The Surge Review

By William Shelton
Release Date
Systems: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Developer: Deck13 Interactive
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Rating: M
Obtained By: Review Code was Provided

If nothing else, The Surge provides the single best case study as to why gaming needs a stronger AA market. The game does a lot that a like and there’s a lot I want to applaud it for. But in the end there’s an overall lack of polish that makes actually recommending the game challenging. In a year that saw the similar but superior Nioh, I can’t recommend The Surge at it’s $60 price point. But I do think it’s worth a look.
If you couldn’t tell by the Nioh comparison, The Surge is a Soulslike action-RPG, which tells you about three quarters of what you need to know. Slow, weighty, animation driven combat; Metroidvainia style levels that incentives exploration and finding short cuts, you lose EXP/currency upon death, exc, exc. What you probably won’t be expecting is that this game has probably the best opening out of all the Soulslike games to have been released. And why would you: Deck 13’s last game, Lords of the Fallen, opened with a boring cinematic with no real bearing on the plot. The Surge’s opening, however, actually takes it’s cues from Half-Life. You sit patiently on a train as a video gives you an exposition dump. I know that doesn’t sound very exciting, but I felt the moment was close to perfection. The scene makes a pretty authentic case for the company the player character is about to work for, and there is an air of optimism that you know is going to soon be lost, and it’s all the more saddening because of this.

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I have to say, I wasn’t expecting The Surge to come out advocating for Communism

Once you get control of the character, you find they are wheelchair bound. While I’m sure the game will receive some criticism for how it ignores this after the games intro, I feel the reveal itself was expertly crafted. From there you go to getting the Elysium style exo-suit that will allow you to progress through the game and…here I’m kind of conflicted. The character is told an anesthetic will be provided for the surgery, but there isn’t, and you watch as all the pieces are bolted on, blood spraying every were while the character screams in torment. One one hand, this tonal whiplash serves the game well, establishing the right mood for the rest of the game. On the other, I really hate it when science fiction plays on this kind of technophobia. The dev team thought up a technology that can give a man the ability to walk again, then frames it as this horrifying thing that shouldn’t be touched. I’m sure most of this was to get players ready for the game to come, but with how much effort went into the rest of this scene, it sucks they stumbled here.
I’ll also admit this section could have been stretched out for a bit longer too. What’s here does manage to be really effective, but not having the players interact with any other living people before everything goes to shit wasn’t the best call. If the game had taken the time to establish some relationships with the NPC’s players found along the way, I think it would have been much more effective as a whole. If the game wants to have the story so front and center (even going so far as to have dialogue choices), then giving us some info about who these people are and why we should care about them is kind of important.
While everything interesting about the games story might have petered out after the opening moments, the gameplay managed to mostly hold my attention throughout. The games biggest success is it’s dismemberment mechanic. Unlike in other Soulslike games, you can’t just wait for armor or weapons to drop. Instead, you have to fight an enemy with the armor piece you’re looking to obtain, then weaken that body part in combat before being allowed to dismember the opponent in order to grab the schematics. Once you have those, you can build new armor pieces in the Medbay, the games safe zones. This took some getting use too, as you have to lock on to an enemy, then manually target which part of the body you want to attack, but I soon found my self really enjoying how it all worked. It added a tactical edge to combat, as you could only get one new peace of armor from an enemy at a time, and there’s no knowing if the next time they will have the same load out. On top of that, you can attack unarmored body parts for extra damage. While I think there is something to be said about the depth Dark Souls, Bloodborne and Nioh get out of a relatively simple combat system, I can’t say I disliked the added complexity The Surge added to it’s one on one fights.

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If you don’t say “Just a Flesh Wound” after dismembering an adversary, we can;t be friends.

But once the game adds in another combatant that things start to go down hill, and The Surge loves ambushing the player. Because of all the extra work involved in locking on to an enemy, there is no easy way to simply switch between two or more. So in order to switch targets, to have to unlock from one, manually move the camera onto the other, then lock on again. And that’s just the beginning of the game’s issues.
All of the games enemies have little cool down for their attack, and the animations for them rarely convey enough information to begin with. So getting hit in The Surge is almost an inevitability. Non-human enemies are even worse, as they tend to be designed in a way that makes reading their movements almost impossible. Only adding to this frustration is a number of glitches and some really bad design choices. More often than I can count the AI for enemies just seemed to turn off altogether and they just let me whale on them until they died. One enemy, when using a back flip attack that is meant to knock the player into the air, simply launched out of the game world entirely. And the second level is filled with robots you can only meaningfully harm from the back, but placed in tight corridors, making getting behind them a pain as I’d get stuck between them and the walls. This could have easily been fixed by widening the environments or making these enemies either smaller or slower so the player can more easily get around them.
Up grades are also handled pretty poorly. As you make your way through the game you collect “tech scrap” which can be used to increase your suits power and upgrade your weapons and armor. Increasing your suits core power allows you to use more armor and implants (swapable bonuses like health injections, increased stamina and more) as well as give you the ability to access more areas of each level. However, as you aren’t leveling up the character himself, the only way to increase attack or defense is to upgrade your armaments. And this gets annoying fast. For each piece you need scrap and an extra component. For armor this just means continuing to dismember enemies where you’re looking to upgrade. You want to boost your helmet? Chop off some heads! However, as you upgrade you need higher level materials, and I have no idea where to find them. To be fair, I’ve only made it to the third boss, but I’ve yet to find a single enemy that dropped level 3 materials for anything; weapons or armor. And speaking of upgrading your arsenal, I have literally no idea where I got the right pieces for that. You can’t target the enemies weapons, so where you’re supposed to find the upgrade materials for them is lost to me. Yet every so often I’ll find I have the means to upgrade something as if it’s just been added to my inventory out of the blue.

