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Review: ‘The Surge’

Deck 13’s new sci-fi action game brings together some, but not enough, of the best ‘Soulsborne’ features. 

Developer: Deck 13 Interactive

Publisher: Focus Home Interactive

Release Date: May 16th, 2017

NOTE: The Surge was played on the PlayStation 4 PRO. Review Code provided.

The Souls series and Bloodborne (Soulsborne) have become critical and financial darlings since the first game – Demon’s Souls – conceived the dark-fantasy setting meshed with role-playing and unforgiving gameplay. Along with impeccable level design and satisfying combat, this appealed to a niche of gamers, who blossomed into a passionate, burgeoning community as the years went on. The adulation is warranted but can go a little overboard. And as we’ve seen, imitation is the highest form of flattery, what with games like Nioh and Lords of the Fallen (also by Deck 13) trying their best to emulate the Dark Souls gameplay or focusing and improving on specific game aspects to carve out their own niche. Enter The Surge, a science-fiction action game with combat like the titular series -- it doesn’t quite hit the mark, but it does come the closest. 

The game starts off with you playing as a paraplegic named Warren. Wheelchair gameplay and all. He arrives via train after you’re told that humanity, once again, has ruined the planet and the fictional company CREO is trying to fix it, going one step further by giving everyone exo-suits that look like something the design teams for Elysium and Edge of Tomorrow came up with after being trapped in a room together. Warren is off to work for CREO and gets a fancy new exo-suit. But, something goes horribly wrong after his suit is mistakenly installed without any anesthetics. He later wakes up in the midst of an apocalypse, though he’s just happy that he can walk. It’s rare to see that level of optimism in a video game character these days who isn’t Nathan Drake.

The story is non-existent, with The Surge focusing more on world-building than a protagonist narrative with peaks and arcs. It’s more about the player’s struggles and Warren overcoming obstacles rather than having any other purpose other than game play vessel. There are audio logs to pick up and screens to watch to learn more about the world, but it all falls into the background as white noise, much like how Respawn tried to tell a story in Titanfall 1. There are side-stories with characters you meet, but they’re largely irrelevant and only benefit the player with rewards and items.

Right off the bat, you immediately see the comparison to the Souls series. You use the Right Stick to lock-on to an enemy and you attack with the shoulder and trigger buttons, with dedicated buttons to dodge and heal. When you die in The Surge, you lose your scrap metal, which is the currency to level up and upgrade your weapons and armor. You can bank your scrap metal, which allows you to hold it in a safe area for later use. If you don’t, you must go back to where you died and pick it up with whatever enemy or situation reset, so they could kill you again and you’d lose the scrap metal forever. Deck 13, for whatever reason, decided that what was missing from the Soulsborne series was a timer on your lost currency. So rather than cautiously walking through the area, you’re left sprinting back and trying to fight a 2:30 minute timer that can be extended with combat.

Combat feels floaty and without weight. When you’re hitting an enemy, they hardly react except for a little stagger, although you do gain separate levels from using one type of weapon over another. Compare that with certain Soulsborne weapons that launch enemies into the air and take full advantage of the difference between a one-handed sword and a massive great sword that is taller than your character. One aspect that has been improved in combat is the tactical way that players receive inventory. By selecting different enemy body parts, you can take their exo-suit arms, legs and body pieces and learn how to make them yourself. It’s a unique way to integrate inventory into combat and The Surge benefits from this. It will force you to make decisions because sometimes an enemy’s weakness is an arm when you want the leg piece. Each piece of gear you equip uses core power, which is a separate metric based on your overall level so you’ll have to plan which piece you can use.

Implants are modifiers that will give you more health charges, let you see an enemy’s health bar or increase your core power. They don’t change the game dramatically but they can be the difference between continuing a level or not. They’re mostly found in hard to reach areas so they encourage exploration.  

The level design in The Surge ranges from factories to the apocalyptic wastelands with only a few paths to take. Often, you will be exploring a direction and find out that the path is a shortcut and loops back to make certain parts of the game easier so you don’t have to trudge back through the same levels and fight the same enemies, of which there are many. They’re either insane humans in exo-suits or robots. There are slight variations between them but in the grand scheme, it’s derivative. There are some new enemies that get added later but you’ll be saying to yourself, “Prey called. They want their enemy design back.” The bosses are very difficult but not in a fun or engaging way. Deck 13 could’ve chosen to upgrade the camera during boss fights, which has been the #1 complaint of the Soulsborne series, but chose not to and it serves to the game’s detriment.

The Surge does it’s best to reach the sweet spot that combines the best of Soulsborne weapons, characters, world building, and gets closer than most. The combat is satisfying and the level design intricate. The DNA is there but overall, The Surge isn’t quite there yet. It’s the uncanny valley effect applied to video games, when something is so close to the real thing but isn’t, and feels weird and foreign.  It is, however, an easy recommendation for anyone who is desperate for a Souls-like experience in a different setting.