The Surge Review
Souls and Souls-y games aren’t exactly my favorites; I managed to get through Bloodborne and enjoy it overall despite some pretty glaring missteps that the fan base’s love goggles tend to blind them to, but I’ve also never felt the desire to go back to Dark Souls and actually finish it. They’re just incredibly flawed games from a design perspective, lazily rehashing the same tired formula while stubbornly refusing to solve any of the problems that have persisted between entries. The Surge is a game that appeared to borrow the difficult combat from such games while departing from that formula, hence my interest in it, and while it eventually falls into lockstep with other such titles by doing the same basic things Souls games end up doing, there are enough interesting wrinkles and gameplay improvements here to make it worth a playthrough or two. That’s not to say that I have no reservations, though, and there are a few moments so poorly designed and thoroughly irritating that I considered moving on to something else. I suppose that speaks to it being a genuine Souls-y experience considering that was also my reaction to something as beloved as Bloodborne.
A futuristic, robot-filled setting hides a confusing non-story
There’s no getting around the comparisons to Souls games since The Surge’s inspirations are obvious, and one of the things that really bothers me about such games is the way they tend to present the lore and story. Everything is always hidden in item descriptions and hinted at, tending to coalesce into a jumbled mess too incoherent to describe an actual plot. To put it more colorfully, Souls games’ stories are like taking a soap opera’s plot line, throwing it in a blender, and then tossing the resulting slurry at a blank wall in the knowledge that the resulting shape will be vague enough to appear deep and artistic. In this sense, The Surge’s lore is handled in a much more sensible way; main character Warren is a new employee at tech giant CREO when things go wrong, and he discovers the back story behind the company and key individuals through panicked audiologs, conversations with others survivors, and company propaganda blaring on televisions and being displayed on walls.
Not only does this make the setting seem like a much more fleshed out and realized place, but it also makes the journey feel quite a bit less lonely than Souls games tend to be. The audiologs in particular are a great addition because there are a few characters who leave multiple logs, so solitary crawls through cramped shafts are often broken up by a new chapter in a minor character’s mini-drama.
The story itself, however, is as insufferably nebulous as those of its peers, which is something that I found supremely disappointing. One character’s audiologs reveal something surprising about the capabilities of another character that’s then never explored or explained in detail and doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but that’s just a taste of what the main story has to offer. Whereas the game is initially set in a grounded kind of futuristic reality, the plot goes in some truly weird places toward the end without offering enough of an explanation for all the “whats” and “hows” and “whys” you’re bound to have by the time the credits roll. It starts to feel like the answer to all these questions is technology-magic, and while that lends a sense of mystery to the whole thing, it also causes both endings to lack anything resembling story payoff. Given how much buildup there is before the story suddenly derails into the absurd, this kind of Souls-y, “interpret what happened for yourselves because we’re too cool to share actual details” ending winds up feeling frustratingly cheap.
Frustratingly good limb-chopping fun
The Surge is hard. Like, really, really hard. It borrows the risk-versus-reward elements from Souls games in that you gain “tech scrap” for defeating enemies that can then be used to upgrade your character, but lose all of your carried scrap when you die. Not only can many enemies take out your entire life bar in 1-3 hits, but there’s only a single “Operations” (Ops) center in each area, with Ops basically being that level’s bonfire/lamp. You eventually unlock shortcuts back to it, but there being only one in each hub area adds a completely unique feeling of dread to pushing on because you know that there’s nothing ahead that can save you if you screw up. Even the way of reacquiring tech scrap is harder than in Souls games, with you not only having to get back to the spot where you died, but do so within the confines of a strict time limit (after which the dropped tech scrap disappears forever). Not all of the additions here are designed to make life difficult for players, though: you’re also given the ability to deposit tech scrap at Ops, ensuring that it remains yours to use even if you happen to die. The downside of this is that defeating enemies while carrying large amounts of tech scrap can sometimes confer passive bonuses to your character, and as in the Souls games, all enemies respawn if you go into either the medbay or gear assembly screens.
That’s to say that enemies don’t respawn if you simply walk into Ops and talk to a character or read a message. Now, the medbay refills your health and any consumable healing items you have equipped in addition to allowing you to equip implants (which I’ll get into a bit later), whereas the gear assembly is where you go to craft weapons and armor. The Surge’s big draw is the ability to target enemies’ specific body parts, and this means you can either attack unarmored parts for higher damage and a better chance to stagger your foe or try to damage one specific armored part enough to where you can pull off a cutscene finisher and remove it. Once you cut off an armored part, you can craft it for yourself, and this requires components that can be gained by cutting off that part from other enemies.
