Platforms: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Focus Home Interactive is an interesting game publisher. Each time they put their label on a game you can expect a certain level of quality, for the most part. There are usually lots of bugs to contend with, translation mishandlings, and a potentially unbalanced or downright disjointed game. But through it all, releases from developers like Spiders and Cyanide are always charming enough to amass a strong niche following.
For developer Deck13 Interactive, their previous release in Lords of the Fallen was a bit of a step in the right direction. They took the now-classic Dark Souls-style brutal action RPG formula and riffed on it with mostly positive results. Now they're back again, but this time they’re aiming to put a more interesting and unique spin on the experience with a bold sci-fi setting and brand new combat system. The results are frankly better than I expected.
Sincerest Form of Flattery
On its face, The Surge has a lot in common with the franchise it quite obviously takes its most direct inspiration from: Dark Souls. Combat is methodical, with creatively designed enemies that can all be mastered with a bit of trial and error. You have a limited number of ways to heal yourself before you reach a checkpoint (medbay in The Surge vs. a campfire in Dark Souls), and when you do recharge your enemies respawn. It’s all very familiar at first.
Another aspect that it borrows from the popular RPG fantasy series is the lack of a defined narrative. The Dark Souls games are packed full of lore and do a wonderful job of environmental storytelling, something that The Surge attempts to emulate, but mostly falls short on that front. The opening is too ambiguous to really build any sense of motivation for your character and the bits of context sprinkled throughout environments is never enough to really satiate an appetite for a true story.
But where The Surge really differs from, and actually surpasses the games that came before it in many regards, is in the overarching design principles that keep propelling you forward through its savage, rundown sci-fi wasteland. In Dark Souls you’d pick from a list of varied classes to determine your playstyle, but The Surge is a bit more fluid. You pick a basic light or heavy archetype at the start, but from there most of the customization and alteration to your character happens through actual gameplay and loot collection.
A Cut Above The Rest
It’s in the actual act of loot collection and slaying baddies that The Surge really shines. Instead of simply alternating between light and heavy attacks depending on the situation, you can deploy either a horizontal or vertical attack. If you time your button presses correctly, you can string them together into your own custom combos to deal with specific enemies in different ways. For example, two verticals and a horizontal is different than three horizontals or one horizontal, one vertical, and another horizontal. It’s all very iterative and satisfying to play around with.
This is important to take note of because when you attack enemies you can actually target specific parts of their body, such as the head and each of the four limbs. This feeds into the game’s gear system because your character equips pieces of an exosuit armor to his head, arms, legs, and body, giving you a total of six slots. If you see an enemy lumbering toward you with a weapon you’d love to take for yourself, then you’ll want to target that body part and hopefully end up slicing it off by the end of the fight. That can grant you a schematic to make a replica of that piece of gear for yourself.
That same mindset carries over into the game’s progression system as well. Instead of collecting souls, you collect scrap metal. As you continue killing enemies, a multiplier increases the amount of scrap you collect, which incentivizes you to keep going without making a deposit for as long as possible. When you die, all of it still drops at your last location and there’s a timer that counts down how long you have to get back to it before it all disappears. It’s some pretty risky business.
Piecing It Together
When you go to medbays, you can invest your scrap to upgrade your power core, craft new gear, upgrade gear, and more. On top of that, you also have slots for implants that grant you buffs and healing abilities. Since the entirety of the game’s progression is funneled through the inventive combat system and specific body part allocation, The Surge feels like an incredibly cohesive game from a pure combat and gameplay progression perspective.
And while the gameplay excels in most areas, other facets such as the environments you explore and the plot that unfolds all feel a bit lackluster by comparison. You could explore for hours and never feel like you’re making progress, since many of the levels look almost identical. The colors are bright and vibrant, but the environmental design leaves a lot to be desired. Without a strong story pushing you forward, you’ll rely on the addictive gameplay hook as motivation, but that may not last until the end for all players.