The Surge is a 2017 action adventure game heavily inspired by the Souls series, by German developer Deck13 Interactive and published by Focus Home Interactive. The game is set in the future where all of the planet’s natural resources have been exhausted and advancements in robotics and automation has led many people to unemployment, forcing some to adopt neural and mechanical augmentations just for the sake of having a job. Needless to say, it is not a happy future.
I'll be going into some detail, so you have been warned!
You play as Warren, a new employee of CREO, a company with their foot in the engineering, agriculture, and military industries among others, with a promising mission statement. To save humanity. On his first day of work, Warren’s life takes a sudden and horrific turn.
We’ve all had that one game that we want to get into but we just can’t. You look at it and you tell yourself hey this is right up my alley, it’s in the genre I like, it looks competent, the reviews are okay not amazing but it’s apparently good. And then you play it and in the end you tell yourself this.
Not rage, not disappointment, not a constant comparison as to why the game didn’t work, just an empty, hollow, huh sound.
That’s how I feel about The Surge. It’s not the best I’ve ever played. But it’s not the worst either. If I said I didn’t have some good moments while playing the game I’d be lying, but in the end of the day, all I can say is:
And a huh it will be.
The Surge was developed by Deck13’s inhouse FLEDGE game engine, previously used for their first entry into the Souls genre, Lords Of The Fallen.
Overall visuals are good. The textures and lighting are fine, but the level design is where the visuals are the strongest (and where gameplay falters but we’re going to get into that later). Essentially your entire playtime will be spent inside the innards of a factory the size of a city, from a Pitch Black style garbage heap to the inside of the Matrix’s Machine City. It’s like a canyon, if canyons were made out of metal and wire. It does convey the dystopian feel although a little bit more variety would be appreciated.
The main character appeal is the exosuits. The equivalent of armor. I enjoy the design of every piece and I do appreciate how they’re made to reflect the user’s role. Exosuit sets designed to protect you from chemicals are black and covered mostly with rubber material in case of contact with fire or acid, while the Rhino suit, designed for heavy lifting, looks like you have a motorbike engine strapped to each joint. They all reflect personality and if you’re into LARPing while playing your RPGs, then yeah, it can help.
Game looks good. Repetitive but good. Let us move on to sound.
The music is composed by Markus Schmidt, who has composed for a couple other games including promo/trailer music for Game Of Thrones and the Justice League among other stuff.
What he has on offer is good. Most of it borders on horror and thriller themed tracks, really trying to convey the idea that something horrible just happened. Droning sounds act as the game’s ambiance and the boss battle themes give that larger than life feel. That being said there’s only one track that really left an impression on me and that’s the Firebug boss track.
Though the most common piece of soundtrack you’ll hear is the licensed song Prisoner by Stumfol at the MedBay. I enjoy it. It is burned into my brain. Like memories of better days. Moving on!
Gameplay is where things get interesting. And messy.
If you’ve played a Souls game then this should appear familiar. You control your main character from a third person perspective while going through large interconnecting areas. You’ll be going through a massive maze and occasionally you’ll find a route leading you back to the MedBay, your bonfire equivalent. This is where you can level up and swap your active and passive skills, and you can also craft new gear and upgrade your currently equipped items.
With a few exceptions, combat will be almost entirely melee. You have a variety of weapons at your disposal, from one handed hammers and saws, to staves, gauntlets and weapons that are just as big and heavy as you. Chunky, that.
You have one button for a horizontal attack, you have another button for a vertical attack. A single press will be a normal attack while holding will make you perform a heavy attack. You can perform combos by combining vertical and horizontal attacks. You have a block and you dodge depending on your direction. Certain enemy attacks are low or high, which you can either jump dodge or duck doge, allowing you to perform a quick counter. Blocking at the right time will let you perform a basic parry attack. Doing a jump or duck counter is only viable if the enemy is performing a corresponding attack, so you can’t spam it, but you can cheese the enemy if you use it at the right time and there’s a cool slide attack you can perform during sprints. Oh, and getting behind an enemy will let you stagger them and do extra damage without worrying about retaliation. Besides damage, there are 4 other things you need to consider when selecting your arsenal/gear.
