The Surge Review: Robotic dismemberment and chaos

Credit: Deck 13
Credit: Deck 13 /

The Surge is Deck 13’s latest take on a “Souls-like” action RPG that takes players into a dystopian sci-fi setting – for better and for worse.

Developer: Deck 13 Interactive
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Platform: PC (Version reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Release Date: May 16, 2017

Whether fans of the Souls series like it or not, FromSoftware’s formula has spawned a subgenre of action role-playing games. And isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery? Or perhaps a better expression would be: don’t solve old problems, copy success! Developer Deck 13 tried iterating on the Dark Souls formula once before with Lords of the Fallen, which bluntly fell flat (pun intended). They take another shot at the formula with The Surge, having apparently learned and iterated upon their previous shortcomings.

The obviously main differentiation The Surge brings to the table is its sci-fi setting. This dystopian, industrial environment is filled with robots and bad ass exoskeleton suits: think District 9 meets Elysium. The setting alone will certainly draw players in – it definitely caught my attention. It’s certainly appealing to see the genre take players on a new adventure outside the realms of fantasy for once. And who doesn’t like hard-hitting robot combat?

But what’s the story behind this madness? It’s mostly up to the player to piece together bits and pieces of the vague plot through typical environmental storytelling tactics and the occasional NPC interaction. Hidden audio logs and context clues are your best friends in The Surge if you have any hope of learning more about the background lore. Or at least what little lore there seems to be in The Surge. The story tries to touch upon several ethical quandaries regarding A.I. and our effect on Earth’s climate but ultimately falls into the hole of generic sci-fi storytelling.

Players control Warren, the previously wheelchair-bound protagonist who enlists in a special task force run by the mysterious conglomerate CREO to “help save the planet” from climate change. As a technician, Warren gets fitted into a highly advanced exo-suit, enabling him to walk again. The suit fitting procedure doesn’t go quite as planned, however, and Warren wakes up in CREO’s sprawling industrial complex in the middle of a catastrophic robotic uprising. Or something of that nature – basically everything and everyone wants him dead, and it takes a while for us to uncover why. Or at least attempt to via vague plot progression.

The Surge
Credit: Deck 13 /

But the story is by far not the main selling point of The Surge. The game’s fluid and challenging combat system is where it truly shines. Players are given a pretty standard set of attack tools: horizontal and vertical attacks, a leaping dodge and a block ability. Resource management is also key: all of these abilities deplete your stamina meter. Successful attacks build up a separate energy meter, allowing you to use special finishing moves and use items like healing injectibles or attack drones. This resource management system adds both a sense of strategy and customization to the game’s combat, resulting in a smooth and fulfilling fighting experience.

Where The Surge‘s real combat customization comes into play is with the crafting system, which uniquely incorporates the game’s sci-fi setting into obtaining new gear. Do you want that awesome new leg armor from that guard’s exo-suit? Well, you’ll have to chop his leg off to get the schematics to craft it. Once an enemy’s health is low enough, you can use your energy to perform a finishing move, chopping off the target limb in a bloody, slow-motion animation. But there’s a tradeoff: it’s easier to kill an enemy by targeting unarmored body parts. This becomes an enjoyable metagame of weighing risk versus reward. Either way, the accessible crafting system is an essential part of the game’s progression and one of The Surge‘s brightest moments.

The Surge
Credit: Deck 13 /

Regarding difficulty, I found the various enemies to be quite challenging but fair throughout most of the game. Ultimately the combat is all about timing your attacks and movements. Enemies typically telegraph their next move, and it’s up to the player to learn their patterns. If I died, I usually knew what I did wrong and how to learn from my mistakes. There were a few “jump-scare” moments of enemies trying to ambush you from behind doorways, which naturally were frustrating. But you quickly learn to always be on your guard, entering new rooms slowly and taking care to only trigger one enemy at a time.

As the game progressed, I felt like The Surge was almost trying too hard to be hard.

There were a couple of turning points, however, where the difficulty levels spiked abnormally quickly. This usually happened when moving into a new area. Enemies would suddenly become unexpectedly stronger and have a much, much larger health pool. While each zone did introduce new enemy types with different abilities, I felt the difficulty was overall more a product of increased enemy stats more so than more difficult fighting mechanics.

