The recent rise in popularity in challenging or “Hardcore” Action RPG’s mimicking the very successful Dark Souls formula has proven to be quite the revolution. Now that the expectations surrounding them are in place – unforgiving, tough and just plain brutal – developers can do more of a deep dive and think of ways to change up this formula, add twists that set them apart from the norm and gain a following of their own.
The Surge captures this essence better than any Souls-like seen so far, taking the dark broody horror tone and replacing it with a dark Sci-Fi horror tone instead. With some cool new concepts to boot, it continues to hold my attention, even after many hours of dismembering zombie robots and harvesting their parts for my badass exo-suit. All in a day’s work, really.
I’d normally take some time to describe the main story, but I’d mostly be trying to piece together a very fragmented Sci-Fi narrative that hits familiar beats but never truly feels inspired, at least until you head towards the endgame. Essentially it all boils down to: Something bad is happening, it’s going to get worse, there are strange robots trying to kill you and… do the best you can to survive, bye! There are audio logs scattered around that give more information and some of them provide some good insight into what happened, but sometimes the message is lost when you’re hacking away at your enemies in grizzly fashion.
While the story fumbles at times, the atmosphere is strong. With mini-maps not easily accessible, the environments are all very familiar in this futuristic, mechanical universe, but they still somehow make the maze-like paths memorable through smart level design and recognizable landmarks. The industrial setting is full of dark factories and incomplete production lines that have a real sense of foreboding, like an enemy could be waiting around any corner (and they usually are).
“Dissecting enemies always feels fantastic, with body parts flying around the screen in a beautiful display of violence.”
It’s the combat in The Surge that is by far the most interesting, taking a familiar slow, tactical approach, while also allowing some important decision-making that constantly impacts your progress. Rather than just hack away at your enemies with reckless abandon, you’re able to target specific body parts, which affects how much damage you do. Early on, you’ll want to focus on vulnerable areas until you’re strong enough to really go toe-to-toe, but that’s when things get interesting.
To upgrade your exo-suit, you’ll need to get scrap, along with specific parts that can only be gained by dismembering your robot foes. Want to upgrade your leg armour? You’ll need to hack off some legs that are protected by gear of their own, and so on. Repeating areas didn’t feel like a chore, as I constantly had my own mission in mind of which parts I required for upgrades, and took glee in every satisfying, brutal, slow-motion kill. Dissecting enemies, literally and figuratively, to try and get the absolute most out of every encounter, always feels fantastic, with blood raining down and body parts flying around the screen in a beautiful display of violence.
It’s risk versus reward at its best; if you want specific parts, it’s likely they are protected, which means it takes longer to successfully get kills, putting you in jeopardy. While it’s a bit more forgiving than other games in the genre, death is simply part of the experience, and you’ll get a multiplier on scrap the more enemies you kill in a row without banking them back at the Medbay. If you die, you’re on a time limit to retrieve what was lost, creating an urgency that kept me on edge.
The early addition of a drone is also a nice touch. It’s not very strong but is useful for pulling enemies away from groups or for ensuring you can fight where it’s most beneficial. The combined use of stamina for combat and energy (which is gained from attacks and slowly depletes) for your drone and other buffs meant that I was always thinking about my next move, never truly complacent or going through the motions with each battle.
A lot of time in The Surge is spent swapping out and upgrading the different parts, finding combinations that work well against specific enemies and deciding which weapon you’ve looted is the most damaging is very satisfying, with lots of additional implants to be found that give more traditional buffs to your stats. The RPG nerd in me absolutely loved this, as I quickly checked each new part and decided which to wear in a very messed-up mechanical hyper-masculine version of dress-up Barbie.
It definitely helps that I’m a veteran of this challenging sub-genre of RPG now, but it needs to be said that for a newcomer, this style of game is going to sting at first, but like Souls before it, the satisfying back and forth between upgrading your character and progressing through hordes of enemies that previously felt insurmountable is one of the best feelings you can have while playing video games.
The only times I truly felt irritated and that the game was being unfair was during the boss encounters, where I usually died instantly without being able to take any proper learning’s from what had happened. The camera also doesn’t always cooperate when there are multiple enemies on screen at once, and the lock-on mechanic sometimes didn’t seem particularly intuitive, resulting in some unfortunate mistakes.
The Bottom Line
The Surge pleasantly surprised me at every turn. There is a confidence in the design on display that wasn’t present in Deck 13’s last effort, with a more modern take and a clear visual identity that sets it apart from the crowd. It has moments of annoyance and the story is generic, but when it’s firing on all cylinders, it’s an incredibly engaging and addictive Action RPG that consistently made me want to come back for more.