Impact, attack speed, energy gain and proficiency scaling.
Impact refers to the overall force of your blows. The higher your impact, the quicker you’ll drain an enemy’s stability, the quicker you’ll stagger them and help yourself to some easy hits.
Attack speed is self-explanatory. Higher attack speeds will allow you to chain more combos in a succession. High attack speed typically means low stamina cost.
Energy gain refers to the amount of energy you’ll gain through attacks. The more the energy gain, the quicker you’ll be able to perform executions, use your drones and abilities.
Proficiency scaling refers to your expertise with weapon types. The more you use a weapon type, the more skilled you will be with said type, allowing you to do more damage. Weapons have built in proficiency scaling, extra damage varies depending on your weapon skill level and said weapon scaling. In simple words, the higher the scaling, the more the damage bonus.
There are 5 weapon categories in the game.
One handed weapons are things like saws and hammers. Typically they have a medium attack speed with medium impact. Other stats vary.
Staves are, well, staves. They’ve got reach, most have average stats but some have good proficiency scaling. Damage and energy gain varies.
Heavy duty weapons are person sized tools, salvaged machine parts or military weapons. They’ve got high impact, high energy gain, but lower attack speeds and medium to high proficiency scaling.
Single rigged weapons are special equipment attached to one of your arms, either conventional weaponry or tools. Like heavy duty weapons they’ve got good impact on average with low attack speeds, but their proficiency scaling and energy gain arguably vary more than heavy duty weapons.
Lastly there are twin rigged weapons. These are weapons/tools attached to each arm much like gauntlets, if your gauntlets had mini flamethrowers or saws attached to them. They’ve got the highest attacks speeds and proficiency levels in the game but suffer from the generally low impact and low energy gain.
Attacking enemies lets you build up energy, build up rates heavily depend on your weapon and combat approach. Without certain implants, energy drains rather quickly and can hardly be carried from fight to fight, so it is in your best interest to use up all energy whenever you can. You spend your energy on your various skills, use it to perform executions and command your personal drone.
The drone you receive shortly after completing the tutorial level. Your start off with two basic drone modules (think of them like spells), a ram attack and a ranged attack. Later in the game you find additional modules for more combat approaches, such as a flamethrower, a magnet to drag enemies for punishment or a portable shield.
Your attacking, blocking and dodging is governed by your overall stamina. Typical Souls stuff I know, but wait, there’s more.
You’ll fight robots and humans decked out in gnarly looking exosuits and you can cycle which body parts you want to attack, either unarmored (highlighted in blue when selecting) or armored (in yellow). If you damage a body part enough and your enemy has low health, you’ll be able to perform a finisher. Chopping off an arm, a leg, a head, even ripping enemies in half. If you want an enemy’s weapon, you’ll have to cut off the arm holding it. If you want an enemy’s armor, you’ll have to remove that body part to collect the schematic which you can use in a crafting station to create the piece.
Besides giving you damage resistance, armor pieces provide passive effects like increased or reduced damage to body parts, different stamina consumption modifiers, drone modifiers etc. Having a full armor set will also give you a passive bonus, like extra health regen or implant boosts.
If you successfully manage to remove an armor part or weapon when said schematic/weapon you already possess, you’ll get components instead, which you can use to upgrade your equipment. Component quality depends on armor and weapon levels. Enemies can also drop tech scrap piles for some quick upgrades, best utilized at the MedBay.
