Developer: Deck 13
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Release Date: May 16, 2017
Platform: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Genre: Soulsborne, Action/Survival
MSRP: $59.99 on console, $49.99 on PC
The Surge is an awkward, clunky, and unrefined mess of a game.
The biggest problem I have with The Surge is how genuinely rough it feels. The combat is just clunky and lacks the streamlined finesse of proper Souls-esque games like Bloodborne. There's no fluidity, and players aren't given very much time to learn new enemy movesets, which is how you survive in a souls game.
The game is a giant labyrinth that's quite boring, drab, and uninspired. The Dark Souls series always rewarded players' progress simply with its impressive and bizarre new levels and areas.
The Surge, however, consistently becomes more sci-fi in all the worst ways, taking players into factories filled with unexplained exo-suit baddies and crazed murderous machines.
One of the other main problems is that the game isn't fun. I've played Nioh, I've played Dark Souls III and Bloodborne, and while those games are genuinely difficult and challenging, they're quite fun.
There's a sense of progression in those games, a sense of accomplishment, but in The Surge, you're consistently met with the same awkward and unimaginable areas and paths. The levels in games like Nioh and Dark Souls are rewards in their own right, but The Surge just delivers more of the same: downright awkward and boring areas that are mostly closed off with restricted doorways, elevators, and gates.
There's no real enjoyment to be had here--at least not for me. I consistently ask myself why I'm playing this game when there's other better titles in my library--NiOh, Bloodborne, Horizon Zero Dawn, and even Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin, which I just picked up for $11.99 on the PlayStation Store.
Combat itself feels just...off. That's how I can best explain it, the game just feels off and unfinished. I'm playing it on PS4 so it may fare better on PC with the extra frame rate boosts.
I understand that Warren, the game's main protagonist, is wearing an exosuit. But even with the Lynx suit, which gives a nice attack speed boost, and upgraded legs that lower my stamina use, everything feels so bulky and awkward.
I love svelte agility in games like this, and being able to spec my character to improve speed and dodge chances. When I play The Surge, I just feel like a dumb, hulking automaton, not an empowered superhuman that can crush anything in its path.
That's the real problem with The Surge: I constantly feel like I'm compensating for the game's clunkiness, the way you compensate a car's bad steering when it needs an alignment. I feel like this game is misaligned and I'm having to make up for it and counterbalance its disjointed axles, so it doesn't veer off the road.
Game Mechanics: A different kind of Soulsborne game
As I said, I've played Nioh and Dark Souls, so I'm no stranger to challenge in these types of games. But The Surge is less about challenge to me and more about stripping power away from players by simply leaving out key features that are integral for this formula.
The Surge essentially uses Dark Souls' formula while yanking out key features, such as actual stat progression, finesse, and a linear roadmap that gives players breaks here and there.
It's important you balance things out, so players aren't so beleaguered all the time, and to make the environments interesting enough, so they want to keep going. The only incentive I have to look around the environment is to find new gear--which rarely happens--and to unlock more doors and areas so I can progress.
Also, I seriously hate how non-linear this game is. The Surge is a giant maze of corridors and areas (it's real fun how the camera will bounce off the walls while I'm fighting in tight spaces, too) that snake all around.
And of course, we have no map. Why give players something useful? I often feel like Deck 13 mimics Hello Games' decisions to just nix key features that every game should have simply as a design feature. It's simply bad form.
Dying in this game is supremely more unforgiving than Dark Souls or Bloodborne simply because of how the levels are designed. Deck 13 not only punishes players for actually playing the game thanks to its clunky combat and terrible level design, but it seriously loads on the sting when you die.
Just like Dark Souls, Bloodborne, or Nioh, players lose all their Scrap upon death, and have to restart from their last checkpoint safe zone. Scrap is used to spend upgrading your exosuit pieces and weapons, as well as leveling up your Core level, which lets you equip more Implants (passive bonuses that change your stats and offer opportunities for unique builds).