As the game progressed, I felt like The Surge was almost trying too hard to be hard. This is not a forgiving game: you will find yourself only nibbling away at a new enemy’s life while they can suddenly kill you in one to two shots. This often led to me playing a more “war of attrition” combat style, playing it safe instead of aggressively in an attempt to avoid death as much as possible.

The Surge
Credit: Deck 13 /

Death is inevitable in The Surge, and it’s no joke either. The main currency in the game is Tech Scraps, which are gained from killing enemies and are used to upgrade and craft equipment. The more enemies you kill, the more Tech Scraps you gain per kill. However, you lose all your Tech Scraps upon death, unless you can recover them from your corpse before a relatively short timer expires. This again becomes a risk vs. reward mechanic: do you want to continue onward, killing enemies and exploring new paths, or go back to the main hub to bank your Tech Scrap but cause all enemies to respawn?

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This can make for some extremely frustrating moments, especially later in the game when certain enemies are overly difficult. I found myself frequently employing the good old’ technique of “running away.” Some enemies were more trouble than they were worth, and if I wanted any hope of recovering my lost Tech Scraps, I was better off running past them. That is if I could even find my way back to my dropped Scraps. While the industrial warehouse setting was intriguing at first, the repetitive environmental aesthetics slowly started to become a bit of a hindrance as the game spends a huge portion inside dark warehouses. Areas blended together in a mix of black, gray, and yellow. Remembering which dark hallway or elevator led where when they all look the same truly tests your memorization skills.

While the industrial warehouse setting was intriguing at first, the repetitive environmental aesthetics slowly started to become a bit of a hindrance as the game spends a huge portion inside dark warehouses. Areas blended together in a mix of black, gray, and yellow. Remembering which dark hallway or elevator led where when they all look the same truly tests your memorization skills.

The Surge
Credit: Deck 13 /

This is honestly a bit of a shame, as The Surge utilizes very interconnected level designs. Each zone has one main hub and spawn point called a Medbay. Typically you explore out from a Medbay, reaching a switch or NPC that opens up a new pathway. From there you unlock a shortcut back to your Medbay, and the cycle repeats itself. These interconnected pathways don’t quite reach the same level of Dark Souls shortcut porn but are satisfying nevertheless. Despite this circular level design, the game is still quite linear in nature. You cannot wander into a zone with higher level enemies: everything is always gated off until you trigger the required event. The game does take you back to previous zones, but again, the game is filtering you along a linear path.

The game’s focus on difficult trash mobs instead of bosses was a bit disheartening…

Perhaps my biggest gripe about The Surge is the lack of bosses. The 20-30 hour campaign only features five primary bosses. This is a major differentiation from the Souls series, where the centerpiece of the experience is the boss encounters. The Surge instead seems to focus its difficulty on the trash mobs, which I found not nearly as enjoyable. Which is unfortunate, because the boss fights were my favorite aspect of the game. They were just the right level of difficulty, often featuring multiple phases that required different strategies. Several times I found myself using different equipment on bosses to better fit the playstyle necessary to beat them. Strategizing on the best methods to beat the boss using the different gear types at my disposal was enjoyable, and something I wish the game utilized more often.

Ultimately, The Surge accomplishes what it set out to do: create a “Souls-like” gameplay experience with challenging combat in a dystopian sci-fi universe. It’s not a strict clone of its predecessors either: its fluid combat system and unique character progression and crafting systems set it apart from other games in the genre. The game’s focus on difficult trash mobs instead of bosses was a bit disheartening, and often gave the impression of the game being difficult just for difficulties sake.

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Despite its circular level design, the warehouse environment made for repetitive scenery that took away from what could have been an amazing setting. Deck 13 made some clear improvements from Lord of the Fallen, but ultimately fell short of greatness. The Surge seems content with being a serviceable title to briefly wet the appetite of fans of the genre.

6.5. As overused as the comparison might be, The Surge closely resembles a “Souls-like” action RPG in a sci-fi setting. It features tough, challenging enemies, interconnected circular level design, various weapons and play styles, and a unique player progression and crafting system. It succeeds in creating a challenging experience while still findings its own identity. However, The Surge’s disappointingly vague and generic plot matches the game’s repetitive industrial scenery. The game struggles with identifying how to successfully balance difficulty, giving the impression of being hard for the sake of being hard. Deck 13 have vastly improved upon their formula, and hopefully, this is a sign of great things to come. But for now, The Surge falls short of being anything more than a serviceable title that sticks to what it knows.. Deck 13 Interactive. . The Surge

A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.