Do robots dream of electric bonfires?
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And if that old adage is true, then the folks at Deck13 Interactive sure have taken a shine to developer FromSoftware. The Surge, the latest release from the Frankfurt, Germany-based studio, shares quite a bit in common with the Souls series. From its crushing difficulty to its sprawling, interconnected map and massive boss encounters, every step you take through the CREOS labs feels inspired by Demons Soul’s or Bloodborne – albeit with a gritty and industrial aesthetic not unlike Doom 2016 grafted to the package. Thankfully, rather than merely imitate Miyazaki’s venerated series of action-RPGs, Deck13 has crafted a sublime sci-fi take on their rock-solid formula, crafting a dark and engaging trek through a ruined world that Souls fans won’t want to miss.
The worst case of the Mondays
In its opening moments, The Surge puts players in control of wheelchair-bound protagonist, Warren. After a brief train ride to your first day on the job at CREO, a world-shaping energy company, the train pulls into a dimly lit station teeming with heavily-armed security guards who usher our crippled hero to one of two terminals where you can choose your starting load-out. Then, after being painfully fitted with your fancy new exoskeleton, all hell breaks loose. Waking up in the ruined facility, Warren must fight to survive against robotic enemies, psychotic former CREO employees, and geared-up security forces on his quest for answers.
It’s in the game’s storytelling where The Surge really stands out from its inspiration. The Surge’s story doesn’t take a backseat to the exploration, and you’ll frequently be drip-fed new information at what exactly went down at the facility, be it through characters you meet, emails you uncover, or audio logs find tucked off the beaten path. Sure, the whole shady high-tech corporation causes major catastrophe thing may be old hat by now. Despite its cliches, the story still does a good job of moving things forward. Which, in this reviewer’s opinion, is something many Souls-likes have struggled to do in the past. So, kudos to Deck13 for that.
All up in arms
If you’ve ever played a Souls game before, The Surge‘s combat is going to feel right at home. It’s weighty, methodical, and puts a strong emphasis on risk versus reward actions. And, just as you’d expect, one wrong move can often spell certain doom. However, it does to do a few interesting things that help it stand out from From Software’s pack.
The most notable of these systems comes in the way you approach combat itself. Almost every enemy in The Surge is armored in some way, with one or two unarmed areas of their body being their weak spots. Striking an unprotected head or arm may bring an enemy down faster, but it’s not always the best way to proceed. If you target an armored head, body, or limb, you can perform a gruesome special kill when your opponent’s health drops to a certain point. This will allow you a chance to sever said limb and salvage the parts for yourself. That said, it pays to dissect your foes to up your arsenal and protective gear.
Of course, when you’re surrounded by 3 sledgehammer-wielding psychos and a weird cybernetic dog-thing, you’ll have to weigh the pros and cons of whether or not you want to salvage loot, or dispatch your enemies as quickly as possible. This adds a very welcome layer of tactical depth to the game’s visceral combat system.
The best offense is a good defense
The Surge also sports some tweaks to the genre’s usual stable of defensive techniques. Sure, circle strafing, blocking, and rapid dashes are as useful as ever. Perhaps the most effective technique involves high and low dodges. These allow you to duck under or jump over incoming attacks to deliver an devastating counter. These take time to master. However, once you get the timing down, they offer you a formidable mix of offense and defense. And the fact they look awesome in practice certainly doesn’t hurt.
No matter how well-honed your defenses are, sometimes you need to beef up your stats to topple the baddies the game throws your way. That said, if you’re not particularly fond of grinding, The Surge might not be the game for you. The time you spend farming precious loot and materials and collecting tech shards – The Surge‘s version of Dark Souls’ souls – is considerable, and definitely outweighs the time you’ll spend exploring new areas and unraveling the story. Then again, if you’re a Souls fan then you’re probably expecting as much. Still, it’s worth nothing you’ll have to cut through an awful lot of cold, armored exoskeleton to get to the gooey, sinewy center of The Surge.
Fitter, happier, more productive
Still, that’s not to say Deck13 hasn’t made some concessions to make The Surge a more streamlined affair. In fact, the game trims the fat in a lot of ways, allowing you to focus less on the number crunch and more on combat and exploration. There’s no real class system to speak of. Sure, you may choose to be a Heavy Operator or Field Technician at the outset of the game, but these only determine your starting armor and nothing more. Also gone is the myriad different stats to incrementally beef up such as luck, dexterity, strength, etc. Instead, once you level your character at a medical bay with scrap you’ve collected, points are distributed equally to your health, stamina, and energy stats.
