The Surge | Principal Platforms: PC (version tested), PlayStation 4, Xbox One | Developer: Deck13 Interactive | Publisher: Focus Home Interactive | Genre: Action, RPG | Year: 2017

Killer concept. Frustrating execution. The Surge is an improvement on Deck13's previous effort, but it's still lacking the smoothness any great soulslike so desperately needs.
The Surge PC Box Art

The Surge

Although The Surge is set in the far future on a robot-infested planet a zillion miles away from the dark fantasy land seen in Lords of the Fallen, this new game by Deck13 Interactive feels closer to Dark Souls than ever before.

Whereas Lords featured direct storytelling chops in the form of dialogue trees and voiced cutscenes, The Surge returns us to a more familiar brand of environmental plotting that reveals its secrets in carefully designed levels and portentous audio logs. The combat is a pinch faster this time around too, with levels feeling more seamless and more in tune with that unmistakeable quality that has made the soulslike subgenre so popular.

The Surge is set in a dystopian future where our unwitting hero, Warren, is forced to uncover why Earth’s already miserable death spiral was accelerated by a violent and mysterious robot uprising. Fighting through hordes of vile mechanical creatures and insane augmented workers, Warren finds his grip on reality slipping as the deeper truths of Earth’s fate start coming into focus.

It’s a third person RPG spanning many desolate industrial landscapes; the sort of rusty and broken down facilities filled with regenerating enemies and overly dramatic boss fights. It’s a nippier experience compared to Lords of the Fallen, thanks to the increased emphasis on dodging, but The Surge lays claim to the same weighty combat that despite some neat flourishes, still feels twitchy.

Dodging doesn’t have that smooth motion that such an important combat manoeuvre deserves. Likewise are the heavier weapons whose slow and unwieldy attacks don’t feel great when put next to their faster alternatives. Even with the various lighter cleavers and clubs though, the animations for these weapons still feel quite unpredictable, with running attacks feeling especially imprecise because of their jerky nature.

The big selling point behind combat is a fairly unique limb-targeting gimmick that encourages players to focus their attacks on an enemy’s various appendages before slicing them off and (hopefully) fetching unique pieces of scrap to unlock matching schematics. Defeat enough humanoid enemies in any given area and chances are you’ll be salvaging their armour and weapons to be part of your own arsenal.

The regularity of drops combined with the soft necessity for tactical thinking does well at keeping combat reasonably engaging. Every new enemy represents another chance to find something new and completed armour sets offer a nice kicker bonus that encourages players to upgrade their rig whenever they can.

It’s certainly fun for a while. The difficulty produces a better curve than the uncomfortable spikes and dips that Lords put in front of us. A barren world clogged with hostile cybernetics also makes for a genuinely chilling setup, even if the dialogue with whatever few friendly faces there are feels equally as lifeless.

Ultimately The Surge starts to get frustrating somewhere after the second (admittedly cool-looking) boss battle. Aside from the occasional wonkiness of combat, I mostly blame the level design for that.

The Surge Gameplay Screenshot

In a nice touch, murdering humanoid enemies activates a vanity mode that allows you to pause and re-position the camera exactly as you want to take a cool screenshot.

The Med-bay safe havens where you can rest and upgrade Warren’s abilities are scarce. The Surge tries to build as many shortcuts and weaving passages around a single nexus point as it can, but this approach has created convoluted routes where it’s incredibly hard to remember which route leads forward, and which one leads to an optional zone with nothing left to offer.

Making matters worse is the fact that Med-bays are often nowhere near the monorails that link whole areas together, so going back to a previous map, to satisfy a side quest for example, can feel laborious. But even worse than that is the returning ‘corpse run’ system that forces players to revisit the site of their death in order to collect their dropped resources.

This is a common mechanic in games of this style, but the whole concept is ruined here by the introduction of a timer. Fail to return to or even remember where your corpse is in time and you lose whatever resources you had left behind; potentially erasing hours of work. This encourages the risky play where Warren must charge across the map attracting every hostile worker, attack drone and scrubber droid in the nearby vicinity. Not a recipe for success, let me tell you.

There’s no easy way to warp back to a Med-bay either, so a lot of your time will be spent trying to remember where everything is. This is especially true of the later levels that take on a particularly labyrinthine quality with passageways and tunnels that look incredibly similar to one another. And that’s to say nothing about the many annoying bosses whose questionable mechanics leave a lot to be desired.

This is also around the point where players discover the epic upgrades that still require materials from the opening levels. It’s good that the final boss is an agonisingly difficult affair that trumps the tepid Lords finale, but remaining competitive against it can mean traipsing back through old areas just to pick up a few specific bits of scrap, and that stinks of padding, quite frankly.

It’s a shame because the Soma-esque material towards the end isn’t bad from a storytelling standpoint. The frightening elements of the main plot bubble to the surface like something out of the survival horror genre; it’s just really hard to appreciate that when the rest of the game is so frustrating.