I'm mostly content to let game developers surprise me, but when pressed for a dream game, my answer is simple: Dark Souls with robots. But with no indication FromSoftware is headed into space, The Surge becomes a fascinating curiosity. The Surge comes from Deck13 Interactive, best known for Lords of the Fallen, a Souls-like from a few years back that famously nerfed the genre's difficulty in order to broaden its appeal. The response was mixed, and it appears Deck13 effectively went back to the drawing board, returning with a game that brings its own set of interesting ideas to the table. You cannot simply call The Surge a clone.
During most of my time with Dark Souls 3, I couldn't help but think about how much I'd rather be playing a sequel to Bloodborne. Aside from my preference for gothic horror over gothic fantasy, I'd simply grown tired of that series and the very particular way it was arranged. Bloodborne kept the Souls DNA, while pushing it in a new direction. Smartly, The Surge works the same way.
The game opens with players navigating a near-future facility in a wheelchair, while an Elon Musk-type pompously promises a Whole New World on monitors around you. Part of that future apparently involves being able to drill machinery into your flesh, thereby giving you an opportunity to walk again. Hooray? (And, as luck would have it, beat the living shit out of other robots who want to kill you!)
Though The Surge does feature voice acting by the main character—in FromSoftware's games, the player is always silent—there's precious little time spent on their own motivations, at least so far. I'm curious if the game's use of a disabled character will become a thread for the story to pull on, or if it's merely meant to be an unremarked part of their backstory. Either way, it's interesting. I can't remember the last time a game had me navigating a wheelchair.
Like other Souls-like games, you die a lot in The Surge. Enemies hit hard, and if you happen to find yourself fending off two enemies at once, it's a better idea to run away—greed is universally punished. Crucially, The Surge isn't as boss-focused as other games of its type. In fact, there are only five bosses in the whole game. (I've beaten two.) The Surge gives individual encounters with enemies more weight, which is why the game's difficulty seems to spike roughly an hour into the game. Standard enemies don't just hit hard, they kick your ass. At one point a few nights ago, I threw my Xbox One controller at the ground. (It's carpet.) I've played hundreds of hours of Souls-like games, but The Surge was doing a number on me.
It's around this time that I had to sit down, study what makes The Surge different, and adjust. In Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, there was a hidden mechanic for discovering rare loot by chopping the tails off certain enemies. This disappeared in later games, but The Surge makes the idea a core system. After locking onto an enemy, it's possible to target specific body parts—arms, legs, heads, etc. Each hit builds up an energy meter separate from health and stamina, and if that energy meter reaches a certain point, you can perform an elaborate finisher on the enemy that both kills them and chops off that body part. This is how you find new equipment to craft. Found an enemy with a weapon you'd like to swing around? Chop it off! Need some new armor for your legs? Chop, chop.
This ultimately makes routine encounters all the more interesting. As you become more powerful, you can start killing enemies faster, but your blows might be so powerful that you're unable to build up enough meter to chop off their limbs. In that case, you might target more protected parts of the enemy, in hopes of slicing off an arm or a leg. It's morbid, yes, but mechanically satisfying.
The Surge doesn't make this mysterious, with the mechanics explained to players in the opening moments, but I hadn't internalized its usefulness until the game pressed my back against the wall. Furthermore, I fell victim to the sunk cost fallacy. I'd spent hours upgrading a bulky axe-like weapon that had a notable lag before it connects, needed a moment before it was usable again. The Surge rewards players for using the same weapon over an extended period of time, with weapon specializing receiving its own leveling track, and my stubbornness proved a liability. I took a deep breath, examined my other weapons, and picked up a lighter, faster option—the equivalent of a sword—and spent an hour running through the same area over and over, learning the ins and outs my new approach.
Now, rather than lumbering around, I was a fast-paced killer.
This moment changed everything about my time with The Surge. Crucial to enjoying any Soul-like is finding the weapon that speaks to you, that fits your style, because it's your best friend. With that now in my possession, I started making serious progress. Shortcuts were getting opened, enemies that previously had me tossing controllers were being sliced before they know what hit them.
These a-ha moments are critical to Souls-like games, and having one while playing The Surge is what's motivated me to continue playing. It's got plenty of quirks—I can't tell if the game has invincibility frames, which makes combat unnecessarily difficult at times; the game won't always lock-on to enemies; the level design is purposely constrained to induce tension during fights but comes undone when the camera can't keep track of what's going on; the story is boring—but the satisfaction I'm getting from busting humanoid robots is proving enough.
Whether that holds up over the rest of the game, I'm not sure. When people talk about Dark Souls, they often (and understandably) focus on the combat, while ignoring its level design. FromSoftware imbues the environment with rich worldbuilding without resorting to lengthy cutscenes. Every building, every wall feels purposeful. It's telling one story, while another is spun through play. It's easier to emulate Souls-like combat than its environmental subtleties.
At least so far, The Surge doesn't pull that off. I'm still pushing forward because of the combat, but outside of Something Clearly Went Wrong, I've found little reason to care about finding out. For now, I'm fine with the head bashing.
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