In addition to your three core stats that dominate the top of the screen, leveling up your character also increases the power output of your exoskeleton’s power core. Your core powers implants. These implants range from healing and stamina injections (consumables), to passive stat-boosts. However, each implant has its own power consumption. And when you hit that limit, no more implants can be equipped. This means you’ll want to carefully consider your lineup of implants to find the most balanced build, both in terms of effectiveness in combat and power consumption, for any given situation. Additionally, many locked doors can be overloaded only when your power core reaches a certain level. And you’ll want to beef up your power output to uncover the treasures that reside within.
More advanced Souls veterans may find The Surge‘s comparatively stripped down leveling and class systems disappointing. However, I myself found it pretty refreshing. This allowed me to focus more on meaningful progression without worrying about getting lost in the weeds of stat-centric minutiae.
An appealing apocalypse
Just because The Surge is set in ruined labs and factories doesn’t mean it’s not a pretty game. In fact, Deck13 has done an excellent job of crafting a game that’s easy on your CREO-issued optical enhancements. The crumbling world you’ll explore looks fantastic. Even the most sterile labs filled with impressive little details to take in, like scrawled notes, severed human limbs, flashing monitors, and flickering flames. In fact, the aesthetics share quite a bit in common with those of DOOM 2016, what with their rugged industrial beauty and bio-enhanced enemy designs. The CREO facility certainly isn’t a place you’d want to live in, but it’s certainly a joy to tour from the comfort of your couch.
The enemies you’ll encounter are varied and detailed as well. And each baddie sports some truly impressive animations that make them seem all the more threatening. The windup of a RHINO’s sledgehammer looks menacing. Trust me. When you see a grunt scream and charge you with two giant spikes for hands, you WILL know fear.
Without question, The Surge looks great. And more importantly, it runs at a rock-solid frame rate, even when the action is at its most fever-pitched.
It’s nothing to sneeze at on the audio front, either. From the mechanical roars of hulking robots to the wet sound of a limb being cleaved from your foe, The Surge sounds simply fantastic. And while music is kept to a relative minimum, what’s hear is high quality and does a great job of setting the tone for the action at hand. Unfortunately, voice acting is a bit uneven. Many of the supporting characters are brought to life with excellent performances. However, others come across as a bit lazy and phoned in.
A glitch in the system
My time spent diving into the world of The Surge was overwhelmingly positive. However, there are a few areas where this killing machine could use some optimization. One of the most frustrating issues that crops up comes from a camera. Simply put, it’s anchored just a bit too close to your character. This can fights with bosses that tower over the player occasionally unwieldy. This is because it can be difficult to maneuver the camera see what’s unfolding above you. Additionally, it can be hard to see enemies up close when navigating particularly claustrophobic corridors. It’s not a game breaker by any stretch. Still, being butchered because you can’t get a good view of the action is never fun. Especially when it comes at the cost of a huge stack of scrap you were lugging around.
This brings me to my other complaint. While Dark Souls and Nioh never kept you too far from a bonfire or shrine. That meant you never had to wait too long to spend your hard-earned souls or amrita. That’s just not the case in The Surge. Medical stations, which serve as your all-in-one leveling, healing station, and shop, are a especially rare. It’s not often to spend over a half hour exploring before coming across the next one. That is, at least until you’ve opened up the inevitable batch of shortcuts in the area. Of course, this only adds to the challenge that genre veterans crave. But the scarcity of safe rooms is pretty extreme by any measure.
Shock and awe
Make no mistake about it, The Surge doesn’t re-invent the wheel that Demon’s Souls built. But then again, it doesn’t need to. The tweaks it makes to the established formula are a breath of fresh air for the genre. From the brutal, dissection-based combat to the streamlined class and leveling system, which trims that fat to deliver a leaner experience, developer Deck13 has does an incredible job of breathing new life into a genre that is, quite frankly, starting to grow a bit stale.
If you’ve fought your way through Nioh and are looking for yet another quality action-RPG to deliver that Souls fix, look no further. The Surge is a finely-tuned machine that fans of the genre won’t want to miss.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC ; Publisher: Focus Home Interactive ; Developer: Deck13 Interactive ; Players: 1 ; Released: May 16, 2017 ; ESRB: M for Mature ; MSRP: $59.99
Full Disclosure: This review is based on a copy of The Surge given to Hey Poor Player by the Publisher.