The game features a risk/reward system regarding tech scrap. The game has a tech scrap multiplier that slightly increases every time you kill an enemy, incentivizing you to play skillfully. However this is a double edged sword. While it’s nice that the game is trying to push you to get better by promising faster upgrades, losing your precious resources when you’re neck deep in enemy territory is a kick in the teeth, either because you got too greedy or because you fell into a classic Souls game of wombo combo. Tech scrap can be collecting by going to the place you died, but it is on a timer. Killing enemies gives you more time but again, this is another way the developers are trying to push you to get better at the game. And these enemies don’t mess around.
Couple the fact the game’s health system is weird at best, you’re not going to have a good time if you’re inherently bad at Souls games. Especially if you’re playing on a PC with a mouse and keyboard. You NEED a controller to play The Surge.
You can bank your tech scrap at a MedBay for later use, which also heals you and gives you health charges, but at the cost of resetting your multiplier and respawning all enemies.
Did I mention the best way to play the game is with a controller? Except when the game tries to incorporate jumping.
Unlike Dark Souls, The Surge doesn’t have attributes or character creation, so you don’t have to worry about meeting equipment stats. If the weapon is in your inventory, you can use it as much as you want. The only “attribute” you must worry about is your core power.
Core power acts like your weight limit and level rank. Each implant and armor piece consumes a certain amount of core power. Leveling up your core power at a MedBay unlocks more implants and increases your core level, allowing you to have more taxing equipment, upgrades and opening up more options for combat. You can find additional exosuit rigs, allowing you to unlock more implant slots. As I said earlier, the MedBay is for your active AND passive skills; you do not get to decide what kind of build you’ll go at the start, more options are unlocked as you play the game. You can’t dedicate to a magic (or in this case science magic) build at the start. Or a speedy warrior. Or a walking tank. The more you play, the more possible it gets.
Combine the different weapon types, exosuits, implants and combat system, and you can have some variety. Cutting off enemy limbs is satisfying and if you can get into the rhythm the game does have a lot to offer.
Every time I play The Surge (which has been twice as of writing this) I can’t shake off the feeling the game is being too restrictive in regard to character customization and level layout.
For example, with the build management. You have 3 types of implants.
Hot Swap implants are passive implants you can change at any time. Like increasing the amount of tech scrap you gain or reducing stamina cost for defensive actions.
Injectable implants are active abilities that can be activated, either using charges or requiring energy. Like health or power boosts. These can only be swapped at a MedBay.
Hardwired implants also provide passive benefits like extra stamina or health…that can only be swapped at a MedBay.
As to why Injectables and Hardwired aren’t in the same category is beyond me. It just confuses the player. But categorization is a minor problem compared to the game’s other faults.
Your core power is used up by your implants AND your armor. You can equip implants that increase your core power level so you can equip armor sets and have the benefits, but this is at the cost of sacrificing a slot for a passive or active ability. You can go a full implant build, but you’ll either need to have a partial armor build or low-cost armor build. Up until the mid-late game it always feels like you need to make compromises in regard to what build you’re going. If you can take advantage of the game’s multiplier system, loot through exploration and RNG, it won’t be so bad, but if you’re horrid at Souls games, oh boy.
The weapons, though looking awesome and sounding awesome, are not spared. They each have different levels of utility and how to best use them is dependent on the weapon type, stats, your attack approach, how quickly you can stagger enemies and the enemy type you’re facing. Twin rigged are the best because although they don’t offer much impact, have low stamina costs and promote the most aggressive/agile playstyle, and you definitely can get a lot of energy if you play smart with combos. Staves are by far the most useless weapon type, with unsatisfying attack speeds, gain and weapon prep animation. The rest are just okay.
I think the game has around 12 different types of enemies. Not categories but types as in class. You got slow zombies, big machines, fast machines, drones, enemies with gauntlets and hammers. You get the idea. I’d say there are only 3 enemies that left an impression on me, mainly because they’re the most horrific visually and interesting to fight. The rest are either just robots or humans like you.
Combos are fun but they’re best used if you can stagger enemies and are useless if enemies enter an enraged state where you can’t stagger them, unless you can outright kill the enemy or don’t mind getting hit.