That probably sounds like a huge grind, and it certainly can be in certain situations; at one point an NPC needed a full armor set to continue with her sidequest, and finding humanoid enemies armored in the relevant areas (which parts are armored and unarmored is randomized) required repeatedly defeating a nearby enemy and running back to the medbay. All told, it probably took an hour, and considering my play time at the beginning of new game + was around 26 hours, that’s a bit too much tedium for my tastes. Granted, part of that is my own fault for focusing heavily on playing safe and attacking unarmored parts, causing me to lack the needed parts that I could have obtained naturally while playing, but having an NPC suddenly need so much equipment was a less than ideal design decision regardless. This whole thing was made doubly tiring because you’re not guaranteed to get whichever part you’re specifically aiming at; if you’re aiming at the right arm but keep hitting the left arm instead, initiating a cutscene finisher may not cut anything off at all. You have to pay attention to the angle of your strikes, taking care to use horizontal and vertical attacks where appropriate in order to hit the desired body part enough for the finisher to actually work. Then again, it also works to just attack everything with horizontal attacks and hope that you get lucky enough times to have what you need. The systems here are intricate, but not so precise that you can’t get what you want with haphazard smashing and patience. Really, the only time this ever became an issue for me was in that one section where I was suddenly stuck grinding out body parts, because each failure meant another run back to the medbay to respawn the enemy and try again.
Crafting is largely optional
In fairness, you don’t need to be constantly crafting weapons and armor for yourself. It’s certainly an option, and an alluring one at that given how often you’ll be unlocking new equipment pieces with unique pros and cons, but it’s entirely feasible that you’ll find something you’re comfortable with early on and stick with it for most of the game. I certainly did; the Lynx set that I chose early on reduced the stamina cost of running and dodging, and I ended up using both the legs and body frame through the entire game. Later on, I swapped out the arms with something heavier that allowed my attacks to have more of a stagger effect and the helmet with something that reduced my drone energy consumption (more on energy and the drone later), but at that point I had what I needed and merely upgraded pieces when I had enough parts to do so for the increased damage resistance. Even the weapon I finished the game with was something I picked up from an enemy at the very beginning of the game; your proficiency with weapons goes up as you use them, increasing the damage you do with them over time (though you can also upgrade them for an immediate jump in damage), so the entire crafting system is mercifully optional rather than being something you’re required to constantly indulge in order to survive or have a chance in combat.
Mixing up implant loadouts is key to surviving unique challenges
In addition to the health and stamina bars intrinsic to Souls-y gameplay, The Surge introduces an energy bar that fills up as you land blows on enemies and gradually depletes over time. Energy is used for many things, with the very first thing you learn about being that the finisher moves that cut off enemy limbs require energy to perform. The more interesting things you can do with energy happen via implants, however. It goes a bit like this: you spend tech scrap to level up your exoskeleton’s core power, and at certain level thresholds slots open up that found implants can be equipped in. Some implants grant passive bonuses to your maximum health, stamina, or energy (and this is the only way of increasing these stats in the game, adding to how vulnerable you constantly feel). Others give you consumable healing items that can be recharged at a medbay. Still others rely on energy to do things such as heal, provide a temporary damage buff, or slow down enemy movement.
The game’s third area really threw me for a loop at first, beating me down again and again (partially due to a bug that I’ll get into in a later section). I was using consumable healing items and found myself constantly running out while I was far away from Ops. While exploring the first few rooms for anything I missed, however, I stumbled on a new implant that allowed me to recharge part of my energy at will. When I combined this with the implant that converts energy into health and another that provided my weapon with a temporary damage buff, I was suddenly able to heal myself to maximum health between fights and slowly carve my way through the seemingly impossible area. All it took was a change of implants.
Then the final boss rolled around and I kept getting steamrolled by it. Since getting in close to build up my energy naturally quickly proved a quick way to die, I found myself getting frustrated trying to cycle through implants with my left index finger while strafing with my left thumb, trying to dodge its quick attacks while struggling to use the energy implant followed by the health implant. It was only when I changed tactics again by switching to a single stacked consumable and eliminating the need to cycle at all that I was able to beat the game. I won’t sit here and claim that the awkwardness of cycling through things mid-battle is a point in the game’s favor, but I did appreciate being shaken out of my comfort zone once or twice regardless.