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i have no idea where i got that three Level 3 Tungsten, nor where i can get the six more needed to upgrade my main weapon.

All of those issues aside, I do think the moment to moment gameplay manages to be pretty solid. That’s good to know, because finding out where you’re supposed to go in this train wreck is even more complicated than in any of the other Soulslike game I’ve played, so you’ll spend a lot of time in that gameplay loop. Unlike Dark Souls, each level only has one Medbay, and all the short cuts you find lead back to it. While this seems like it should make finding your way around easier, what it really ends up doing is creating confusion as you have to remember which of the interconnecting short cuts lead to where. So many of these shortcuts criss-cross through each other that at any given moment I couldn’t remember where I was trying to take a short cut too. It’s hard not to find fault with the games overall aesthetics here too. While Deck 13 did pretty much everything they could do with “post apocalyptic industrial area”, there really wasn’t much there to begin with. So areas lack any real identity of their own, which only makes getting lost that much easier. This has the unfortunate consequence of it never feeling like the player is making much progress. No matter where I go I’m always right back where I was.
And then there are the boss fights. My god, does this game have awful boss fights. First off, simply finding the boss is often a chore in and of itself. Not just because of the issues I mentioned earlier, either. When I first stumbled upon the arena for the first boss I said to myself “yup, this looks like a boss arena”….but it wasn’t. I moved through without even an enemy encounter. “Okay”, I thought, “maybe this was just to give me some breathing room”. It wasn’t until hours later, when I went back there by accident (I had no reason to be in the area anymore, or so I thought) that the boss appeared. Then the bosses themselves are a combination of the games worst traits. They do large amounts of damage with almost no cool downs for their attacks, the robotic nature means it’s hard to tell if they are moving or attacking, and they tend to move in such a way that the camera can’t keep up, forcing me to take a moment to readjust, a moment the bosses tended to use to wreck my shit. And the second boss has a number of one hit kills it can just keep using due to that lack of cool down I talked I about, and I’m told only gets worse later on in the game.
Thankfully everything else is at least on par. It’s visually bland, but it doesn’t look bad. The game could use a bit more light, as dark areas are nearly impenetrable even with a flash light on. More diverse environments could have helped a lot too. The dev team clearly tried, with a major part of the third level taking place in a greenery, but it never manages to be enough in my opinion. Sound is also pretty generic, with human enemies making basic zombie-like noises while mechanical ones have no real personality to their audio design. That’s not necessarily bad, just unremarkable.
I wanted to like The Surge more than I did. And to the games credit, it is a marked improvement over Lords of the Fallen. For all of it’s faults I do think it’s enjoyable enough to warrant a look….when you can find it half off or used. If Deck 13 keeps up the rampant improvement, it’s not hard to imagine their next game being something truly special. As for The Surge, I can only recommend it if you’re like me and you really enjoy Soulslike games and want to at least try all of them that come out. It’s far from perfect, but I don’t quite hate it. I’m disappointed it wasn’t better, but had it not been shackled to the AAA market, I think it could have been a much easier sale.

The Surge Review scores

In Case You Were Wondering, Kingdom Hearts 3 still Exists

It’s been over a decade since Kingdom Hearts 2 was released. We had an entire console generation come and go without seeing another real installment in this franchise. This kind of wait would kill most other franchises in other forms of media. But unlike other long awaited returns like Half-Life 3 or Beyond Good and Evil 2,  there has at least been a decent drip feed of information regarding this newest Kingdom Hearts game to make the wait not as tedious as it could have been. “Not AS tedious” being the key phrase there.

