Deck13 Interactive made a name for itself with 2014’s Lords of the Fallen, a punishing action game known for drawing heavy inspiration from Dark Souls. The spirit of the bonfire once again burns in Deck13’s The Surge, but isn’t as vibrant or warming. Flickers of fresh ideas can be seen in a familiar smoldering core, but the big differentiating hook of a science-fiction setting is its least engaging aspect. The Surge’s vision of the future doesn’t have much of a soul, unfolding through cluttered junkyards and darkened factory interiors occupied by the same type of enemies that hammer home the feeling of repetition.
The Surge begins with a strong narrative that puts a foreboding mystery front and center. Bound to a wheelchair, you entrust your future to a mega-corporation called CREO, all in the hope of walking again. All you have to do is join CREO with no questions asked – a company that wants to heal the world and undo the damage done from global warming and wars. CREO’s jet-set technologies can even heal you, but at what cost? What happens after you click the “join us now” button? You’ll walk again, but what are you truly signing up for?
If CREO’s initiation process worked as intended, you’d be a field technician in a mobility-enhancing exo-suit. As you are fitted with the technology, the sedation process goes horribly wrong. Screws are jammed into your flesh by a robotic being, and you scream in agony. You lose consciousness during this traumatic moment, only to awaken in a junkyard filled with other people wearing suits just like yours – but they aren’t aware like you are. They appear to be an army of mindless drones. Someone (or something) has taken control of CREO’s complex and its occupants. From this point on, your primary goal is to survive, and doing so means diving deeper into CREO’s facility.
This is a cool setup for the adventure at hand, but it doesn’t prepare you for the level of repetition that comes next. Most of the enemies are humanoids outfitted in different armors. Outside of a few robotic foes (and something far deadlier in the game’s final act), your opposition doesn’t offer much variety in look or tactics. Not only is it a drag to battle essentially the same enemy types across the entire game, but repetition is also found in the environments.
The deeper you tunnel into CREO’s facility the more it looks the same, consisting of darkened hallways, metal bridges, and open warehouses, all constructed in a way that makes you feel like a rat scurrying through a confusing maze. The environments convey a proper sense of oppression and the feeling something has gone wrong, but they all bleed together and don’t offer many landmarks that can help navigation. Later in the game, you’ll even backtrack through previous territories, only now teeming with more aggressive versions of enemies you’ve encountered before.
Progress in any area can be slow and potentially crushing, especially if you are killed while carrying a bounty of scraps (this game’s “souls” currency). You can retrieve them and retreat to a safe room where they can be banked, but any enemy can kill you if you aren’t careful – a song and dance we know oh so well by now. The environments are confusing in design, but often loop around to offer handy shortcuts and alternate paths to the area’s boss when explored thoroughly.
Repetition aside, The Surge excels in combat. The crowning achievement of Deck13’s work is a limb-based targeting system that rewards the player handsomely. You either get the satisfaction of picking away at an enemy’s weak spot for an easier kill, or a more challenging fight that delivers valuable loot specific to the targeted body part. If you build up a meter to unleash a finishing move, you can cut off an appendage to gain the armor or weapon attached to it – a gory action that doubles as a nice exclamation point for excelling at combat. If you already have said item in your possession, you can upgrade it by farming more of that part.
The combat system is backed by solid controls for a variety of weapon classes. The basic vertical and horizontal attacks feel powerful and carry a true sense of weight, and blocking and countering are easy to initiate. A duck and hop move (that is different than the running jump) can also be used to evade attacks, but I couldn’t get the hang of them, and found the basic evasive maneuvers to be far more reliable. A drone is also used effectively to open up attack windows from a distance, or offer a shield that can protect you for a few seconds. Enemy movements are telegraphed clearly, making most fights (and deaths) feel fair. The limb-based targeting is the real difference maker, not just in distancing this experience from others, but in giving players options during combat. If you target a body part in hopes of earning new armor, but realize you may die in the process, you can switch the target lock to an exposed body part to down the foe quickly. Victory in an instance like this feels fantastic.
Bosses pose enormous challenges, as they can destroy you in a hit or two, but again patterns are clearly conveyed, and it’s just a matter of figuring out their weaknesses to take them down. I struggled a bit with an axe-wielding adversary who summons a harder version of the game’s first boss, yet retreated to level up a bit more, and managed to take him down after a few attempts.
I played most of the game wielding just two weapons, both from the same class. Part of the reason was to maintain familiarity with the combat mechanics, but it’s beneficial to keep the same weapon as each class levels up through use. I love this aspect of the game, as I was more likely to farm enemies to enhance my chances further down the road than run past them. Again, this is where a lack of enemy variety hurts the experience. You want to fight through each zone, but it just becomes a grind. The downside to using the same weapon is you can’t easily switch to a more agile or heavier class since those weapons will be under powered and will need to be leveled before they are truly effective in the harder zones. The upgrade loop for armor doesn’t require as much grinding, and is tied to slicing off limbs to earn the supplies you need (something you’ll be doing as you level up your weapons).
Deck13 infused a number of excellent ideas into The Surge, but repetition ends up being more of a killer than an enraged robot roaming CREO. The need to farm experience is taxing at times, but thankfully combat remains entertaining, even if it is against the same foes. Battle-hardened Souls players should give it a look for the innovative contributions to the genre (namely the way weapons and armors are obtained), but this isn’t a science-fiction universe rich in lore or setting. The story unfolds through predictable plot points and some developments are hardly explained, but I did like the poetic touch tied to the final shot.
I didn’t mind investing over 50 hours to the grind in The Surge. I felt powerful at times and exploring every little area rewarded me with a nice bounty. It just clings too tightly to a one-note approach to world building, enemy encounters, and level design. This is a genre that has a rich history of wowing players, sometimes from the look of a boss, and maybe even the design of the world it inhabits. I was never dazzled by The Surge. I mostly felt like I was battling animated junk in a junkyard.