Since its release there have been dozens of games that have attempted to ape the style of Dark Souls, to the point that we now have an entire subgenre known as Souls-like. The idea is always the same: ultra difficult gameplay with equal parts risk and reward that tasks the player with moving through hostile environments occasionally stopping to resupply and rearm at the cost of re-spawning all enemies. Progression is always tied to trial-and-error as the player learns enemy attack patterns and level layouts culminating in extra difficult boss fights. Despite the outpouring of tributes few games have actually managed to come close to From Soft’s games, with one of the more notable attempts being Lords of the Fallen by Deck13, which might’ve failed in many areas but it actually understood what Dark Souls was all about. Now three years later Deck13 are trying the formula again with The Surge, moving the action from fantasy into sci-fi and attempting to fix the mistakes Lords made. Have they managed to create a competitor to the Dark Souls crown, or is this just a cheap mechanical ripoff.
The story starts similar to Half Life, with you sitting on a train while a disembodied voice goes on and on about how great Creo Enterprises is. Shortly thereafter you’re introduced to your playable character, a man named Warren confined to a wheelchair who’s starting his first day with Creo. While most jobs start you with an orientation package and a chat with HR, Creo apparently likes to kick things off by bolting a mechanical rig straight into your body without sedatives, although afterwards Warren can walk again so it almost seems like a fair trade. The only downside is you awaken to the entire factory going haywire and now everything, and everyone, in sight wants to kill you. This might go down as one of the worst first days on the job in gaming history.
There isn’t much to the plot in The Surge, and this quickly becomes one of the game’s bigger issues. It’s not always clear where you should be going or why and it’s incredibly easy to find yourself wandering around aimlessly until you accidentally stumble on the way forward. There are a few NPC survivors that you meet throughout the facility, as well as the occasional voice of a man claiming to be Creo’s CEO telling you where to go, but overall the story takes a hard backseat to the gameplay and never really gets going. At most you’ll get bits of lore through discarded audio logs or the occasional Creo infomercial with an appropriately annoying PR guy repeating how great Creo is while it’s very employees try to rip off your limbs.
There’s a lot of limbs being ripped off throughout the game. While combat is familiar to any Souls veteran, Deck13 have made a commendable attempt to change the formula. Like Fallout, you have the ability to target enemy body parts, and after dealing enough damage to them you can expend energy to rip them off in spectacular fashion, killing the enemy and netting you whatever armor or weapon that was attached to that limb. If you don’t want or need that limb you can change your targeting to an exposed area, allowing you to deal out massively increased damage but with little reward. Rather than strong and weak attacks you instead have horizontal and vertical moves, with certain enemies being more vulnerable to one over the other. Using the same style of weapon over and over again also increases your proficiency with that weapon type which nets you a small bonus to damage.
With little narrative to go on, the game outside of combat largely just becomes about exploring the Creo facility, and this is both one of The Surge‘s greatest strengths and weaknesses. The positive is that the level designs are often fantastically well done, with snaking side paths and shortcuts that become clearer the more time you spend in them. The levels often boil down to spending three to five hours figuring out how to clear a level in just a few minutes, and when that final path opens up it’s a genuinely rewarding moment. Each level only has one safe room, rather than Dark Souls‘ bonfires that appear throughout areas, so finding faster ways back to the start of the level becomes crucial when death is around every corner. Beyond that, the detail put into the levels is quite well done and you can easily get the sense that something really wrong has happened and the place is falling apart around you.
Unfortunately, it’s not all good, and the biggest problem with the levels is that they quickly all start to look the same. The Surge isn’t procedurally generated, but at times it certainly feels like it as you trudge through the same looking dark corridor or machine yard for the fifth or sixth time. That might not have been a huge issue, but the game isn’t that long either and there’s only a half-dozen or so levels, so when parts of them all feel the same it wears on you fairly quickly. This doesn’t compound well with the aforementioned narrative issues either, meaning that there’s quite a bit of aimless wandering as you try to figure out where you have and have not been, occasionally stumbling into an ambush and losing an hour’s worth of scrap.
