There’s nothing new under the sun. Nowadays, originality lies more often in hybridising established features in unexpected combinations. The Surge is one such hybrid, embracing influences from Dark Souls, Lords of the Fallen and Ryse: Son of Rome, to Borderlands, Diablo and Dead Rising. As such, it is a beautiful Frankenstein’s monster that simultaneously intrigues and repulses.
Developed by Deck13 Interactive, The Surge is the latest addition to the emerging subgenre of hardcore action-RPG games. This is not the developer’s first foray into such dangerous territory; their 2015 entry, Lords of the Fallen (LotF), was received with mixed opinion. Criticised for a gameplay system that was too heavy, too slow, and too unrefined, Dark Souls fans were quick to attack the game as an inferior experience. Contrarily, I enjoyed its boldness in attempting to introduce fresh ideas to an arena (rightly) dominated by a single founding franchise. With The Surge, Deck13 have built upon the exploratory foundations laid by LotF to create a game that forges its own take on the Souls-Like recipe.
Much like its predecessor, The Surge will likely never escape the looming shadow of the Soulsborne franchise from which it spawned; however it works overtime to try and establish itself as more than just a carbon copy. Not content to simply imitate what came before, The Surge implements a Borderlands-reminiscent loot system for the crafting of new gear, a Ryse-style execution and limb dismemberment mechanic, and a Dead Space-style dystopian, industrial sci-fi setting. Whilst this cocktail has the potential to be a terrible mess, The Surge manages to weld its features into a solid and refreshing experience.
Combat feels intuitive and satisfying. Instead of Souls-style light and heavy attacks, you have horizontal and vertical attacks which can be chained into combos and help with the finesse of landing targeted blows. There are five weapon types to play with, and each is introduced early so that you can quickly decide where your preference lies. Each feels good to use and has its own set of finishing moves and combos, yet I always found myself returning to the ‘twin-rigged’ weapons (exo-suit versions of twin daggers). Perhaps in reaction to the criticisms of LotF, The Surge seems to significantly favour dynamic speed and dexterity over brute force.
In fact there are very few scenarios where it benefits to use heavy armour and a slow two-handed weapon over lighter gear. Movement includes dodging, dashing, sliding and even acrobatic flips to launch devastating hit-and-run strikes; and blocking ability is more dependent upon the incoming attack than the gear you’re wearing. This more action-oriented focus suited my playstyle perfectly, and whilst you can definitely complete the game with a heavier gear set, it’s something to keep in mind.
Combat is given extra depth by a targeting system that allows the player to select which body part their attacks are aimed at. Body parts can either be armoured (highlighted yellow) or unarmoured (highlighted blue). Aesthetically, this system is much the same as Xbox One launch title Ryse: Son of Rome’s execution system. However here, it adds an impressive risk-reward choice to every encounter. Attack unarmoured limbs and you’ll deal more damage, likely improving your chances of ending the fight quickly and surviving. Attack armoured limbs and it’ll be harder to kill an enemy, but you’ll be able to collect the piece of equipment that limb is using, unlocking new gear and parts for crafting.
All gear can be upgraded through four levels, and each suit of armour has useful set bonuses – from health regeneration to toxic waste resistance. Further customisation is found through implants, which can do anything from increasing health and stamina to adding elemental weapon damage. As these implants can be swapped in and out with ease, you can always tailor your gear to the situation. I found that this loot system made my failures much less frustrating – even when I was stuck on forward progression I could still be harvesting and salvaging parts that wouldn’t be lost upon my inevitable death.
The game is not as hard as the Soulsbournes, and there is a different balance between standard enemies and bosses – with a much greater focus upon the former. Indeed there are only five bosses in the game, and whilst each has unique and interesting movesets, none took me more than three attempts to learn and defeat. ‘Normal’ enemies can be extremely tough however, so you should still expect a challenge – no more so than when first arriving in a new area. I would have liked to see more variety in enemy types, however new variants are introduced regularly enough, and you’ll have to deal with crazed men using rigs and weapons like your own as well as a host of malfunctioning robots.
Combined with the brutal execution animations, this is the root of much of the gameplay satisfaction in The Surge. Returning to explore an area that I struggled with before to now deftly dispatch of the enemies maintained my engagement, and with various discoveries and items to find on a return to an earlier level, this is also worthwhile for the player.
The level design on display here is truly impressive. Each area is an interconnected Metroidvania-style space. Regular shortcuts slowly open up and expand the level, instilling a sense of constant progress and generally making more than one new path of exploration available at any one time. I rarely found myself getting lost, and the shortcuts become vital for backtracking as the game expands, as there’s no fast travel option.
From an aesthetic standpoint, exploring cramped corridors and dingy factory warehouses wears out its welcome fast, and this is perhaps the biggest let-down of the game (and that’s coming from someone who’s been clamouring for a sci-fi Dark Souls for years!). Whilst the final area swaps in suave executive offices, the environments become boring and I often found myself in areas so dark that I simply couldn’t see anything (even with torchlight) until I ramped up the brightness settings significantly.
This world is accompanied by a sizeable cast of side characters, whose own plot arcs are worth following through the side-missions they will bestow upon you. From a drug-deprived addict to a self-assured security guard with escalating identity issues, each character’s behaviour raises further questions about the disaster whilst providing useful rewards for your help.
If The Surge has a social commentary behind its narrative, it’s a heavy-handed one. Dealing with rogue AI, climate change and corporate greed, the game’s core themes are highly relevant to our current fears and afflictions; yet there is little room for nuance when most of your time is spent stomping around dismembering people in an exo-suit. Nevertheless, the story plays out organically, mostly conveyed through the environment: large screens play pre-recorded company broadcasts on a loop; audio logs litter the compound; apocalyptic signs and messages are desperately scrawled in blood. In many ways, the narrative has seen improvement whilst the world design itself feels less interesting than LotF.
This is not aided by protagonist Warren, who is so bland and empty as to leave me wondering why they didn’t just allow us to create our own character. At least he’s not as unlikeable as LotF’s Harkyn though!
A single song, to which I now know every word, plays repetitively in every Ops centre (think Dark Souls bonfire/shrine) throughout the game. This might make sense in a post-disaster situation – the same song stuck in a loop as systems crash – but it can oscillate between feeling like an old friend greeting you after an arduous and harrowing excursion, and an insolent child that won’t stop loudly repeating itself to anyone who’s in the vicinity.
The Surge has improved upon Lords of the Fallen in nearly every way. Deck13 remains unafraid to take risks and introduce new ideas, and as such the gameplay and level design benefit greatly. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s a pleasant surprise to see a good game of this ilk in a post-Dark Souls world.