO, but the automated wardrobe machine goes all “does this unit have a soul?” and starts rebelling against humanity, specifically Warren. After a rather gruesome, extremely stab-heavy sequence, you’re dragged into some human scrap pile to be disposed of. But Warren’s having none of it – with his regained ability to walk, he gets up, grabs the nearest weapon, and begins his rampage of robotic retribution. This leads me nicely on to the combat. It’s very reminiscent of another game I can’t quite put my finger on. Probably Lords of the Fallen. Anyway, taking down enemies is the most enjoyable aspect of The Surge, as well as being incredibly satisfying.
It takes some real skill to stop dying. Even when you think you have a set up that’s working for you, a new enemy type will show you just how unprepared you are. The bread and butter of the combat is attacking and dodging, where near-perfect timing is a minimum. Even the earlier enemies can take you out in a few hits, so caution is always your friend. You also have the ability to target a specific limb or appendage. Choosing between hacking away at an exposed body part for extra damage, or trying to sever a protected limb to reclaim a piece of armor the enemy was wearing, adds an extra layer of strategy to the combat. It becomes a choice – do you want to get the fight over with quickly? Or could you really do with the added protection of some more armor for later fights?
A similar trade-off is required when deciding how best to use the energy you gain when attacking. As well as a stamina bar (determines how often you can dodge/sprint/attack) and a health bar (determines…health), you have a blue energy bar, that fills with each successful strike. You can use this energy to ‘finish’ an enemy with a delightful dismemberment, or to call upon a little drone that fires a few shots at your target. Now, excuse me if this next bit sounds a little confusing, because, well, it is. You can also use ‘implants’ to modify the dynamics of your loadout. The main implants you’ll want, at least initially, are health injectors, which restore your health. You can either use an injectable that has a limited use, like standard healthpacks, or one that uses a portion of the energy you’ve collected from attacking.
Following me so far? That means you’ll be deciding whether to use your energy for healing, finishing moves, or your little drone, and each requires a minimum amount of energy to be used. There are also further implants that increase your energy gain over every attack, give you more base health, and some are ‘hot-swaps’ that you can change at will and some are ‘hardwired’ so you can only change them at medbays and so on and so on. It all got a little convoluted in the end, so when I found a combination of implants that half-worked, I stuck with it. The fact that the inventory layout is a little haphazard doesn’t help with this. When deciding what armor, weapons and implants you want to use for your next outing, you’ll be saying “ah that’ll do” a lot because of this.
Once you get past this though, the game does have moments where it truly shines. When the difference between victory and defeat balances on a knife edge, success is thrilling. It’s too bad then that sometimes The Surge decides you were having too much fun and spikes the difficulty for no reason. When you reach the second area, progress slows dramatically. It’s all well and good introducing new challenges as you go through a game, but it would have been nice if they’d done it in a more inventive way. Enemies that you’re familiar with from the first area, hit harder – a lot harder. It’s just frustrating. You also start to realize that the dodge is ineffective in some situations, especially when it seems that an enemy is magnetized to your face, so even when you do dodge they just instinctively swerve and inflect gruesome murder upon you anyway.
Blocking is also near enough useless. Doing so locks you in place and drains your stamina, so even when you’ve repelled an attack, you often don’t have the stamina to follow up effectively. You also still take a portion of damage. There’s an emphasis on blocking at the precise moment so you can counterattack with higher damage, but the risk/reward usually isn’t worth it. My main tactic became to dash towards the enemy with the dodge button, and do a quick jab, and back away again, and when I found out this worked in most scenarios, I started using it all the time. This meant that for me, the combat was slightly cheapened. I couldn’t fight like how I wanted to because the enemies in the difficulty-spiked areas would tear me shreds in two hits. The bosses share this negative. Deck13 think difficulty is simply a matter of making bosses hit like a freight-train with every attack, and have near-endless amounts of health. But it’s more than that. The challenge needs to be fun. Bosses are supposed to be puzzles you need to figure out, rather than a requiring simple attrition.
At first I just thought I needed to get good. So I grinded a little bit on enemies I could handle, and fled like a sissy back to the nearest bonfi–…I mean medbay to level up my rig. Leveling up is a simple affair. You take the sou–…I mean ‘tech scrap’ you earn from defeating enemies and use it to upgrade the core capacity of your rig. This allows you to equip better implants, and, eventually, more of them. It was almost a welcome relief to know I wouldn’t have to sit deliberating for 30 minutes over whether I wanted to put my points into one stat or the other. It’s just unfortunate that your focus is drawn more to managing your implants instead. Eventually you will scrape through to the end doing all these things, but it feels a bit more like luck when you progress rather than skill.
Thankfully, moving through the areas themselves is a treat. The level design is excellent. There are multiple heights, secret passageways, and sprawling facilities, all of which can be traversed through shortcuts you can open up, giving you easy access to and from the medbay. The enemies themselves are really creepy – it seems that whatever terrible thing occurred has malformed the other exosuit workers into mindless drones that will attack you on-sight. They’ll growl and scream as they lunge at you, and even trick you by calling out in a normal voice, then sneak-attacking when you’ve gone to investigate. The story behind why everything is so horrible is average, but it does a good job of keep you truly intrigued until the end.
Okay. I can’t do this anymore – it’s just not as good as Dark Souls. There. I said it. Dark Souls is so much more nuanced in every respect. The combat, leveling up, choosing equipment, the lore, the difficulty balance – I could go on. I think it’s the worst choice in the world to make a game that mimics Dark Souls. Unless you’re absolutely sure what you’re going to make will be superb, or drastically different in some way, you’re setting yourself up for failure. People will invariably compare The Surge to Dark Souls just because they are so similar. It’s the little things that mean The Surge isn’t able to live up to expectations, but there are a truck-load of those little things. The game did have its positives, such as level exploration, creepy atmosphere, and combat (mostly), but it suffered a great deal more purely from standing in the shadow of Dark Souls.