So you wanna git gud?
As the hardcore Action-RPG genre becomes increasingly crowded, The Surge manages to make a place of its own. With their follow-up to 2014’s Lords of the Fallen, developers, Deck 13 seek to reenter the popularized “soulsborne” sub-category of gaming. So named after Bloodborne and the Dark Souls series by FromSoftware, soulsborne games are brutal, grinding, and punishingly hard. Occupying this space, The Surge’s comparison to the highly similar titles that came before it is unavoidable. Fortunately, Deck 13 learned a great many lessons from their previous IP, creating something completely different, while still remaining faithful to the unwritten tenants of the genre.
The Surge takes place in a future which sees climate change render the Earth increasingly inhospitable. In the hopes of reversing the damage of human intervention, megacorporation CREO launches project Resolve, promising a future that could be handed “to our children and our children’s children.” CREO uses this hopeful rhetoric to recruit individuals with little in the way of opportunity in this destitute world. The Surge’s wheelchair-bound central character, Warren enters the CREO facility as just one such recruit. Warren begins to see beyond his new employer’s shiny exterior and realizes CREO may not be what it seems as a “Rig” exoskeleton is surgically grafted to him. Blood and screams pour from Warren until he finally blacks out.
We rejoin Warren as he regains consciousness in a scrap yard, scheduled to be “recycled.” CREO has undergone some sort of cataclysm, rendering his Rig only partially functional and thrusting Warren into the single worst new job orientation ever. The player is ushered through an introduction of the basic controls as you are tasked to find a replacement battery for your Rig. Conveniently, even without full functionality, the Rig affords Warren not only the ability to walk once more, but also the strength and speed to fend off his attackers.
Pull no punches-
Combat in The Surge focuses primarily on the Rig and its provided capabilities. Its heft makes general traversal sluggish, but allows for momentary bursts of agility. It also offers the necessary protection to shrug off most incoming assaults, as well as the ability to lift massive weapons to return those attacks in kind. This gives brawls in The Surge a pacing unlike others in the soulsborne genre.
Encounters unfold rapidly, revolving around the ability to unleash light and heavy attack chain combos. These combos play out like a Mortal Kombat move set, with each weapon having its own attack patterns to learn. While there are only five classifications of weapons, Deck 13 succeeds in making each armament feel unique. Combat is intensely satisfying, as each encounter is made up of numerous attack chains with visceral results. Surviving these melees requires players to learn their opponents’ movement patterns, watching them for an opening to get in and land a flurry of blows before backing off to a safe distance. Any mistake in timing can easily result in a swift and unceremonious death. This is to be expected, however, as you’ll watch Warren meet his end time and again as you learn the intricacies of the CREO facility and its inhabitants.
As in other soulsbornes, survival requires players balance offense and defense, expanding passively regenerating stamina with each action. Combat adheres to the genre’s framework in its challenging brutality, though The Surge puts a spin on this formula by adding “energy” as an additional player resource. Energy functions inversely to stamina, decaying over a short time and, at a rate dependent upon the weapon used, accumulating with each successive strike against a foe. This resource opens up the game’s combat, as energy allows Warren to execute finisher attacks or activate certain abilities. This requires tactical decision-making regarding how and when to accrue energy, as well as how to use it before it depletes. “Mods” also enable Warren to trade energy for health or temporary buffs. This created tension in deciding whether I could survive long enough to generate the energy needed to heal, or if burning one of my few health consumables was the right move. I found the energy to be the most inventive of The Surge’s combat mechanics.
Deck 13 further sets itself apart from its peers with the limb targeting system, enabling players to focus on individual parts of their enemies to gain an advantage over them. This is The Surge’s primary point of individuality, as most of the game’s tactical elements are rooted in this mechanic. Players are forced to choose between striking an unarmored part of a target, resulting in increased damage and a chance to stagger their adversary, or targeting an armored or weaponized portion of their enemy, potentially resulting in a loot drop. Provided enough energy, Warren can deliver a vicious finisher in which time slows as his foe is eviscerated in cinematic fashion. If the player primarily targets a specific geared segment of the enemy prior to this finisher, the odds increase for that particular piece of equipment to drop.
Dress for success-
Acquiring new gear is essential in The Surge, as it is the only available method of player advancement. As in similar games, experience is granted to the player as enemies are slain. This experience is spent not only developing the player character’s abilities, but also in crafting or improving equipment. Deck 13 deviates from standard progression systems by removing character stats entirely. Whereas in Dark Souls players are able to invest in increased health pools, higher damage-dealing stats, faster movement speeds, or other similar bonuses upon each level gained, The Surge rewards players with more “Core Energy” as they ascend in level.