But in all honesty, after watching this i am kind of impressed, as the game doesn’t look like it’s been 10 years in the making. It’s hard to explain what i mean: i last played the games when they were re-released on the PS3, where i marathoner my way through the two main titles. This footage feels like, had i been playing this then, it would have been right at home in that collection. That’s pretty miraculous in my opinion, as you would think that over 10 years either something would have changed or the style would have become out dated. But no, this looks just as fun as the original games did. Even though i’m one of those weird-o’s who likes the more complicated side of the franchise more than the “Disney self-insert fanfiction” stuff the series made it’s name on, i’m still excited for this and i’m really happy to know it’s at least looking like it’s been worth the wait.

Addendum on PS+ January Games

A little while a go i wrote a small peace on the upcoming free games on PS+. In the post i mentioned a worry over the fact that “This War of Mine: The Little Ones” was one of the included games, and too my knowledge that was a DLC and i worried it may force players to buy the main game in order to play. Well, my buddy over at Cheap Boss Attack  said that it would be the full game, and i was going to leave it at that as i wasn’t sure 11 Bit Studio would ever respond to my inquiry. But, to my surprise they did in fact email me back confirming that the PS4 addition of the game was simply named after the expansion and would be playable for anyone who picks it up next month.

Sony Reaches out to Dubebro Demographic with awful Xbox Style Controller

You know what i’ve always liked about Sony and Playstation? The Controller. I;ve found the PS controller to be the most comfortable over all, and i like that it has never changed in any meaningful way. Yes, you can fell the difference between the PS4 and PS1 controllers, but they’ve stayed pretty consistent. Well, it seems like some idiot convinced Sony that emulating the god-awful Xbox controller was a good idea. Microsoft hand-sore has evolved in much the same way, becoming more palatable over the hardware generations, but one of the main reasons i don’t like the Xbox is because i don’t like the controller. Because of that the fact that this exists with Sonys Ok is……a lot more understandable that i’d like to admit but still something that bothers me on a personal level.

Okay lets be real here: Espots that use controllers tend to use Xbox controllers and Sony is going to want in at some point. Most PC games with controller support only are really only designed to support Xbox controllers and with Steam now allowing full PS4 controller support it makes logical scene to give people a version of the controller they’re probably already more familiar with. But, if the internet has taught me anything it’s that just because something make logical scene that doesn’t mean i have to like it. So if you’d like to spend $113 on this abomination, go head.

Yooka Laylee Capital Cashino Trailer

The more i see of this game the more the exact same issue pops out at me: the levels seem almost lifeless. I’ve said before that in game that may not be an issue and that i can’t say for sure until i get my hands on it. That remains true now, but this trailer does help illustrate why i’m concerned. Look at the part at around 23 seconds in when the character pulls the lever on the slot machine. Look at the vast empty space that surrounds it. Look at how there are almost never more that three enemies on screen in big open spaces. I really hope i’m wrong about this: i really enjoyed what little i played of Banjo Kazooie as a kid and want to see more games like it and after Mighty No. 9 i’d really appreciate one of these throwback games to…you know…good. But for right now, i’m worried. i would love, LOVE, to be wrong but until i hear from reviewers i trust that it’s good i’ going to have to lower my expectations.

Aragami Review

By William Shelton

Release Date: October 4, 2016
Systems: PS4, Xbox One, PC (Reviewed), Mac
Developer: Lince Works
Publisher: Lince Works, Merge Games Ltd., Maximum Games
Rating: M
Obtained By: Review Code Provided by Lince Works

Aragami is not a bad game, but I think it will be mistaken for one by a lot of people. The stealth action gameplay is flawed but enjoyable….for a while. For the first few hours I was having a blast, but by the mid-point, were I stopped, I just wasn’t anymore. Nothing had changed and it took me a little to figure out just why I wasn’t enjoying my self as much any more. Then it hit me: nothing had changed. After the first few missions the game just runs out of steam and new ideas.
You play as an Aragami, a vengeful spirit, summoned by a young girl named Yamiko to free her from captivity and bring ruin upon those who killed her people and imprisoned her. In order to do this you must collect several talismans before the night ends and the light kills the Aragami. This is Video Games 101 story stuff: kidnapped girl, eight macguffins, ticking clock, go. Hell, change a few names around and this could be the gritty reboot of Zelda. Yamiko even accompanies you as a ball of light and actually says “hey, listen” at one point.

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“Hey, Reference!”

