As I hit the better part of a dozen hours playing The Surge, I left the respawn zone with some new equipment in hand and headed towards a shortcut. A repeating thumping noise gave me pause for thought. It turned out to be one of the game’s enemies bashing its head fruitlessly against a wall, unaware of how futile repeating this action is, or how it could move on just by moving slightly to the side. By accident or design, the level designer has summed up what it’s like to learn a Souls game.
It’s hard, brutal work. Bashing your head against the same problem in the same manner will not save you no matter how nice your gear is. But if you try something different—if you walk around that wall, if you approach your problems a new way—you’ll get around whatever barrier is in your way.
Welcome to The Surge, a sci-fi action-RPG by developer Deck 13.
Narrowing the genre down a bit, The Surge is heavily inspired by Dark Souls, and proudly wears that influence on its exoskeletal sleeve. ‘Souls’ games are a particular blend of action and RPG, heavily dependant on player skill. Dodging is a matter of recognising enemy tells, and hitting them relies on you understanding your weapons, the animations that go with them, and limited (but regenerating) pool of stamina.
From Software’s infamous offering isn’t to everyone’s tastes. The Surge won’t make a convert out of anyone who’s already tried and disliked them, but it does bring the formula into a neat sci-fi setting.
Players take the role of a man named Warren on his first day with a megacorporation, Creo. Creo makes extensive use of exoskeleton-equipped workers. Because this isn’t a bright and happy future, said exoskeletal ‘rigs’ aren’t so much worn as they are installed. And because this is an action game, the installation goes somewhat awry.
It’s a better deal than you might expect. The first few minutes of the game follow Warren navigating the Creo building via wheelchair; He did, in fact, ask for this. It’s also possible to draw a straight line connecting Creo’s reusable rockets and its Silicon Valley-like corporate culture to SpaceX.
Myst, It Ain’t
With the scene set, the titular Surge hits, and the game heads for more familiar ground. An escalating series of drones, enraged cyborg workers, and industrial robots bar your path. While you can avoid some fights if you wish, the game and its environments are built around combat.
Specifically, it is built around the expectation that you are going to die. A lot. For better or for worse, the game world resets with every respawn, placing the same walking obstacles in your path. The real means of progression isn’t in the form of tech scraps (robot souls, XP, whatever you want to call them) but in learning how to deal with the gauntlet, and ultimately, boss robots.
It’s to the point that The Surge can feel like a very violent puzzle game. Once the initial rush of discovery wears off and all of an enemy’s tells are known, it can’t offer any more surprises. The combat engine is still pretty decent, but it’s easy to become disengaged once you’ve “solved” a section. The same guys will always stand guard over the same locations and fight the same way.
It’s possible to end up like the demented wall-bashing cyborg I mentioned at the start, only with extra steps.
Unlockable shortcuts ease the path, and the issue of repetition. To the level designers’ credit, each zone is fairly well-laid-out, providing a firm sense of place in absence of a map or set of markers. There’s no fast travel providing an easy lifeline, and the promise of that next shortcut is a great drive to push deeper into the facility. It’s those moments where you’re seeing parts of the game for the first time, loaded up with tech scraps and low on health where The Surge truly shines.
But with each run of the gauntlet, that gloss is stripped away. Exploration turns to rote mastery, and the uninspiringly bland corridors connecting encounters start to blur together into a seamless whole.
Despite my negativity towards its repetitious nature, I had fun with the Surge. It really is great when you’re discovering something new, whether it is a new enemy, piece of equipment, or an infrequent encounter with an NPC that says more than “AAAARRGH!”
I’m not in a rush to pick up The Surge again, but I know I will pick it up again some time in the near future. For all its faults, I still want to reach the end of the Creo facility and see those unexplored islands of content without overstaying my welcome.
If you’re not already a fan of the sort of gameplay on offer, The Surge is not going to make you a convert. If you are, you can expect a mixed bag of robotic violence that will scratch that itch for a new hardcore action-RPG. If you’re simply a fan of all things futuristic, you may be better off waiting for a sale.