Back in 2014 when the current generation of gaming was still in its infancy, a fairly unknown yet established development team named Deck13 Interactive crafted a game titled Lords of the Fallen that attempted to deliver an experience similar to From Software’s popular Souls titles (Demon Souls, Dark Souls, Bloodborne) but with a different spin on the formula. Lords of the Fallen helped launch what many consider to be a sub-genre of Action RPG titles that’s commonly labeled as “Souls-likes,” which contain the challenge and gameplay similarities to From Software’s beloved line of Souls games. Fans of Dark Souls eat these titles up (myself included) due to the thirst for challenging gameplay, character building and that rewarding feeling that comes from clawing your way out of a challenge and becoming victorious. 2017 has already seen one successful iteration of the Souls formula in the form of Team Ninja’s Nioh, while Deck13 decided to throw their follow-up to Lords of the Fallen into the ring as well. In comes The Surge: the first sci-fi attempt at the Souls formula that includes an interesting narrative, visceral combat and that overwhelming sense of challenge. While The Surge definitely shows that the team at Deck13 has improved their craft, the game has some shortcomings that prevent it from reaching the heights that From Software’s titles have reached.
The Surge opens with our protagonist Warren, a disabled man in a wheelchair, traveling to the recruitment center of a large research and development corporation named CREO. Warren takes a job with CREO as an exo-technician and has the option of selecting one of two suits that act as character classes for the player; a fast and versatile suit or a slower yet stronger suit. These suits are cybernetically enhanced exo-suits that allow Warren to function once again as an able-bodied man but at a cost. Things go horribly wrong for Warren as he endures a surgical procedure gone wrong and wakes up from the ordeal in an unknown location that suffered some sort of catastrophic event. At this point Warren encounters other workers in exo-suits and support machinery that have gone awry and attempt to murder him at first glance. Players will spend the remainder of the game trying to figure out what happened, who’s behind it and the truth behind CREO and their influence on the world. The story here is unique and interesting which acts as sort of a global warming cautionary tale. Unlike the Dark Souls titles, Deck13 kept the story in The Surge free of ambiguity and confusion by allowing it to unfold in a non-cryptic linear fashion that I feel will appeal to a broader audience.
It’s no secret that The Surge plays very similar to From Software’s Souls titles; however, there are some unique differences here that I both appreciate and disparage. First off, Deck13 has designed a combat system that’s extremely cool and fairly different compared to the games that The Surge salutes. The offensive and defensive commands are mapped to the shoulder buttons like we’re used to. By default, the R1 button acts as a normal attack, the R2 button utilizes a stronger fierce attack and the L1 button blocks incoming attacks. A click of the right stick will lock-on to nearby enemies and tapping L2 will swap between multiple enemies as well. Clicking in the left stick will allow Warren to sprint and pressing it again mid-sprint will allow Warren to jump over obstacles. Dodge maneuvers are pulled off by tapping the X button along with a direction on the left stick. Flicking the right stick up or down in the middle of a dodge animation will allow Warren to duck under high enemy attacks or jump over low enemy attacks.
Unleashing successful combos on enemies using the R1 and R2 buttons without any interruptions from enemy attacks will give the player a chance to pull off a brutal finishing move by holding the square button when prompted, which is incredibly useful yet also risky if you’re caught in an attack animation while holding the button. The weapons in The Surge range from slow heavy hitting slabs of steel to quick speedy blades and some in-between. All of the weapons feel satisfying to use in conjunction with the cool combat system but I did notice that I found faster weapons more useful than the slower ones since the attack patterns and positioning of the enemies can be cheap and somewhat unpredictable even after you learn their move set. Fighting more than one enemy is pretty much a no-no with a slower weapon since it’s difficult to draw them out one by one, which can be done with an attack from your drone companion using the triangle button, but that often frustratingly aggros the other surrounding enemies too. Still, I liked the industrial approach to weaponry here, which is a breathe of fresh air compared to the medieval arsenal we’re used to.