[Update: I don’t usually mention updates because most of the time I’ve uninstalled a game by the time they roll around and change things, but I still had The Surge installed when an update came through that changed the energy-giving implant so that it now has a limited number of charges. Now there’s no real reason to use it over normal healing. This reminds me of some of the changes I heard about Larian making after I reviewed Divinity: Original Sin that rendered some of the fun cheapness I mentioned in that review invalid; what possible purpose does it serve limiting the number of ways your game can be enjoyed in? An entire potential play style is gone, with the game as a whole feeling much more limited because of it, and strategies that could have been used to mitigate some of the more annoying parts in the game are now impossible. Since this doesn’t seem to register with developers, I’m going to bold this next part: these kinds of changes make your game less fun, you shortsighted idiots. If it wasn’t so much work, I’d be tempted to reformat this entire review in my negative-three-columns-of-shame format thanks to this bit of random stupidity.]
Don’t play fair
It’s tempting to approach The Surge with the assumption that you’ve played a game like this before and know what’s in store. To a certain degree you’d be right; enemies hide behind boxes and barriers, waiting to jump out and scream at you while switching between a slow shuffle and a comically fast lunging attack. Enemies hit hard and death comes out of nowhere even when you know what you’re up against, though, and the very end of the game throws out all of its established rules for enemies in favor of making things as comically miserable as possible, so there’s no reason why you should feel compelled to play nicely, either. In the second level you acquire a drone that can be used to attack any enemy you’re targeting, and while its low damage output makes it look like a tool primarily used for separating enemies, it also does increased damage if you have enough energy to spend before ordering it to fire. This means that you can pop around a corner, target an enemy that’s giving you trouble, use the implant that gives you energy, and have your drone take out a huge chunk of its health. If you don’t want to face an enemy at all, there’s equipment that reduces the required energy costs, so you can get 2-3 full-damage drone attacks per each energy recharge and easily pick off baddies from out of reach.
There’s one thing The Surge does better than any Souls-y game
I went into The Surge expecting the same unfair physics that the other games like this always sport. In Bloodborne, I got damaged by a boulder that was thrown through a wall. In Dark Souls, I managed to damage a skeleton through a wall. For all the talk about their fairness, that kind of stupidity suggested otherwise. Imagine how pleasantly surprised I was, then, when I discovered that attacks in this game that go through objects are invalidated. If you attack an enemy through a wall, the attack won’t actually damage them. Even if it looks like it connects because your weapon clips through the wall, only real hits work, and this goes both ways; at one point a flamethrower enemy tried to attack me as I hid behind a box, and while the flame clipped through the box, I took no damage whatsoever. This is an absolutely brilliant addition to the gameplay that makes one-on-one fights much fairer, and From Software should be ashamed that it took another developer to make such an obvious improvement.
Poor design decisions and miscellaneous stuff I hate
How is it that despite all of the Souls-y games out there, no one has realized that locking on to enemies with R3 is a terrible system prone to all kinds of awkwardness? There also seems to be some kind of unwritten rule that these types of games need to have the most clumsy jumping controls in all the world; jumping in The Surge requires tapping L3 to jump while running, which is also initiated with L3. “Horribly uncomfortable” doesn’t even begin to describe how terrible this feels, and this video of me trying to reach a switch to open a door certainly highlights how stupid the whole thing can quickly become. That’s not even scratching the surface as far as horrible design decisions go, though, and most of my complaints in this area have to do with the final area. I hate the final area with every fiber of my being. First, though, the problem: The Surge’s areas are hubs connected to each other by maglev trains, and they’re all horribly twisty and mazelike. That’d be bad enough, but the second area also acts as a hub through which most other areas are connected, so there’s required backtracking to get to new areas. The problem here is that there’s so little direction that there’s no way of knowing whether you’ve exhausted an area and need to backtrack or if there’s simply a tiny hole you failed to notice that continues deeper (because, you know, mazes).