Speaking of ambushes, this game loves them. The Dark Souls games have occasionally used cheap tricks, often in early levels to trip up new players, but most enemies and traps you can see coming which allows you to prepare. The Surge revels in its hidden enemies, and you’ll quickly learn to check every corner and smash every box as you proceed. While this does create the occasional cheap death, the much bigger issue is how enemies constantly seem to adjust themselves at the last minute to hit you, even if it looks like they shouldn’t have. Several times it felt like the game was almost cheating as I took a hit that it looked like I had dodged just because I moved instead of using the dodge button. It isn’t every time, and most of the deaths still feel like they’re the fault of the player, but some enemies were just a chore to fight because their attacks always seemed to land regardless of where you were.
As for the enemies, there’s not a huge variety, but the few that are here are reasonably well made. There’s the humanoid enemies, humans trapped in robotic rigs like Warren, only driven mad for some reason. These make up the bulk of your foes and are usually the most interesting to fight as they use different tactics and weapons. Then there are the various robotic enemies, and these range from the annoying to aggravating. Some have front shields that mean you have to kite them until you can get a shot in, while others are just flying drones that go down in one or two hits. The enemy groupings are usually the more challenging part as you try to only get one or maybe two to follow you while leaving the rest behind. Then there are the bosses, and anyone hoping The Surge offers a boss rush like the Souls games do will be disappointed. While the bosses are the classic combination of easy to figure out/ hard to execute attack and move strategies, there’s sadly only a small handful of them to face in the game. There appears to only be one boss per level, amounting in a half-dozen or so at most.
Finally, there’s the leveling system. Killing enemies nets you scrap, which can either be used to level your character or combined with blueprints and manufacturing supplies to craft new armor. Leveling your character increases your stats, but also lets you override certain security systems around the facility as well, acting as the game’s level balancing to keep new players out of areas. Unlike the Souls games, there are no specific stats to level up and all weapons can be used from the get-go, however, to increase your power you’ll need to use bionic implants, which come in several different flavors. There are injectable implants, which act as healing and restoration items, hot-swap implants that give you small boosts that can be switched out on the go, and implants that require surgery at the med station but grant massive bonuses and new abilities. You only have so many implant slots that increase slowly when leveling, so deciding on whether you want to be able to see enemy health bars or heal yourself more factors into every expedition.
Graphically The Surge gets by just a little more on style over actual graphical fidelity. As mentioned many of the areas feel similar, but the actual amount of detail is impressive. The unique areas have a lot of character to them and feel convincingly like a factory gone wrong. Even more impressive is the detail in the items, and realizing that the giant mace you’ve been swinging around is actually a controller for some long dead robot is just one example of the excellent design work that’s gone into the inventory. Every item in The Surge has this overwhelming feeling of realism to it that fits in well with the narrative without taking anything away from its usefulness as a videogame item. Animations are generally well done, however a major issue is that you can’t often stop animations once they’ve started, which can land you in awkward situations in some combat scenarios. The special animations for killing moves almost make up for this by being completely brutal and thrilling to watch each time, but spinning off into a pit because you lost control of your weapons can be grating at times.
Everything else aside from the audio work in The Surge is excellent. From the dull thudding of robotic suits to the low hums of automated workers milling about and the various ambient layers that sell the mood of each location, the game becomes a mechanical and industrial treat for the ears. Weapons sound heavy, and each hit has noticeable bass and treble, making the lows really low and the highs perfectly high. The true standout is the enemy sound design, with human enemies screaming at you with distorted voices that portray equal parts rage, confusion, and sadness, while the robotic enemies whirr, and chirp as they spin up their deadly weapons. There’s not much in the way of music, other than a country song that plays quietly in each med station, but the few background tracks work well and give the game a somber mood. Similarly, there isn’t much voice acting, but what is here is mostly well done, with a few noticeable exceptions for some side characters.
Overall The Surge isn’t the Dark Souls killer that some thought it would be. While the core ideas are all in working order, there’s simply far too many minor issues with enemy ai, balancing, and pacing to put this in the same league as From Soft’s masterpieces. However, this is a considerably better effort than most games that try for this style, and at times it’s downright commendable. It’s clear that Deck13 learned from their mistakes on Lords of the Fallen, and at this rate one or two more attempts and they might have a winner. In the meantime, The Surge is a valiant try, and worth it for anyone looking for just a little more Souls action, but never really gets beyond an imitation of a better game.