The Surge makes no bones about living in the shadow of Dark Souls — just like Lords of the Fallen, the last major console release by developer Deck 13. If you ever wanted a third-person hack-and-slash-em-up where death is frequent and can cause you to lose hours of accrued experience, but without the trappings of low fantasy, this is pretty much that game.
Of course, being set in a futuristic sci-fi world, The Surge needs to justify its mostly-melee combat and nondescript storytelling. So the setup is this: our semi-silent protagonist, Warren, signs up as manual labor for the Silicon Valley’d up mega-corporation, CREO. After some gruesome company orientation (where Warren has a robotic exoskeleton literally screwed into his body) things go even further south. Most of the rest of the CREO workforce inexplicably become robo-zombies in need of a good beating, chopping, and/or ripping.
In this way, The Surge has its speculative fiction cake and eats it, too. The moment-to-moment action shows a very grimy, greasy future. Think the first couple of Alien films, The Expanse, or Dead Space. Combat is up close and personal because you, and the once-human monsters you face, do battle with mining and construction equipment. Giant rivet guns are dismantled into sledgehammers. Safety equipment is repurposed into armor.
At the same time, promotional videos of a spectacled man in a blazer/T-shirt combo extol the virtues of CREO in the background. At first, the juxtaposition between working class sci-fi and depressingly familiar startup culture seemed at odds, but I grew to like The Surge‘s thematic blend. Of course CREO would present itself as the clean, trendy savior of humankind through technology, while workers like Warren live among sweat and sparks.
The Surge doesn’t strike Souls-series highs of austere storytelling. It is unique, however, where Deck 13 could have probably gotten away with a purely generic vision of the future, and still sold the game as “Dark Souls, but sci-fi!”
In fact, I’m shocked by how layered the game is throughout. Lords of the Fallen was essentially diet Dark Souls — a similar fantasy setting with easier bosses, fewer customization options, and blunter storytelling. Besides the setting, The Surge creates its own mechanical offshoots and expands upon them as the game progresses.
An energy system, for example, starts off as a convenient solution to a problem in many games. It lets you build up a meter during fights, by hitting enemies with standard attacks, then use the juice to insta-kill enemies by hacking off a targeted limb. The sureness of ending a fight is useful enough, especially when you need to thin herds of multiple attacking enemies. But hacking at arms, legs, heads, or torsos also increases the odds of that enemy dropping a weapon or armor schematic for the body part in question. If you already have said schematic, then you’ll get crafting and upgrade materials for the gear instead.
The energy system and its associated executions seriously cut down on grinding for specific loot, while making it a more dynamic exercise overall. nto shots of health and ranged attacks from a remote controlled drone. Not one of these actions is groundbreaking on its own, but they forced me to make decisions with how I managed my energy in any given fight. At the same time, they create a “momentum” to combat — where you need to jump from foe to foe in order to use the game’s most useful mechanics.
What could have been an (admittedly convenient) one-note feature instead forces you to constantly consider different ways to play the game. It even builds entire encounters around it. It’s a lot easier to hit an enemy’s weak point in the back, for instance, with your drone. You just need to build up energy by hitting its armored plates, then send your robot buddy to the back for a quick shot.
These little decisions add a texture to combat in The Surge that’s quite different from Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and even other recent Souls-likes, such as Nioh. Sadly, The Surge isn’t always so diverse. Its environments, in particular, are one-note to the point that it actually affects gameplay.
I was actually quite happy to roam around the brightly lit, colorful industrial scrapyard where the game begins. I was less excited to explore the next area: a dimly lit, though still colorful, industrial zone. By the time I reached the third factory setting, I was pretty sick of exposed pipes and dilapidated construction equipment. More than that, I had a hard time knowing where to go next. There’s very little dialogue and absolutely no maps to guide your way. So when every red emergency-lit hallway looks alike, it’s exceedingly easy to get turned around.
The game’s surprisingly few bosses don’t fare much better — in that they mostly fit a particular archetype. They’re huge, lumbering machines with weapons as big as Warren. Souls fans will know the type. Although in The Surge, most of the bosses have a “trick” to beating them that needs to be puzzled out. When you find these tricks, the fights themselves aren’t too much trouble.
Beating bosses in The Surge makes for a different sense of accomplishment than in most other Souls-likes. You lose the satisfaction of surviving on your continuous wits and reflexes, in favor of finding the “solution” to exploit. I enjoyed it, personally, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the harsh-but-fair intimacy of beating a boss on what feels like equal terms — especially those best battles against human-sized foes.
The Surge is plenty challenging elsewhere, though. Unlike Lords of the Fallen, this isn’t just an “easier” Dark Souls. Neither is it just sci-fi Dark Souls, or Dark Souls with a few quality of life enhancements. It isn’t just any one, single gimmick strapped to a familiar formula, which surprised me more than anything. It’s a bundle of ideas bolted, exoskeleton-like, to that framework.
How should I use my energy? Do I need to start stripping a faster class of weapon off of enemies, in order to fight the boss up ahead? Should I target unarmored body parts, which take more damage, instead? Is now the right time to execute this enemy and get a few seconds of invulnerability during the animation?
Every new, interesting gimmick begets another, constantly forcing you to reconsider the optimal ways to approach every fight. Tracing those paths might not always be as painstakingly satisfying as the source material, but hey: it’s pretty good, only occasionally gimmicky fun in its own right.