The third area is guilty of this, with you getting a minor drone upgrade and then having to magically divine that it’s time to backtrack, but nothing is as bad as the final area. In it, you wander around a bunch of same-y looking areas, overloading random switches that don’t seem to connect to anything. Eventually this connects a platform so that you can push farther in and overload more switches. It twists and turn in on itself with no sense of flow or direction, and then you suddenly run out of places to go. As it turns out, an area that was previously blocked off somehow clears up after overloading all of those switches. I can’t recall a single thing prior to this point that hints at why this would be the case. It feels like things happening for the sake of things happening, and actually figuring out what causes what is an absolute nightmare. I’d love to play through this game again in new game + mode, but the thought of having to go through this area again is enough to stop me.
There are all kinds of miscellaneous issues that come in various shades of maddening, such as the boss fights (one and two are great, three has a terrible camera that makes it nearly impossible to tell where you are, and four has a gimmick that’s communicated so poorly that you’re unlikely to figure it out without looking up a guide online), but the thing that really gets under my skin is inconsistency. For 95% of the game, enemies die when their health is gone. Then the end of the game rolls around and a new enemy type shows up who can not only easily kill you in a single hit, but split into two pieces, regenerate its health, and remain immortal so long as the second piece remains intact. That’s not even the worst part of this—once its second piece is gone and its health is all the way down, you have to run up to the front of it and hold square (on PS4, or X on an Xbox controller) to overload it to death. It’s not stunned or harmless when you do this, so if it randomly decides that it doesn’t want to accept your controller input and instead chooses to kill you while you sit there like an idiot trying to overload it, guess who’s getting sent back to do a sizable chunk of the worst level in the game all over again?
The Surge crashed 60% of the times I beat it
I’ve beaten this game five times. This was required to get both endings because the game crashed as I went to deal the killing blow on three out of those five times. It took me awhile to realize it, but this actually ties into the previous section about the stupidity of having mandatory button prompts to finish off enemies; every time the game crashed, it was because the prompt for performing a cutscene finisher didn’t show up and I dealt the killing blow manually. The final boss is incredibly challenging, so getting to the very end of that fight only to have the game crash left me with a bitter taste in my mouth and some serious all-caps profanity in my notes. I also had two other game crashes unrelated to the final fight, and these both revolved around the third area, which isn’t designed very well from a technical standpoint. This requires a little explanation, though: the way The Surge, Bloodborne, and Dark Souls all work is that clearing a bunch of enemies and then quitting out to, say, exist in real life causes those enemies to remain dead when you load your save back up. Everything stays the same until you die or otherwise cause everything to respawn. The only exception to this is the third area in The Surge, the CREO Biolabs. If you clear a bunch of enemies in this area, watch the game save, and then quit out, you’ll reload to all enemies having been respawned around you. This means you can very easily have 2-5 enemies attacking you the second you load the game, and I chalk this up to a programming oversight.
I also faced a few audio bugs. In one case, the ambient dialogue of an NPC telling me to come talk to him continued playing even while we were having a conversation. On several other occasions, trying to use an implant that relied on energy when I didn’t have enough caused the “error” chirp to play 10-20 times instead of just once, which resulted in a loud, distracting sound. Other than that, though, the only other bug I can recall is when one of the harder early enemies randomly decided to be non-hostile, allowing me to get enough of an advantage that I could snag his weapon. It’s nice when the bugs start to work in your favor.
Decent graphics, mostly forgettable music
I’m not a huge graphics nut, but all the different combinations of armors and such look pretty great to me. There are some lower quality textures here and there, but The Surge runs far better than Bloodborne, and performance is definitely preferable to graphical fidelity when it comes to these types of games. The downside here is that there’s quite a bit of noticeable aliasing in certain scenes with harsh lighting. As far as art direction goes, though, the areas all feel distinct from one another while still looking like part of a coherent whole, which is definitely a plus (and this makes new game + mode uniquely rewarding since you’ll remember where everything is). I do wish that more of the game happened outside in the sun, though; these types of games seem to derive pleasure from throwing the player into dark hallways, and the number of identical vent-type areas Warren has to wander through gets to be a bit much after awhile. As for the music, I have to say that it’s mostly forgettable, channeling a horror movie soundtrack befitting of things leaping at you from the shadows at the cost of anything truly musical. That said, there’s one late-game area where some really great soft piano is playing, and the Ops areas all have this folksy song playing that went from being grating to weirdly charming over the course of my playthrough.
*A review key for The Surge was provided for the purposes of this review