PC, PS4, Xbox One
Just as they did with Deck13’s previous game, Lords
Of The Fallen, some people will sneer at The Surge for daring to poke around in the same corners as the hallowed Dark Souls series. But the studio clearly reveres FromSoftware’s work, and once you’ve accepted its motives – that these games are more exercises in worship than they are duplicitous clones – you can try to appreciate The Surge on its own merit. What you cannot do, though, is play it without drawing comparisons to the games that inspired it, because there is no escaping the familiarity in its structure and systems. Sometimes it’s a familiarity that feels comforting, but it can also be a nagging sensation that makes you stop and simply ponder what a sci-fi Dark
Souls would be like with Hidetaka Miyazaki at the helm. The futuristic set dressing works hard to make The
Surge feel like its own game, and in full flight, shafts of light rolling across your armour as you hustle through cramped service corridors stuffed with cabling and studded with minimalistic signposting, it forges an atmosphere that keeps you wanting to see more. In rooting the game in hard, functional angles across its assorted industrial zones, however, Deck13 runs into navigation issues, and in a small number of sections it’s all too easy to feel lost, circling back on yourself as you grasp hopelessly for standout environmental aspects to guide your way. An intentional choice by designers looking to make the game more challenging, or simply an oversight? Even if it’s the former, it probably wasn’t meant to feel quite this infuriating in play. Or perhaps we were simply going at it too hard.
The Surge’s rhythms – run the gauntlet of a bunch of enemies as you explore an environment, collecting goodies and healing your way to the safe point, inching your progress along with each new excursion – are so familiar now that they invite overconfidence. On too many occasions we bundled our way into enemy encounters assured that we had the measure of things, only to immediately have our head stoved in, stranding our scrap quota – The Surge’s equivalent of souls – for recovery on the subsequent run. The game is smaller than its stylings lead you to expect, so it makes sense that the obstacles in your way put up a fight.
It explains the game’s Metroidvania leanings, too. Gear-gated doorways appear from the opening section onwards, dangling the prospect of hidden delights that at some point, if you work really hard, you may be able to get your hands on. In some instances it is worth backtracking to collect a valuable health powerup, but we’re not sure we’ll ever forgive the designer who opted to tease us with a level-55 doorway in the opening stage that, many hours later, coughs up a pointless audio log.
In moment-to-moment terms, a more important departure from the Souls template is the game’s targeting system, which allows you to aim attacks at an enemy’s head, body or individual limb. An unprotected noggin is a good target if you want to take an enemy down quickly, but at other times you’ll want to pinpoint an arm or leg in order to procure a weapon, or some armour, that can then be upgraded with other materials harvestable in the same manner. It adds a layer of strategy that feels gimmicky at first before eventually emerging as a mechanic that holds up to sustained play, pitting risk against reward smoothly and gratifyingly. The Surge’s approach to bosses is less satisfying. Its opening example is predictable enough, but with its second it starts cooking. It can clonk you with a downward slap from one of its six arms. It can roast you with multiple flamethrowers up close, or lob a blob of blue flame at you from distance. It can whip you with its arms by rotating like a churning spinning top, first horizontally and then at an incline. It can launch itself into the air and land its circular bulk on your head, or perform a body slam to crush you if you try to scutter under its belly. It is, in other words, a handful – at least until you learn its moveset – and it stokes the fires as you contemplate the kind of monstrosities that lie in wait farther into the adventure. That the next boss fails to deliver the goods is a disappointment, but it’s not as crushing as the subsequent set-piece, which opens an enormous door only to wheel out a reskinned version of the game’s first boss – and then, while you’re still coming to terms with such a dirty move, repeats the trick once more, just to rub it in. There’s just one more boss to tick off the list before the game is done, making a total of five climactic encounters in an adventure whose stablemates manage to crank out that quota by lunchtime. The canvas of a fantasy-themed game may allow designers more freedom to express themselves, but we’ve seen enough incredible mechanised foes down the years to know that The Surge is a missed opportunity. The game leans into a biomechanical theme as it enters its closing phase, and it only emphasises the lack of imagination in earlier sections.
Since it’s framed by a predictable storyline and mediocre scripting, The Surge falls back on its sights, sounds and mechanics to get by. Its lighting and audio effects serve the theme well, but it’s scruffier technically: some enemies ignored us completely, while others had a weird habit of simply running off in the opposite direction. (A day-one patch may yet fix some of these issues.) There are some odd design choices, too: the game retains the regenerating enemies of the Souls series, but it doesn’t include fast travel or a way of purchasing upgrade materials, which prolongs the adventure in a not particularly rewarding way.
FromSoftware’s second stab at this stuff produced Dark Souls. Deck13 still has a way to go before it really delivers on the concept it holds so dear.
While you’re still coming to terms with such a dirty move, it repeats the trick once more, just to rub it in