Collecting Scrap is absolutely essential to progression in this game, so not only does it feel unimagined and uninspired, but it can turn into a monotonous and rote grind-fest too. I got by without having to upgrade my gear too much, so there's that, but later on, it's a great idea to try and upgrade.
But losing your Scrap isn't the most annoying part of dying. Hell, having all the enemies come back isn't the most annoying part, but it is quite frustrating.
The most annoying part of dying is that you simply have to run through the entire course over again, especially if you died before getting to a crucial spot that unlocks doors, gates, and elevator shortcuts.
Instead of having a linear-based pathway, Deck 13 has peppered shortcut zones throughout the game. But these can only be unlocked on your way forward. So the gates are unlocked simply so you can go back to get to the medbay, or provide you with a "shortcut" should you die.
Why needlessly frustrate players like this? Why not just have more medbays in a linear path? I'm not sure about you, but I really don't like having to constantly go back in areas I've already visited, especially in this game where the areas are so empty, bland, and filled with one-dimensional enemies that simply aren't enjoyable to fight.
Your mistakes are punished mercilessly. But not in a "git gud" type of way; The Surge doesn't really follow that same mechanic, more on that later.
Over anything else, The Surge demands your time in all the worst ways and doesn't guarantee a payoff, especially not in the same ways as other Soulsborne games do. It demands that you not get frustrated and give up, or delete it from your hard drive and play another game. It demands that you grind and kill dozens of enemies in soulless, industrial "sci-tech" zones and put up with clunky, awkward controls and instantly learn the complete moveset of brand new enemies.
For an indie game of this caliber, The Surge is pretty damn brazen in its demands, especially when it doesn't offer adequate payoff.
Now let's talk about combat, or the most enjoyable or unenjoyable aspect of The Surge, depending on your point of view.
At its core, The Surge's combat is interesting, if not extremely unrefined. It's actually inventive and does something new, but unfortunately, not all of these things are good.
Players essentially follow the same formula as Soulsborne games by rolling, dodging, blocking and even ducking and jumping to avoid enemy attacks, while swinging at their sides and back to take them out.
Surviving in any Soulsborne game requires players study and learn telegraphic and coreagraphed movesets of all enemies. Sometimes you have to do this on-the-fly and adapt, but mostly the game will give you opportunities to watch and see your enemies, and gives you visual queues to identify certain weaknesses.
The Surge does this, but at the same time, it doesn't.
Players can always see the weaknesses of any enemy by targeting unarmored limbs. That's the innovative part of The Surge's combat: players can target head, chest, and right/left legs and arms. Just like Fallout's VATS system, attacking legs can debilitate enemies, and players can even steal enemy armors and weapons by slicing off their respective limbs holding the weapon.
I won't lie, this is pretty interesting. When I first played this game, I was impressed, and I liked that mechanic. But the novelty wore off fast, and the game's clunkiness fell on my hopes like a brick on a windshield.
So at any time players can identify potential weak spots. Attacking these weapon spots means extra damage, but it also means you can't get new weapons or armors from the baddies. Most of the time that's okay--you want to kill things as fast as possible.
The real problem with The Surge lies in its telegraphed cues.
When you come across a new enemy in The Surge, you're not always sure what kind of attacks they dish out; in other words, you don't know their moveset. So it's wise to dodge and run around to see what all the enemy can do, then attack accordingly.
Rather than giving players enough time to study new enemies and treat these baddies for what they are, a brand new obstacle in the game, The Surge barely gives players time to prepare for taking down a new foe.
That's really how I sum this game up: it doesn't properly prepare, reward, or advise players on how to actually progress.
You feel like you're running blind, doing the best you can with what you have. That's not a new feeling in Soulsborne games, but this isn't a Soulsborne game; this is an imitation. Deck 13 tried this imitation with Lords of the Fallen, and with The Surge, it had a unique opportunity to put its own spin on the genre...but instead, it took away key elements that need to be in any game of this type while barely innovating.
