"The Surge doesn't always fight fair and sometimes betrays the very best parts of what it's trying to do, but I can't deny how much fun it was when I really got into the groove and found myself tearing off limbs left and right."
Lords of the Fallen
was a mess. It was a pale imitation of Dark Souls so lacking in inspiration and execution that I couldn't recommend it to anyone. However, Deck13's latest effort, The Surge, is a better game in almost every way. It has a more intriguing hook, better combat, and a few new elements that push the genre forward. Unfortunately, a lot of the problems from Harkyn's adventure are still on display, and it can be a far more frustrating than fulfilling experience.
Admittedly, The Surge makes a very strong first impression. The idea of taking From Software's winning formula (God, we really need a better genre descriptor here, folks) into a sci-fi setting proves quite enticing, and there are even hints that Deck13 might be subverting expectations with main character Warren and the narrative. Unfortunately, not much really comes from this enticing prospect other than "bad stuff happened and now you have to fight to survive." The Surge lacks the world building and lore that made Lordran and Yharman so amazing, and it continues to be a sore spot for developers trying to build on the formula. But hey, it's not really that big of a deal that The Surge squanders its futuristic setting. What matters is you're placed in an exosuit not too dissimilar from Matt Damon's contraption in Elysium (underrated movie, by the way) and now he has to fight back against his former colleagues who have all gone wacky and killed everyone at Evil-Google analog, CREO.
The first area in Warren's adventure is the best in the game, surprisingly. Deck13 runs you through the various gameplay systems on display with an admirable level of grace that lets you learn from mistakes and make progress on your own terms. It also helps that this initial area is a sun-drenched garbage pile, which is quite different from everything else in the game. Don't get used to this level of artistry, however, because The Surge quickly moves into boring industrial environments that lack any sense of scale or grandeur. I hate to hit on the game's weakest aspect at the start of this review, but it has to be said that the level design here is borderline archaic. Deck13 tries to crisscross paths back to a local operations station (that's a bonfire to all of you Souls fans), but it does so without any elegance. You'll walk through poorly lit tunnels over and over, using industrial lifts to transition between levels in order to open up shortcuts back to that single station in each level. I couldn't make any sense of where I was going or what I was supposed to do, and I probably wouldn't have finished The Surge if it wasn't for some handy YouTube walkthroughs. The very last area of the game requires you to press a button on the top level that opens up a door on the bottom without any indication of what you did or why it was important. Even more baffling is how levels consist of discrete areas that have loading screens between them AND are linked together in a linear design without any means for fast travel. I was looking forward to revisiting old areas to test out my metal (pun intended), but the maze-like structure and lack of checkpoints forced me to the end when I would have rather used some time to take in those earlier sites.
Thankfully, the one-on-one encounters fare much better than the world Warren's trying to escape from. You'll recognize the lock-on, trigger attacks, and evasions from Souls or Nioh, but things move quite a bit faster than Lords of the Fallen's molasses-like battles. Harkyn controlled like a bumbling fool all the time, but Warren is far more nimble and closer to a hunter from Bloodborne. But the new element Deck13 brings to the party this time is strategic dismemberment and a focus on careful targeting in the midst of the melee. You have the ability to target the limbs of humanoid enemies, which lets you see whether a specific area is armored or not. This gives players a choice: you can either attack unarmored limbs for more damage and with a greater chance of throwing them off balance for satisfying combos, or you could attack the armored section for a chance to eventually amputate said appendage and gain precious resource upgrades and blueprints. This push and pull to the dance may sound like a giant gimmick, but it sets The Surge apart and helps to make almost every encounter a careful analysis of need versus survival. It is much harder to take out an enemy in full armor, which gives you an appreciation for the chance to end battle quickly by focusing on the fleshier bits of your foes. Unfortunately, the system doesn't work quite so well on the more mechanized villains wandering the industrial halls of CREO. Most of these guys feature a specific part that you have to get to in order to properly attack, which means a lot of circle strafing into position and hoping you can connect before they suddenly turn on a dime to face you again. The Surge works best when you're facing human enemies, and you'll probably find yourself screaming at the three-legged abominations who can one shot you from across the level.
This is where the balance of The Surge becomes a difficult subject to properly address. Things were quite fair and fun at the start. There's still some leftover clunkiness from Lords of the Fallen, and you'll occasionally get hit when you thought for sure you properly dodged the attack. This isn't a huge deal so long as you have the chance to back off and properly heal, but around the midway point of my adventure The Surge became one of the hardest games I've played in recent memory. Despite upgrading my rig and armor to the highest available level, nearly every enemy could take me out in one or two hits, leading to a stupid amount of cursing and thrown controllers in my house. I have zero problem with an errant swing connecting and forcing you to regroup, but The Surge is far too punishing for its own good in this respect. Strangely enough, the last area of the game relaxed considerably, and I was back to having fun with the combat and enjoying the ebb and flow of death. Whether this is a lack of a balance or the result of a recent beta patch on PC remains to be seen, but The Surge currently feels artificially difficult in places and could use some post-launch attention.
I very much doubt, however, that Deck13 will be able to fix their awful boss encounters. It seems like they want to fight Team Ninja for my "Worst Bosses of the Year" award, as The Surge is a mess of gimmicky battles where the real challenge is figuring out what specific thing you need to do in order to properly vanquish your foe. The first boss goes down after you manage to hit him with his own missiles, while the third forces you to fight a bunch of appendages you can't see and simply pray you manage to break them before you die from attacks offscreen. Hell, one boss gets to summon the first boss up to three times if you don't know the trick to prevent that, which tells you a lot about how much ingenuity was going on when it came time to design some tough encounters. The only saving grace here is there are only five bosses in the whole game, and the last one is closer to a Bloodborne boss and was actually a lot of fun (and stupid easy, too).
I ran into a few technical glitches during my time with The Surge, though nothing like the nightmares I had trying to finish Lords of the Fallen. You perform execution moves when attempting to harvest limbs from enemies, and numerous times I was locked into an animation that left me falling off a cliff or glitching through a wall. The enemy AI would sometimes turn off, either leaving an enemy standing lifeless or running back to his/her starting position. Oh, and there's one enemy that I consistently couldn't target no matter how many times I ran into him. There's also a serious lack of impact on some enemy attacks. I honestly can't tell you how the giant box enemies were hurting me sometimes, and the gas grenades launched by a particularly annoying solider had the most variable damage radius I've ever seen. Some of the most damaging attacks in the game need a serious redesign when it comes to sound and windup. The first boss's missiles are comically tiny and about as imposing as a fart on a windy day, but they can stunlock and kill you in two shots if you're not careful. And that grenade enemy mentioned above is apparently a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Seriously, his shoulder charge killed me more times than I care to count, and it looks like little more than a push that should simply throw you off a combo.
The Surge doesn't always fight fair and sometimes betrays the very best parts of what it's trying to do, but I can't deny how much fun it was when I really got into the groove and found myself tearing off limbs left and right. In his best moments, Warren hits hard and the enemies make you feel that power in a satisfying way. Regrettably, there's little reason to come back to the game once the final boss falls. You get the standard New Game+ mode, but with no multiplayer and only further upgrades to find, it really comes down to how long you enjoy the combat before it becomes dull. I finished The Surge in about fifteen hours, and that proved to be enough slicing and dicing for me. This is a solid step forward for Deck13, and I hope they continue this upward trend in the future.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.