The commercial success of the “Souls” series spawned an entirely new genre, the “Souls-like” and The Surge is the latest of these games. It comes to us by way of Focus Home Interactive and was developed by Deck 13, whose previous works includes Lords of The Fallen, in many ways The Surge’s direct predecessor, it too being of a “Souls-like” persuasion. A lot of games that have tried to ape FromSoftware and ended up doing very well, Nioh being the most recent example. So does The Surge stand proudly alongside its peers? Well, not quite.
Crash, Bang, Wallop
Let’s start with what the game gets right. The combat is pretty great. It manages to feel very Dark Souls but does enough to distance itself from the game it seeks to imitate. What this means is that the central premise of wait, dodge and punish is here in all its brutal glory. The basics have been absolutely nailed, enemies telegraph their attacks, you have a good number of invincibility frames, and things flow very nicely.
What makes the combat unique is the dismemberment system. The game lets you target the head, body or specific limb of any given enemy and when you’ve done enough damage you can perform a fancy finishing move. There are two reasons that you would want to do this, in order to attack an enemy’s weak spot or to hack off a piece of equipment that enemy is carrying. That’s right. If you see an enemy wandering around with a weapon you want, you can take it. Provided you don’t get yourself killed. Adding such a clear risk-reward element into the real-time combat is something I personally have not seen many games do, and I actually really enjoyed it. Risking my life bashing away at some brute’s armor so I could have it for myself when I could be chopping up his legs was absolutely thrilling (in its own weird way).
But the cherry on top is the way the combat feels to play. The sense that you actually are a man strapped into a metal suit is palpable. Every hit has a fantastic sense of weight to it and every little movement feels just right. This is largely down to the superb sound and animation work. Your combat can be as deep or tactically involving as you like but if it feels anemic, or weak it can never quite reach its full potential. The Surge does not suffer from this particular issue.
A final word on the combat, I did encounter several irritating bugs. It’s incredibly easy for enemies to get stuck on the geometry and when this happens to one enemy in particular, they become ten times harder to kill. This was more of an annoyance than anything else but I feel like I should mention it.
Dazzle Me… Please
Most of the problems I have with The Surge are rooted in the narrative side of things. The world is lacking in wonder, the protagonist is a bore, and the actual story is just downright average. So what’s wrong with the world then? It basically comes down to a severe shortage of “wow” moments. If this were Dark Souls I would have been blown off my feet within the first hour. I just never came across anything that made me take a moment to just soak it in. The secrets you do find usually just turn out to upgrade materials or the like, with a few exceptions.
Fortunately, the actual level design fares much better. Deck 13 have clearly embraced the labyrinthine, Metroidvania style that is so key to this genre. Each area is full of nooks and crannies to explore and discover. There’s also a nice variety of locales. The one criticism I do have of the level structure is that sometimes the critical path can be lost very easily, necessitating a lot of backtracking. Some players will probably enjoy the feeling of being lost though so bear that in mind.
The narrative, which you construct via audio logs and environmental details gets a resounding “meh”. It’s a fairly typical slice of dystopian Sci-fi centered around corporations, climate change, and human augmentation. An (initially) ambiguous disaster strikes and it’s up to you to find out what really went down. There’s a degree of intrigue, to begin with, but over time I began to lose interest. It’s mostly down to the execution. Audiologs alone cannot carry the narrative and none of the revelations have any real impact. The story is far from terrible but I feel it could have been so much more. Speaking of terrible though…
Warren, the protagonist, is possibly my least favorite part of the game. There’s just nothing to him, simple as that. The decision not to allow players to create their own character is a bold, and in my opinion, incorrect one (in this particular case). Aside from a very brief introductory segment, he is never really fleshed out in any capacity. I actually feel like a silent protagonist would have been a much better fit. It’s the disaster, what came before, that we as players are interested in, not some dullard in a big metal jacket.
The bosses actually have the same problem. There aren’t really enough of them and the ones that do turn up are all monumentally standard. They lean far too heavily towards being puzzle bosses and I didn’t really like that I had to perform a specific sequence of actions to take each one down. Some of the later ones are a lot better but the bosses in the first half of the game are all a bit lackluster.
Nuts and Bolts
As far as leveling and outfitting Warren goes, the systems in place are robust and enjoyable. What’s interesting is that you don’t level up in the traditional sense. Rather than spending points and boosting stats, you simply upgrade your “core power” which allows you to slot more and more powerful implants into your suit. This allows for a lot of diversity in builds and squeezing every last drop of efficiency from your rig is a pleasant distraction.
Currency is handled in much the same way it is in the Souls series, it doubles as XP and you lose it upon death. There is one crucial difference however. In The Surge, if you don’t get back to your “scrap” fast enough, it will disappear forever. I like the fact that this raises the stakes in a really tangible way, but overall I do not like this mechanic. I felt like it kind of killed my desire to explore. The risk felt too great and if I did die, I couldn’t just go and try something new, I had to get back to where I had been, in about half the time. It was a similar feeling I got from the death mechanic in Dark Souls II which docked your maximum health each time you died.
The Surge is not a bad game. It has some flaws but overall, if you like the Souls formula it might be worth a look. If you just want a solid and varied combat system then the game has you covered. Personally, it’s not something I would play again, but I feel I place a greater emphasis on story than most, especially in a game like this. I do look forward to Deck 13′s next game though, if it can combine this combat system with a genuinely compelling narrative, it’ll be brilliant.
This review of The Surge is based on the PS4 version of the game. Review Copy Provided By Focus Home Interactive.
I was born in Oxford in 1998 and have been gaming for almost my entire life. I want to see this industry evolve as a storytelling medium and deliver experiences that stay with people. Interactivity is a narrative device that only games can employ, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it can take us.