Dark Souls gameplay with a sci-fi setting – that’s the general gist of The Surge. For some of you, that’s enough for a day one purchase, but if like me you are a bit wary of a genre of games that promise potty mouth followed by insta-rage-quitting in the first thirty minutes, you might want to know a bit more. Is The Surge for elite players only or is it more accessible than you think? How does it handle the core mechanics that make the Souls games so successful? Does it bring anything new to the genre?
The Surge is an action RPG with a huge focus on combat. From the beginning you’re thrown straight into the action, but you’re not quite alone. During the first section of the game, the are text tutorial tips scattered throughout the environment. They’ll tell you what buttons to press and what particular environmental points are and what to do with them. They’re pretty non-intrusive and do a great job of guiding you through the game’s basic mechanics without slowing down gameplay or getting in the way. The hardcore gameplay is there from the beginning, but you’re not running around like a lost alley cat wondering what’s what.
You begin the game with a horizontal attack and a vertical attack. You can run, dodge and you have various styles of block. All of this costs you stamina. Run out of stamina and you lose the ability to do anything except stand there like a lemon and die like a dog. So unless you want to be a lemon dog, you need to fight tactically. Button bashing in this game will not get you anywhere. Combat is possibly slower than you’re used to in many action-based games so every move needs to be a wise one because once you start swinging when you should have blocked, there’s no turning back and there goes most of your health. One more mistake and you’re lemon dog smush on the ground.
The combat feels good. It’s weighty like you can actually feel the heaviness of the rig you’re lugging around and the giant melee weapon you’ve got attached to your already encumbered arm. It puts me in mind of the protagonist from Fallout 4 with his blue jumpsuit and Power Armour or even perhaps Ripley in the yellow loader in Aliens.
There can be a fine line between weighty and sluggish combat and The Surge never delves into the latter. It’s responsive and when a strike connects you can almost feel your enemy’s circuit boards crunching, buckling and tearing. And as long as you have some stamina left after a couple of meaty swings, a quick tap of the X button will allow you to quickly hop away to recover and hopefully go in for the kill. If you’ve built up enough energy (gained by successful scuffling), you can perform a finishing move by holding down the square button. It takes a little longer and there’s a risk of getting smacked in the chops in the meantime, but it has its own rewards. This built up energy can be used for a variety of things depending on your implant loadout and how far you are into the game.
Your stamina limits, weight of your armour and speed of your weapon encourages intelligent combat. It shouldn’t take too long to study your opponents and learn their habits and movements, but there’s something else to take into consideration. Once you lock onto an enemy you are able to target specific body parts. If you’re after a quicker and safer fight, target the unarmoured and therefore much weaker parts. Sounds like a no brainer, right? But if you target an armoured part, and perform a finishing move, it’s possible to lop that part straight off and gain schematics, weapons or specific components. Fancy your enemy’s huge hammer that’s bigger than Donald Trump’s ego? Have it.
As well as ripping off the occasional body part, enemies will also drop tech. You collect tech in the same way that you collect souls and when you die you drop them like a hot mechanical potato. When you re-spawn you have just two and a half minutes to dash back to your death site and pick up your tech before it’s lost to you forever. Doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but each area is small enough that if you know where you’re going by that point and don’t dally, you can make it with time to spare.
There’s no in-game map in The Surge, no radar and no warning that you’re about to get pounced on by Tony Stark after a cocaine-filled bender. Exploration is risky and can be time consuming. You’re going to die a lot and end up back where you started, but any power you’ve turned on will stay on and shortcuts and doors you’ve found will stay open. If you’ve not played the Souls games, Bloodborne or Nioh, the constant death could at first be off-putting. Getting real pleasure from this game and understanding it comes when you make peace with your deaths and use it to your advantage. Progress isn’t meant to be quick and the game does a great job of letting you feel like you’re slowly progressing even when you’ve died twenty times in the last hour just trying to get components for a new leg.
Progress comes in the form of learning your enemies, scouting your environment and upgrading, and all that will happen even while you’re busy with your face in the dirt. You’ll have many sorry old whoopsie-daisy deaths, of course, but often you’ll die in the name of accidentally locating an ambush spot, finding a new door, discovering what’s in that deep dark basement or going on a suicide run to activate an exo-lift.