The classical nature of the games story doesn’t hut it as much as it’s predictability. When you obtain one of the talismans the Aragami is hit with a rush of memories that are supposed to be foreshadowing a future twist, but I guessed it almost instantly. This had me wishing the game would cut the pretense and get to the point. Or at the very least they could have done a little better in the sound department to make the story more enjoyable to sit through.
Okay, it’s unfair to blame the entire sound department. The issue is the voice work for the two leads. The actors for Yamiko and the Aragami might have done a fine job but I wouldn’t know as the developers put on a thick layer of echo on each one of them. I get what Lince was aiming for, making it sound like these two come from different planes of existence, but I found it got on my nerves pretty fast. Everything else works just fine: the music has a nice traditionally Asian sound to it, the kills are cartoonishly gruesome which fits nicely with the stylized visual aesthetic and your main power (a short distance teleport) has a subdued “whoosh” that conveys the speed and stealth ninjas are associated with.
The gameplay fairs better for the most part. In the way only stealth or horror games can get away with, the player character is incredibly weak and most foes can kill the player in one hit. Because of this it’s best to keep out of sight and in the shadows. To reinforce this, shadows are now more important than they are in most other stealth games. The Aragami has several supernatural powers at his disposal that deplete energy which can only be refilled by standing in shadows. And that teleport you have from the beginning can only transport you to a shadow covered area. With all of this combined I really did feel like a stealthy badass once I got into the games rhythm. Getting into that rhythm was part of the problem however.

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One of the few skills that are useful….when it’s not less covenant than just stabbing a dude.

Most of the skills available you have to unlock by finding a certain number of scrolls hidden throughout each level. Because of that, unless you search every nook and cranny of every level it can take you longer than it should to unlock basic stealth mechanics. For example, one skill allows you to dissolve bodies in shadows, but until you unlock that ability there’s no way to deal with the corpses you leave in your wake. In the early game that meant I was constantly putting guards in high alert as they found their fallen comrades.
Not helping matters is how many of the powers are more or less useless. After unlocking three or four of the abilities I really didn’t feel a particular need to unlock any more. And the ones I did were, once again, standard mechanics for the stealth genre.
The game makes up for this short coming, at least in the early hours, by being really well made and a lot of fun. While the controls took some getting use too (“Space” to kill? “F” to interact? Who came up with this control scheme?) once I got the hang of it I was never too bothered. But like I said at the start of the review, after a while the game just kind of runs out of ideas. The levels get bigger, but you face off against the exact same enemy types throughout and you’re doing the exact same thing in each level, breaking the power source for a light shield so you can move on to the next area. In the last mission I played before stopping to right this review they added the first new enemy type since the second level: a proximity mine that’s too easy to avoid. This is part of the reason so many of the powers feel useless; the player is never asked to adapt. Only once in my play time was I ever put into a situation that felt like it was shaking up the gameplay and that was dropped once I beat that part of the level. That’s why I think this is going to be misjudged as a bad game by a lot of people: if you play too much of it at once it begins to feel tedious and it’s easy to forget just how good the stealth is.

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The game has some great visual shorthand to convay information to the player.

Special mention has to go to how not only how good the game looks, but how well the interface in handled. The cell-shaded look of the game is simply beautiful, and the hand drawn look of the flashbacks complement it well. And you never have to stop paying attention to how gorges the game is to check visibility meters or manna points as that’s all a part of the character. The Aragami’s cape tells you how much manna you have and the character darkens when hidden in shadows. Any and all information you need to know can be found with a single look at the character, and I really appreciated that.
In the end, a lot of bad choices keeps Aragami from being a great game, but it was an enjoyable enough. It’ll probably be even more enjoyable when played right, in short burst every now and again. I am very much looking forward to going back and completing the game, just not right now.

aragami-review-scores

The Last of Us Part 2 Trailer and Impressions

The Last of Us was one of my favorite games on the PS3, my favorite Naughty Dog game and easily in my top 10. So as you can imagine, i’m super excited to see this. Hell, i’ve been thinking about where a second game could go since i finished the first game. While this does look like it’s going exactly where i thought a follow-up would go, i’m more or less okay with that. I mean, lets be honest, the stories of Naughty Dog games tend to be less important that their abilities as story tellers. So long as Joe and Ellie are still as memorable and…i don’t think “likeable” is applicable here…..interesting as they were in the first game, we should be in for a good time. That being said, there are things that could be done better:

The first item on my wishlist is to make Ellie the player character. And no, this isn’t even just becuase of the need for more female protagonist in games. She was very much the focal point of the first game, and if this trailer is anything to go by, she will very much be the lead here too, so a switch in perspective would be very much appreciated.

Next up, no more platform puzzles. No more looking for ladder or floating platforms. None of it. The overuse of these types of puzzles was the biggest issue i had with the first game, so for fucks sake Naughty Dog, be more creative, yeah?

Don’t go morbid the entire game. The thing that the original game did right, the thing that made it stand out, was the fact that it made the darker moments matter by having something to contrasting them with. I know there is a temptation to just go darker with a sequel to make it feel more intense than the last one, and i’m fine with that so long as we still get those calm and quite moments to know what’s being lost once all hell’s let lose. If the status quo starts off as “Everything’s fucked”, then we have no reason to care when the shit hits the fan. To be fare Naughty Dog has been pretty good at this, but it’s still something i wanted to bring up.

So, are you excited for The Last of Us Part 2? Are you sick of grimdark games? Leave a comment below and let me know.