Speaking of getting hit.
The health system is a mess in my opinion. You have mainly 4 options for health gain.
Health gain through executions. Passive health gain via injectable implant. Instant health gain via injectable implant. Converting energy to health. There are several different levels for each, multiple each and you can have several health gain options at a time, but the problem is they each come with a downside and a upside.
Even then it feels like you’re needlessly juggling your options. Yeah, having a preset number of health options is nice, but they are finite and health recharge stations for injectables are few and far between, so they’re better reserved for bosses. Yeah, having the option to gain health via executions and energy conversion is nice, but then your other offensive and defensive options are limited since they also consume energy. And you definitely need to be as aggressive as possible when picking those.
I hardly used my other abilities and drone because…using energy for health is just a lot more meaningful in this type of game. And if you do stock up on health options, you don’t get other benefits like extra health, agility, energy gain etc. And injectables are hardwired, so the only way to change your playstyle is to visit the MedBay…and resetting your multiplier and respawning all enemies.
This kind of system is…messy, maybe not for the upgrades but for the health it is. At least the game lets you store your tech scrap so you don’t risk losing it later.
The game is fun but there’s so many things that pull it back. Level aesthetic is nice…but not suited for this kind of genre. Not visually. Visually is nice, I’m talking gameplay faults. In a lot of cases you’ll be forced to fight enemies in claustrophobic and narrow environments. Yeah. Little maneuverability. Or maybe it is suited this is Souls inspired. Tomato to-ma-to.
Sometimes with gaps that lead to a splattery death below. It really is annoying when you dodge an enemy’s attacks so many times just so you make one little mistake and fall to your death. The worst case of this kind of design is in the end where you need to face some of the strongest and toughest enemies in the game. Small room with two enemies that have wide attacks, an insta kill attack and a second stage. Peachy.
Couple the fact that a lot of the levels require backtracking and are maze like in nature with optional quests and no fast travel, it ends up feeling like a chore at times.
Most of the story is going to be relayed by audio logs with NPCs filling the gaps.
I do have to appreciate the effort they’ve put into the story, albeit not groundbreaking. I know it is a backhanded compliment in a way but that is just how I feel about it. It does have themes like the decadence of humanity and commentary on man’s reliance on technology. The game doesn’t give you the story outright you need to piece things together via the audio logs and interactions. Your company is pushing for an initiative to help save humanity but it quickly becomes apparent that things are going south really fast.
People’s neural links are causing mental instability. The chemicals used to promote agricultural growth are in fact toxic and with long term exposure being fatal. Scientists are experimenting on the homeless population with absolutely no morals. People need drug implants to function properly. People use hallucination implants where they can imagine they’re wherever they want, relaxing, eating, exploring, enjoying life. To compensate for the fact that their shifts are murder. People are resorting to using AIs to cope with the loss of loved ones. All the while you hear your company marketing how amazing everything is going to be thanks to them. It really shows how reliant the human race is on technology and how we are ironically hurting ourselves. The cost of progress.
Overall without spoiling much, the story is predictable but competently presented.
There are other audio logs detailing the life of employees and their dynamics. It helps make you feel like the place was once inhabited by normal everyday Joes.
I haven’t talked much about Warren, our hero. Because I don’t know much about him. He is voiced. He looks okay. He can be nice if you help people. That’s all I can really say about him. Essentially, he’s a plank of wood that just so happens has a mouth.
A few. Enemies not reacting. Bodies going haywire due to the ragdoll physics. Executions causing you and your enemy to clip around the place. No crashes though.
I give this game a...
The Surge is one of those games that I really wanted to enjoy to its fullest. Yes, I’ve had fun, but I don’t see myself returning. For what it has, it’s got little replay value. You’ll have to endure a lot for a experience that is alright at best.
My new run from start to finish took me around 17 hours with deaths and some grinding. I did most of the sidequests, didn’t backtrack for some of the other areas.