The most unenjoyable part of The Surge are the boss fights. Now boss fights in any game are tough, and rightly so. I'm not complaining about the fights themselves as much as I am about the game's genuine lack of finesse in combat, and how it consistently betrays key pillars of its own genre, i.e., giving players time to study enemy attacks and learn the moves to survive.
Boss fights are all the tenser because I know if I die, I'll have to not only kill all the enemies leading up to the boss over again, but actually traverse that soulless, lifeless industrial hallway of boringness once again.
Then I'll have a few moments to learn as much as I can about the boss before eventually dying from a few mistakes--mistakes that I don't know are mistakes until I'm basically already dead.
That's the real problem: it's very hard to learn from your mistakes when you're not always sure why they were mistakes. Soulsborne games are all about persistence, memorization, and a willingness to want to proceed--the last part usually comes from a sense of accomplishment or some reward.
But The Surge is too demanding and delivers way too little in the way of actual enjoyment and reward, so as such, it breaks its own formula.
Combat: Clunky automatons duke it out
Combat itself is like a dance between two heavy, unwieldy hulking robots.
The unrefined awkwardness is apparent in every swing, in every dodge, in every sprint. Combat is punishing in such a way where any given enemy can kill you if you're not careful, and that's really not anything new, but what is new is feeling so clumsy and oafish that you often under- or over-compensate for certain attacks and methods and end up dead.
So The Surge demands that you train and grind to practice your moves, but you better do it close to a Med bay, because dying is one of the most frustrating inconveniences in this game.
What's more is that the hitboxes in this game are just....weird. It's something I can't really explain, and you have to play it for yourself to know what I mean. The animations are responsible for this, and make up a considerable portion of the awkward clumsiness.
I often feel like I land blows I shouldn't be landing because I'm too far away, and enemies seem to betray their set coreographed cues and animations to deliver attacks that shouldn't hit me, but end up doing so anyway.
While playing this game I find myself constantly compensating for the clumsiness of the attacks and wonky animations, so I'll often attack too much or too little and dodge too much or too little for my own good.
What's more is that resource management is a big part of The Surge, but not actual material management: I mean your actual stamina, health, and power.
I will give Deck 13 credit for the power bar.
Power energy is gained from successive hits against enemies and can then be converted into many different things. You can convert power into health with an implant, for example, or unload your power into your drone for higher damage long-ranged attacks.
You can even use power to perform execution moves to cut off limbs of enemies and get new weapons and gear.
There's a tactical strategy in resource management, and sometimes I'll switch to weaker weapons like pipes so I can gain more per-strike energy to transform into health.
So there are some interesting mechanics in play here, but they're outweighed by such clunky animations that make combat feel trite and laborious.
At its core, The Surge has foundations for an interesting game, but ultimately fails to tap its potential. The combat is awkward and weighted down in such a way that makes players feel like an ungainly, hulking metal monster that betrays the nimble finesse that Soulsborne games are known for.
The Surge genuinely feels unfinished in terms of its hitboxes, animations, and core fundamental combat concepts, and has no business being priced as much as a triple-A game.
Deck 13 doesn't empower gamers properly and strips away key features that would be much-welcomed because it tries to adhere to a formula it's shown it doesn't clearly understand.
I personally think the developers should steer clear of this genre and try something new and leave this kind of game to the greats at Team Ninja and From Software.
+ Implant system is interesting
+ Decent graphics
+ Power bar is great, offers tactical strategy
+ Unique limb-targeting system
+ New Game+ replay value
+ Gritty look and feel
- Clunky and unrefined combat
- Much too expensive for what it offers
- High learning curve
- Frustrating level design
- Punishing for all the wrong reasons
- Doesn't properly prepare, motivate, or empower players
- Weird hitboxes
- Betrays core concepts of the Soulsborne genre
- Dying is too sadistically cruel
- Lack of Medbays
- Can be trite and tedious
The Bottom Line: The Surge has potential, but Deck 13 squanders it with terrible level design and clunky combat.
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