When developer Deck13 released Lords of the Fallen back in 2014, the critical consensus was that the game was trying too hard to be Dark Souls without understanding what makes that series so popular. The setting and tone was mimicked without the same level of rich depth, and gameplay was made less challenging, reducing reinforcement of the intended bleak and harsh narrative tone. It wasn’t terrible, it just wasn’t the Dark Souls entry it seemed to want to be.
With Deck13’s newest release, The Surge, the problems have swung a little too far the other way. The setting is fresh and there are interesting ideas on show in the combat system, but it is somewhat held back by learning the wrong lessons from the difficulty in Dark Souls.
Yes, I will be making a bunch of comparisons to Dark Souls in this review, it’s impossible not to after playing the game. Get used to that now.
The Surge is, at its core, Dark Souls with jumbled together exosuits. Bonfires are replaced with medbays, which act as healing points and respawn locations, Souls are Tech Scraps which need recovering after death. You fight through a series of areas littered with challenging unique enemies, unlock shortcuts, and eventually take on bosses to progress into new areas. Much of the core DNA is shared, and little attempt is made to hide that fact.
The Surge is, at its core, Dark Souls with jumbled together exosuits.
The Surge does make some additions of its own to the formula which, for the most part, are interesting and enjoyable. You can level up weapon classes separately from levelling up individual weapons, which makes levelling a slower process. but allows for a greater level of freedom to experiment. It encourages experimentation in a very natural way, as it lets you find new tools within your character’s class while also finding the specific weapon you want to commit to.
You also don’t have individual player-centric stats to upgrade along your journey. You have a single overall upgradable stat called Core Power, which is basically a mix of Equip Load from Dark Souls and an energy source from which your equipment draws power. A lot of player-centric improvements, like armour and implants, draw power from this upgradable pool, which means balancing your gear loadout. It’s there to try and prevent players from getting overpowered too fast, and it generally does that job well.
Implants are a convoluted, overly complex and confusing replacement for Dark Souls rings. I still don’t properly understand why they’re so weirdly laid out in game. Implants come in Hot Swap, Injectable and Hardwired varieties. Hot swaps are passive buffs. Injectables are consumable abilities that need triggering. All injectables are simultaneously hardwired implants, which are implants that can only be swapped out at med bays rather than mid level. Some hardwired upgrades are injectable and some are passive.I promise you the system is as convoluted as it sounds. The game does not make it clear which passive or consumable implants can or can’t be swapped in which situations, nor the fact that hardwired implants are somewhat of an umbrella designation rather than a category separate and alongside the other two.
Components are predictable to farm, destroying set body parts rewards you with set component types, but it was a little disappointing not to be able to directly pick up the severed limb and jump to using it yourself.
You can also add specific mechanical limbs to your roster of available tools by targeting that limb on an enemy during combat and aiming for a cinematic special move to remove it in slow motion. Limb-removing finishers are earned by building up a meter with standard attacks, which prevents just running in, removing a limb and fleeing, and is pretty well balanced in terms of forcing you to engage with an enemy properly before being rewarded with the chance to take them apart. The risk-reward nature of potentially passing up an easy kill opportunity to focus on limb targeting, paired with the difficulty of the enemies and their unique natures, did at times remind me of farming specific monster parts in Monster Hunter, which was nice.
The limb targeting mechanic also ties in quite closely to one of the biggest combat system differences between the Souls series and The Surge. Where Dark Souls primarily has you combo between light and heavy attacks, The Surge sees you combo vertical and horizontal attacks. While the intention is that you switch between these two attack types to better target specific limbs, in general combat it’s often easier to not stress about it and just mash at buttons.
It is important to note that you don’t automatically get the new limb, you get the ability to craft it yourself with scraps and components in the medbay. Components are predictable to farm, destroying set body parts rewards you with set component types, but it was a little disappointing not to be able to directly pick up the severed limb and jump to using it yourself. Cutting off an arm and getting a schematic rather than the arm itself just doesn’t feel as cool.
The Surge uses a dash system reminiscent of Bloodborne’s dodge rather than Dark Souls’ rolls, but due to having its roots in the design decisions of Lords of the Fallen, the dash often feels too short to be of practical use unless you use it at least twice in rapid succession. It’s just not a very polished feeling dash mechanic. The block system, meanwhile, locks you in place, unmoving, and drains your stamina incredibly fast. It’s functionally useless.
Let’s get into the big problem with The Surge: difficulty from area to area spikes often and abruptly, often through sheer enemy stats manipulation. The Surge’s idea of an interesting challenge is pumping up the number of hits standard enemies and bosses take to defeat, increasing the number of one-hit kill moves they have, and dramatically reducing the windows of time in which you can react to moves.
The bosses in particular suffer from this issue. I fought bosses that regenerated their entire health bar if they were not defeated fast enough, fired off one-hit kill attacks back to back with tiny wind ups, and often had one-hit moves use wind ups that were very similar to much easier to handle attacks. I found myself successfully dodging multiple fatal attacks in a row, getting hit and dying to the fourth attack of its type in a row, and feeling frustrated that I was expected to play so consistently perfectly. The variety of attack patterns, unique designs and multiple form fights on show when fighting bosses in The Surge would have been fascinating, if not for the sheer bullet sponge instakill nature of those enemies.
Also, boss designs often make no sense within the lore of the world. Sure they’re cool things to fight, but I often stopped to wonder why they would ever have existed in the world of the game.
The Surge also has no fast travel. If you want to go back to an earlier area, you’ll have to run through pretty much the whole game world to do it. That’s not a good thing in a game with this many wild difficulty spikes, where you may want to go to an earlier area to grind.
The Surge isn’t a bad game by any means. I prefer it to Lords of the Fallen, and the weapon levelling system and limb dismemberment mechanics are both really fun formula additions, but the difficulty spikes eventually frustrated me to the point I ceased to enjoy playing. Where Dark Souls generally increases difficulty gradually, and in a way that feels fair to me as a player, The Surge felt like it decided more difficulty is always more enjoyable. In this case, it quickly wasn’t.
It’s not bad, it’s creative and a change of pace, but it pumps up difficulty in a really unsatisfying manner. It doesn’t feel rewarding to play, t’s convoluted, and it’s confusing. Despite that, it’s still probably the most interesting attempt yet at learning from Dark Souls and creating something new.
Platform: PC [Reviewed]/PlayStation 4/Xbox One
Developer/Publisher: Deck13 / Focus Home Interactive
Release date: Out Now
- Interesting upgrage mechanic
- Severing limbs is a fun challenge
- Great world concept
- Tries too hard to be hard via instant kills and bullet sponges
- At times unfitting enemy designs.
Not bad by any means, does some interesting new things, but ultimately learned the wrong lesson from Dark Souls difficulty being praised.