The most unique aspect of the combat is the ability to lock-on to specific body parts of each enemy. By clicking in the right stick to lock onto an enemy, the player can also move the right stick around to select a body part to target, similar to the VATS system in Fallout but without the slow-motion effect. Many enemies will have a body part that isn’t protected by armor, so focusing on a leg or head that lacks any protection will net the player extra damage in their attacks. Even though it seems like a no-brainer to always attack the weaker body parts on an enemy, that isn’t always the route you want to take. Attacking armored portions of the body will also break off crafting materials from the enemy that can be collected and used to upgrade items and weapons. One way to collect new weapons in the game is to attack the enemy appendage that’s carrying a weapon, which will force them to drop the weapon or outright break it off after defeated and can then be picked up and used by the player. The lock-on body system in The Surge adds an extra layer of much appreciated strategy to enemy encounters which can also be used to farm materials from enemies in order to upgrade and craft new gear. It’s a very clever system that I really enjoyed that also made The Surge stand out more from similar games.
Progression in The Surge is again similar to the games that inspire it. The player will run around elaborate levels fighting vicious enemies while searching for helpful items, shortcuts, friendly faces and eventually the area boss in order to move on to the next stage. Defeating enemies will net the player TechScrap, which is The Surge’s version of souls or experience points. Upon death, the player will lose all of their TechScrap, which can be reacquired by returning to the location where the death occurred and pick it back up. If the player dies before reacquiring their TechScrap, it’ll be lost forever. The game also incorporates a two minute timer in which the player must gain back their lost TechScrap or it’ll be unobtainable. I REALLY do not like this timer feature on lost experience due to how cheap the enemies and their placement can often be, which asks the player to rush back to their death location. Rushing is NOT the way you want to approach the levels in The Surge so the timer adds an extra layer of frustration that I felt was unnecessary.
The game is level-based similar to Demon Souls but without any sort of hub world. New levels are reached in a linear fashion after defeating the current level’s boss and moving forward. Previous levels can be returned to later on in order to access previously inaccessible areas, but there isn’t any sort of fast travel system or anything that aids the player in returning to previous stages; just good old fashioned tedious backtracking. Due to the sometimes frustrating enemy placement and difficulty running through areas in order to reach your destination, backtracking to previous levels isn’t something I particularly enjoyed doing. Level design in The Surge isn’t as good as I would have hoped for. Areas can be confusing to navigate since everything aesthetically looks very similar thanks to the overabundance of the same industrial looking objects and materials. Enemy placement hurts here too since Deck13 included some brutal enemies in multiple quantities in key paths that are frustrating to deal with. Unlike similar games, running past enemies that you have fought countless times before isn’t something easily achieved since the enemies will resort to cheap attacks, projectiles and cornering the player near poorly placed objects that usually results in a quick death. All of this makes progression much more of a chore and not as enjoyable as in games like Nioh and Bloodborne.
Instead of including some sort of checkpoint bonfire system found in Dark Souls, Deck13 tries something a little different with safe zones. Each level has one med-bay that acts as a safe haven for the player. Inside the med-bay, players can level up their character, craft new gear or upgrade their current gear using materials farmed from the world. Currently held TechScrap can also be banked in the med-bay and can’t be lost upon death, which is nice for grinding sessions. Implants found in the levels can also be equipped in the med-bay that add extra buffs and perks to Warren. Any friendly characters that are saved within the levels will return to the med-bay and offer side-quests to the player. Since each level only has one med-bay, multiple shortcuts are scattered around that loop back around to it so players can take a breather and work on upgrading Warren before they head back out for more punishment. The problem with this approach is that many shortcuts can be difficult to find, or few and far between, making large treks through difficult areas result in many failures. The level design doesn’t help matters here so oftentimes I think I’m heading towards a shortcut when I’m not, or I get the feeling as if a shortcut should have been found by now and I end up dying and frustrated. In Dark Souls, the goal is always to reach the next bonfire and doing so isn’t difficult as long as you know its whereabouts, but in The Surge the goal is to find the next shortcut, which aren’t always easy to reach even if you know its location. This makes constant attempts at progressing through the level much more frustrating than it should be.