Adding to the game’s difficulty is the complete absence of hand holding. As we said earlier, there is no map. There are also no on-screen objectives, no pointers, no markers, no help whatsoever. The Surge trusts you to make your own way and work out what you’re supposed to be doing at any given time. Aside from the grinding it’s this that takes up a lot of your time. The routes to success seem easy once you know them, but mentally mapping out an area, finding doors, powering up electrical outlets and remembering which enemies you can sneak past and which ones will run screaming at you is exhausting fun.
As you explore deeper into each area you can almost feel the boss fights looming closer. It’s exhilarating when you finally find them and oh boy are they monsters. I won’t go into detail about the individual fight mechanics but these guys are effing massive and taking them down takes observation, timing and patience. Each fight took many tries and left me red as a tomato and trembling.
The Surge has just enough RPG elements to make the game feel more than just an action-fest. There are plenty of stats to ogle, levels to reach and equipment to tinker with. You can build equipment that can speed up your combat but leave you less powerful, or slow you down but leave you less vulnerable and more likely to crush your foes with fewer blows to their noggins. You can upgrade your rig according to your own preferences and playstyles and even build different loadouts for different encounters. You’re certainly not stuck with a single upgrade choice.
You will always re-spawn at the last Medbay you visited, and it’s here where most of your glorious upgrading goodness happens. First you have a rather nasty dentist chair that will allow you to insert implants into your body. As you collect different implants out in the wild, you’ll need to make sure you’re installing ones that match your playstyle. Implants include health injections, stamina boosters and that one gorgeous implant that allows you to convert energy into health (a must for the boss fights!). A few of these implants can be installed while you’re outside the Medbay and can be ‘hot-swapped’ but many can only be done by sitting in that dreadful chair. While in the chair you can bank your collected tech and, if you like, use it towards upgrading your powercore. You’ll need an upgraded powercore to access higher lever doors, gain more implant slots and power to run your armour and weapons. It’s a balance between using your tech for your powercore or using it towards new or better gear.
Each safe zone will also have a gear upgrade station where you can build, upgrade and view all your gear, components and schematics. From here you can assess what components and tech you need to rip off your enemies for new equipment and what upgrades to treat your current equipment to. Once you’ve got a new piece of gear, it can be installed anytime by pressing the touchpad and viewing your current build. Just make sure your powercore can support it.
One last thing about the Medbay area: I challenge you not to hum that country music ditty while you’re washing up, trying to sleep, having a slash, walking the dog, writing a review…
As we mentioned earlier, The Surge has been compared to the likes of the Dark Souls games and it certainly does follow many of same traditions but in a science fiction setting. But how does the difficulty fare? Well, I haven’t played Dark Souls but I’ve watched plenty of gameplay and I’ve given both Bloodborne and Nioh a little tickle and I think it’s safe to say that The Surge is right up there in terms of difficulty. In short, it’s bloody hard and it’s so bloody good. Elite players should feel comfortable with The Surge’s challenges, with combat that is slower and more cautious than the fast fluidity of Nioh. Just as importantly, the difficulty level is still accessible to lesser skilled players provided they are prepared to accept that The Surge is going to torture them before it opens its doors to progress. I feel no shame in admitting my skills are average at best and The Surge challenges me to my absolute limits and will continue to do so for some time to come. I will complete the game but it will take me substantially longer than the Dark Souls alumni. Please be aware that our review score is based on what I have played so far as waiting until I complete the game would risk delaying the review to an unacceptable extent. It’s actually a refreshing change to encounter a game that puts me so far out of my depth. Slowly but surely I can still doggy paddle my way through it and feel a huge sense of achievement and pride with every little bit of progress.
The rumours are true. The Surge is the merciless and unyielding monster-hard insane cousin of the Dark Souls family. It’s an addictive and compelling action RPG that will challenge most players to their limits. The Surge never strays into the impossible but instead sustains it’s brutal difficulty with unwavering perfection.
S J Hollis Rating – 9/10
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