Each piece of equipment requires a certain amount of Core Energy, functioning similarly to the weight stat in the Souls series. Core Energy dictates which defensive items Warren can wear at any given time, as well as which mods can be equipped. This allows players to create a focused build, dedicated to a specific play style. Mods can focus on temporary buffs, passive abilities, and also serve as the game’s renewable heath consumables. Although this does provide a degree of depth through the flexibility of the mod system, progressing primarily through gear removes a great deal of player agency.
While other soulsborne games deliver a smooth progression curve, gradually letting the player feel stronger as they advance, The Surge feels abrupt in its character development. Moment-to-moment performance changes between Warren’s item sets are almost imperceptible, as there isn’t the massive disparity in movement speed or dodge distance found between the light and heavy armor sets of the genre at large. However, the damage reduction and change in stamina costs afforded by each of The Surge’s gear sets is immediately felt. For fans of the genre, a classic leveling system provides a feeling of true character creation; this feeling is deeply absent from The Surge.
This omission becomes increasingly evident with the lack of any real stylistic choices on the player’s part. While you can spec Warren for a combat style focused on energy management, or gear up for an evasive strategy, mixing and matching armor, weapons, and mods to differ the feel of each fight, this only goes so far. There are no spells to cast within the CREO facility’s walls and ranged attacks are made by a mildly customizable drone summoned by the player. The completely melee-centric action of The Surge feels incredibly limited. This is most disappointing because The Surge is genuinely fun to play. I can only imagine how engrossing this game might have been were it able to inspire the same sense of adventure its forbearers capture.
A world in CREO’s image-
To this end, my primary issue with The Surge is that I want more of it. I want to feel that the story is mine. I want to know I made my character strong enough to survive the rigors of the world set before me. And that I did it my way. Indeed, The Surge’s is a world worth surviving. Though the story is sparse, it’s engaging. From the moment the first bolt is driven through Warren’s flesh, Deck 13 relates the history of a company gnashing its teeth behind a smile. CREO fills its lobbies with massive screens, looping friendly infomercials detailing the benefits of being part of “the CREO family.” The vibe of these programs quickly develops from casual corporate jargon to the message of a cult convincing its members they’re happy.
This narrative continues to darken as Warren moves further into the CREO facility. Environments in The Surge are vivid labyrinths, all distinct from one another. The CREO compound is a multifaceted place, through which the player will explore everything from ruined factories, to near-pristine office buildings, and subterranean laboratories, all of which play host to phenomenal environmental storytelling. This pops up in multiple forms such as the graffiti scrawled various on walls throughout the complex. Most of this seems to be created after the disaster, as the messages left are a mix of personal outcry and advice for potential survivors. The storytelling is further fleshed out by audio logs left by employees before the CREO disaster took place as well as those trying to survive it.
This environmental world-building persists through each item Warren comes across. The industrial equipment you’ll tear from your enemies’ corpses was never intended to be used for combat. Everything in the player’s inventory has some sort of sales pitch or company history attached to it. The duality of seeing what my weapons once were adds a faded glory to the CREO facility and everything I came upon inside it. It’s a clever subtlety that left me whole-heartedly dismayed at the lack of any kind of bestiary.
Much like Warren’s improvised gear, all of the game’s antagonists held some function prior to The Surge’s events. Enemies come in a few forms: some are CREO employees, driven mad by the disaster, others are machines of diverse size and designated function, while some arrive at CREO after the crisis starts. I constantly wanted to know more about the denizens of this forlorn place, or at the very least what to call them. I found myself giving baddies names like “berserker,” or “brute,” or “hazmat,” if only to keep everything straight.
Beyond this, the largest deficiency in the things Deck 13 sent to kill me is the fact that they make sense. Part of what makes the monsters of Dark Souls, Bloodborne, or Nioh so evocative is that they’re monsters. They’re awe-inspiring, grotesque, unexplainable beings which will never set foot in reality. While the hulking, flame-spewing machines found inside the CREO compound are sufficiently nope-inducing, I can wrap my brain around them. The enemies in The Surge may be intimidating, but they aren’t frightening.
Though not as engaging as some of the more imaginative foes from other soulsborne worlds, the skirmishes throughout The Surge were more than enough to keep me grinding through. With its playthrough clocking in at roughly 30 hours, Deck 13 focused heavily on creating encounters that would not grow stale through repetition. Though the AI employed by your adversaries isn’t the most robust found among this style of game, the combination of interesting level design, enjoyable weapons and highly distinct enemies shores up this minor weakness.
In spite of some shortcomings, Deck 13 earns a spot in a genre much-loved by a contentious fanbase. The Surge manages to emulate titles which single-handedly defined a genre without ever feeling derivative. At every step of the way, The Surge succeeds in being its own entity. It’s not perfect, but it manages to expand on the hardcore Action-RPG sector and offer an experience worth looking into. The Surge is entertaining, challenging, and at times, frustrating. In that, it absolutely does justice to those that paved its way.
Last modified: March 31, 2018