By William Shelton
Systems: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Developer: Deck13 Interactive
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
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.
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.
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.
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.