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 I 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

Want to read my Review for Rise and Shine?

Last month i did a trailer reaction/review for the Adult Swim game Rise and Shine. Well, since then i got a press copy and put a review up. “But William”, i hear you say, “A new review didn’t go up on your site.” Well observed my imaginary, super invested reader. My Rise and Shine Review didn’t get published here. Instead it went up at a new site: IndieGamerTeam.Com! This is where most of my reviews will be going for the foreseeable future. Not all of them, the site is very much aimed at Indie titles, so if i ever get off my ass and finish Final Fantasy 15 (i haven’t been able to play since about the week it came out…fuck my life), i’d post a review for that here. But for right now, You should all go read my Rise and Shine Review (i am pretty damn proud of that one), then you should follow us at IndieGamerTeam, because it wont just be me doing the reviews. We’ve got a few people who want to bring you enjoyable and insightful reviews. We’re like, a squad or league or…some other kind of grouping of professionals who work towards a common goal. There really should be more words for that…  Or if that’s not your thing, you can also follow us on twitter @IndieGamerTeam. And if that’s not your thing…then…why….why are you still reading this. Go home, do something productive with your life. Play some games or something.

Dispersio Review

By William Shelton

Release Date: December 1, 2016

Systems: PC

Developer: Achpile

Publisher: Achpile

Rating: N/A

Obtained By: Gift from Indie Gamer Chick (she wanted me too suffer with her)

Dispersio is kind of like BDSM gone wrong: it’s demanding nature and punishing difficulty should get me all excited, but poor level design and some truly stupid decisions had me calling out “red” way too often. It took me 93 minuets to beat the game’s first level. Part of that was because of the Dispersio’s intended challenge and retro sensibilities. Part of it was novice level design that added unneeded frustration. And part of it was the fact that there is no in-game way to check the controls, forcing new players to quit out to the main menu to learn how to play and then forcing them to redo the opening level. Dispersio isn’t good, but it is an interesting kind of bad. Much like Volchaos I did find myself oddly compelled by the game, but the pay off to frustration ratio simply isn’t worth the effort most of the time.

The games story is that at some point in the future the Earth blows up, leaving behind only a few themed asteroids that hold treasures from the old earth. Why these asteroids also give the player character level-specific powers is never brought up. Frankly, once you get past the tutorial level (the one that took me over an hour to beat) the story isn’t ever brought up again. At least not in what I could be bothered to play through. It’s hard to have a real opinion about that fact though. On one hand I do really like post-earth/post-human sci-fi and would like to get some more of it. On the other hand, the story clearly wasn’t going to do much with the set-up, and from what we got it’s clear that any addition probably wouldn’t have been that great to begin with. While it was nice of the developer to quit while they were ahead, that doesn’t make up for a dull and uninteresting story.

But, I’ve always said that a bad story doesn’t necessarily make a bad game. Gameplay is king after all. So long as that’s good the game can still be worth your time. Unfortunately, Dispersio drops the ball here too. The game aspires to be a difficult retro-style platformer, which is normally right up my alley. I do get a certain, almost sexual, satisfaction from taming and mastering bratty…..I think I got off topic. I like a challenge, is what I’m saying. There’s just something magical about overcoming insurmountable odds. And to the games credit, at its best Dispersio comes close to giving me that fix. In the three levels I played to completion, the game only reached its best once. One room, just one single screen in three levels, did the game ever live up to its full potential.

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Ladies and Gentlemen, i give you: the one good room in the game

Dispersio single biggest issue is the level design. While the game usually does do a good job communicating where the player needs to go and what needs to be avoided, the levels often make most of the challenge stem from compensating for the odd lay outs. Platforms are usually placed in such a way that jumping from one to another often ends with the character colliding with a third platform. Typically, this will send the character into another danger, killing them instantly and forcing them back to the last check point. So not only do you have to find the exact pixel to leap from so other platforms don’t interfere with your jumps, you then have to deal with the timing of gunshots or enemy patters in order not to make contact with them upon landing. That wouldn’t be so bad if the game played a bit faster, but the character moves at a more leisurely and plotting pace. It’s almost like Mario being placed in Super Meat Boy.

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You will hit the roof jumping from block to block, landing either on the spikes or on top of an incoming bullet.

Not helping matters is the fact that the game only saves upon completing a level. And I don’t just mean saves game progress, I mean it doesn’t save anything until you beat the tutorial. If you reconfigure the controls and the game crashes on you, you have to reconfigure them again upon restarting the game. And would you like to know how I found that out? The dev told Cathy and me over Twitter because we were complaining that the game wasn’t saving. That’s right folks! Important information about the game is not told to you in the game. Lack of information is another real issue Dispersio has.

Like I said earlier, there’s no in-game way to check the controls. I had to quit out a few times to learn how to actually play the fucking thing, and had to start from the beginning again. The checkpoints don’t stand out enough upon first glance and can easily be missed. So if you go in trying to play it safe you can end up playing long sections repeatedly before the game forces you to hit one to teach you what they are.

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That gold bit: that’s the first checkpoint. You have no real reason to go in that direction.

 

Checkpoint placement is also frustrating. The dev clearly knows that adding checkpoints after a hard section is good to do, but they tend to be in the same screen as the challenge you just beat. So you regularly have to go through a part of the previous screen to get back to the area were you died. I know that doesn’t sound too bad, but in practice it felt like needless busywork between deaths. And other times they’re so close together it’s like the dev is overcompensating for that fact. In one of the easiest rooms of the game there are four check points. Two at the top and two at the bottom, one set literally being on the same platform.

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Nothing in the room required 4 checkpoints

I used the phrase “novice level design” in my opening, and I really do think that’s the best way to sum up Dispersio. Hell, the game is the only thing on the developer’s Steam page, so I’m pretty sure this is his first game. It is painfully subpar, but it shows that the developer has some creative energy. That energy needs to be refined and worked on, but it’s there. I’m sure as shit not going to give the game any points for that, It looks like crap, sounds even worse and plays like ass and proves once again that “user reviews” are completely useless with its “positive” sitting on Steam. Dispersio is a total failure, but it is an interesting one. It’s Tommy Wiseau in indie game form.

scores

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