Deck13 opted not to include any sort of online features in The Surge, which other Souls-like games typically implement. From Software always includes online functionality that integrate features like a blood stain notification that shows the player which spots in the game typically result in a lot of deaths, aiding the player in their awareness of what’s to come. A messaging system allows players to leave notes that can help give hints or steer players in the wrong direction, which I always found fun. Most notably, the ability to summon other players into the game to help you when the going gets tough was always appreciated and help make the game more accessible to players of lower skill levels. PVP features were cool additions too since it adds a fun element of surprise when other hostile players appear in-game, adding a lot of replayability to the game. The Surge includes NONE of this, which kills replay value and optional assistance to the player, overall making The Surge feel like more of an incomplete package and less enjoyable to suffer through. When I know I’m not the only one struggling through the game’s challenges and the world reflects this, it activates something in my brain that helps me push further and further into the madness and that drive just wasn’t there in The Surge.
Boss encounters are very important for this type of game. Arguably one of the biggest thrills players get from a Souls-like title are the challenging boss fights. Conquering these intimidating foes can be exhilarating and make me feel as if I just conquered the world after I defeated them. The Surge has some interesting boss design in terms of attack patterns and figuring out the best plan of action. My problem with the bosses here are that they’re not very interesting to look at and rather boring when it comes to art design. Fighting mechs and robots get a bit old after while when I’m using to taking on frightening, ugly and sometimes beautiful looking boss battles found in competing products. I found one instance of recycling boss fights within another boss fight too which thew off the variety in the encounter, especially since there’s only five boss fights in the entire game to begin with. While the bosses are generally fun to fight with the challenge intact, I just found them to be bland in design, making them sort of blend in to everything else I’ve seen here before. There are a few late game exceptions though, especially one in particular that I don’t want to spoil. The fact that I can’t pull another player into the fight if I get stuck is a shame too, but some players enjoy the thrill of taking down bosses solo and that won’t change here. I just wish there were more boss encounters here.
Graphically, The Surge is a pretty nice looking game. The lighting, particle effects and texture work are solid and the load times are very fast. The art design gets stale soon after leaving the first level but due to the setting that’s to be expected; I haven’t seen a Terminator game pull off anything different artistically. Even though I’m not the biggest fan of the art style, the game is still stunning visually with patches of really cool looking environments. The musical score is solid with some tense music during boss fights and subtle industrial techno tunes during normal gameplay. Voice acting and dialog are fairly good here too but I did run into a few characters I found jarring and corny in terms of the writing. The game runs at 30fps with minimal drops on a standard Playstation 4 console, but the Playstation 4 Pro support is fantastic here and one of the best examples I’ve seen so far. The Surge includes two graphics modes — one that favors frame-rate over visuals and vice versa. Setting the game to performance mode will boost the frame-rate to 60fps while the resolution mode will boost the resolution to 1620p while retaining the standard 30fps framerate. Playing The Surge in 60fps is my recommended way to play it since the game feels more responsive and fluid as a result, but if you don’t mind the lower frame-rate then the game will look stunning on a 4K set.
I hate that I keep comparing The Surge to other similar games, but it’s hard not to do when I enjoy the sub-genre so much. The level of polish in From Software’s titles is such a high bar to reach so many will go into this game with high expectations. Deck13 has crafted a tighter, more unique action title compared to their previous effort that feels great standing next to the likes of Nioh and Dark Souls 3, however it just simply lacks that polish that makes such a challenging game more fun to play and progress through. The combat is strong and unique, the setting is refreshing and the graphics are very nice with some great implementation of PS4 Pro features. The problem here is that the level design isn’t nearly as clever as other similar games, the art design wears thin rather quickly, the enemy AI can be buggy and unpredictable, and the lack of online features all make The Surge much less enjoyable to push through. In all honesty, I couldn’t even bring myself to fully finish it since my desire to continue began fading later into the game due to it failing to motivate me to endure and enjoy any more punishment thrown at me. Anyone who enjoys the Souls-like experience owe it to themselves to give The Surge a fair shot, but don’t expect it to raise the bar or even reach the level of brilliance found in Hidetaka Miyazaki’s masterpieces. Regardless, this is a good effort and a good game that Deck13 crafted here and hopefully their next attempt will knock it out of the park. I really hope that happens.
The Surge was reviewed on a Playstation 4 Pro console with a copy provided by Focus Home Entertainment