Note: When first reviewed, the game contained a bug which stopped progress approximately 80% of the way through. The patch has since been released and the score updated to fit the final build.
Deck 13’s original delve into Dark Souls-esque games was Lords of the Fallen. While I played quite a few hours of it, the game didn’t grab me like the Souls series (and Bloodborne) did. Instead of a sequel to the fantasy world of Lords of the Fallen, Deck 13 has delivered us complete turn of style. Trading in monsters for machines and raining down robotics, The Surge is a step up in some ways and a step back in others. But is it worth your time and money?
Crumbling Creo and the World of Robots
The Surge doesn’t hold your hand in many regards, mainly with the narrative. Instead of boring you with a lengthy cutscene or exposition, The Surge basically drops you into its world with little to no context. You’re aware that there’s a large corporation called “Creo” (which I kept reading as “Oreo”, to my chuckles), focused on restoring a broken Earth through biological augments and science.
The small introduction that is present is pretty well done, and after the stage has been set, I found the game’s tutorial system quite quick and painless as well. As far as the rest of the story is concerned, it’s a bit of a mixed affair. You awaken with an exoskeleton rig; a fusing of man and machine. The world looks quite bleak, and the area is all but abandoned besides a few robotic enemies. The rest of the story is uncovered by exploring the large facility that plays host to the game’s setting. As you work your way through each area, you’ll find audio logs that hint at what happened. As you get further, you’ll meet characters who share some information, but the narrative is never fully fleshed out.
Although the actual content of the story is a bit muddled and cliche, the mystery of it all warrants enough interest to keep moving forward. For most of the game it’s pretty easy to understand (in terms of other Souls-like stories), but gets a little lost towards the end half of the game. Lore nuts won’t have too much to feed on, as most of the narrative is left to the imagination.
The most outstanding feature of The Surge is its combat. Although similar in style to Bloodborne, The Surge marks itself as unique thanks to the limb based fights. You’ll mainly go toe to toe with only one other foe, but multi-enemy fights aren’t incredibly uncommon. When approaching an enemy, you’ll lock on and ready your attack. Combat mostly works like Bloodborne, with two different buttons for horizontal and vertical strikes. Depending on your class, you’ll be either lightweight and agile (the Lynx class), or heavy and hearty (the Rhino class). Dodging enemies and attack is pretty standard affair, and each weapon you acquire has a slightly different play style.
The twist comes within the “limb lock” system, which has you focusing your attacks on a certain appendage of an enemy. Limbs come either armored or unarmored, and while attacking the less armored parts deal more damage, chunking away at the former can yield results. If an enemy is close to death (and you have the required amount of “charge” meter), you can perform a finishing move that dismembers the targeted limb. Dismembering a limb gives you a chance to recover the piece of armor the enemy was wearing, allowing you to craft it later at base. Limb locking also plays a bigger part strategy as you encounter more varied enemy types.
Beyond that, if you’ve played a Souls game, you’ll fare fine. Enemies drop “tech scrap” which is used to upgrade current gear, raise your overall level, and craft new stuff. Dying causes you to lose this scrap, but you can return to your location of death and retrieve it with skill. Scrap can be banked at any Operations stations, which function as safe havens away from enemies and attacks. Players who hold onto their scrap and choose not to bank it are rewarded with an increasing multiplier that increases your scrap. It’s a nice risk and reward system that I didn’t utilize, but appreciate nonetheless.
Open to Newcomers
The Surge also benefits from being slightly more forgiving to new players who might not have experience in the genre. The difficulty of The Surge is pretty damn difficult; I found myself muttering in frustration often enough where it was noticeable, but that wasn’t always a rewarding thing. Despite the inherent difficulty and frustration, none of it comes from trying to understand The Surge‘s mechanics.
Unlike Dark Souls, the leveling system and gear loadouts are easy to learn and understand. You won’t have to worry about depositing experience into vague skill categories; you simply spend enough tech scrap to push your rig to the next level. Have a higher powered rig allows you to equip new augments. These augments are found in the environment and rewarded for killing enemies, and offer a variety of uses. Some are passive boosts to stats, others take the form of consumables like health potions and attack boosts. Generally speaking, The Surge lets you play the way you want to, and you won’t struggle trying to get there.
Augments are self-explanatory and easy to equip and swap. Gear is likewise simple to craft, although some of the items required to build them can be a bit tough to collect. Furthermore, the menus are pretty easy to navigate and straight forward.
The Style of the Surge
The art in The Surge is functional, but a bit one-note. All things told, there’s not too much of a difference between “Cargo Production B” and “Research and Development”. I won’t lie to you either; by the time things start to look cool, it’s too little too late. I took me a solid 15 hours before I found an area that looked visually impacting and/or was unexpected. The final area of the game is by far the best looking one, and I wish that some of the aesthetic seen there was used earlier on.
I’m not saying the game looks bad, but rather uninspired. This affects gameplay a bit, as the majority of The Surge‘s gameplay loop involves exploration. You’ll run around an area finding shortcuts back to base, further expanding your mental map of the facility. However, after the second or third area, everything starts to blend together. Sure, the textures are decent and the very brief cinematics look good. There’s just no heart or charm in any of it. There’s also no dread or terror, so it all comes off a bit dull after a while.
I can’t speak much on the audio side, because there isn’t too much to talk on. Sound effects are decent, albeit a bit repetitive. Combat is mostly a collection of clinks and clanks, with occasional grunts or explosions. What’s here is good, but there isn’t too much. Besides a pretty distinct song that plays when you’re in an Operations base, the game is all but void of atmospheric music. This both works and doesn’t work, as it offers tense moments but feels overall empty.
Thankfully, the actual level design is decent fun to explore. Although it’s a bit of a labyrinth, I enjoyed the act of progression. Unfortunately, most of the bosses boil down to large multi-armed robots. Things shake up towards the end of the game, so there’s a bit of variety. Some of the design is cool, don’t get me wrong, but I never felt “wowed”. The art is functional and serviceable, but it just didn’t speak to me.
The Bottom Line on The Surge
The Surge isn’t as good as the games that defined the genre, but it’s a worthy competitor nonetheless. Where The Surge struggles with art direction, it makes up for it in enjoyable combat and interesting level design. You level of enjoyment concerning the combat will eventually be the fuel that you run on, as areas start to look similar and enemies repetitive. However, the best content in the game is reserved for the ending, which should give you some motivation to finish it out. Those who enjoy games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne for their high difficulty and combat will feel at home with The Surge. It may lack the flare of its peers, but remains a solid experience over the 20-30 hours it will take you to complete.