We’re all a little crazy here at Stuff Towers. Some are crazier than others, which is why Dark Souls is such a popular gaming pick — we like to be kicked when we’re down, at least a little. So when The Surge showed up and turned out to be a lot like Dark Souls but with robots and construction equipment, we were instantly interested.
Not to be unfair but we remember a time when a Focus Home Interactive game wasn’t something to get excited over. That was a long time ago and things have changed for the publisher, in a big way. Developer Deck13 have actually done something like this before — the flawed but enjoyable Lords of the Fallen. The Surge is the same basic concept, but taken to the future instead of putting the game in a historical fantasy setting.
The result is… still flawed, perhaps, but it feels like a fresh take on the Souls genre (Put player into an open-ish world and throw death after death at them until they either quit in frustration or ascend their scrub-like nature and git gud).
Wait, What Is Going On?
Players are given a shock from the outset, when the first few minutes of the game play out. It’s not immediately clear who protagonist Warren is and, as the train-slash-tutorial-starter comes to a halt, players learn that their player character is stuck in a wheelchair and has travelled to a facility called CREO in search of work.
Cue a few awkward minutes trying to wheel Warren to the reception area, where he is given a job and mechanical augments that he suddenly doesn’t want all that much any more. They don’t even bother to remove his clothing before bolting on his exo-skeleton, which can put a damper on the keenest new employee. Something goes (more) wrong during the op and Warren is discarded on the junk-heap. When he comes around, CREO has gone for the proverbial ball of excrement and everything is trying to kill Warren. There are, however, a few survivors willing to offer objectives and advice.
We’ve Got Souls
From here things are all Dark Souls, right down to the control scheme. Low level enemies will still rip off your head and spit down your neck if you’re not careful, there’s some serious stamina management to be had, with strikes, blocks and dodges chewing up your energy, and you’ll lost all of your tech scrap (as a stand-in for souls) if you’re killed.
Retracing your steps will let you collect the scrap, and it’s handily marked on your HUD but you’re only given a few minutes to go back for it, forcing you to either abandon your stuff or head there in a hurry. It’s never unfair about it as long as you don’t suck, or die along the way.
The major differences in The Surge are that players can pause the game, and that there’s a crafting mechanic to play around with which ties into the execution-based kill system. Want a heavy combat suit? You’re going to have to kill a bunch of similarly-kitted enemies and, more importantly, use the execution system to lop off a targeted limb.
The Surge lets players target the head, body, or appendages, with unarmoured limbs which take more damage showing in blue. Protected areas are a yellow-brown on the HUD but players need to remove these limbs in order to upgrade. Attacking an enemy builds an execution bar. Increase it enough and deal enough damage and a prompt shows up that starts a brutal kill animation. You want to get used to using those.
Chop off an arm type for the first time and you’ll get a blueprint on how to make your own version of that arm (or leg, or weapon, or…). Then you need tech-scrap, as well as additional components (harvested by slicing off more arms for arm upgrades, heads for cranium protection, and so on) to make yourself the new item.
Tech-scrap is also used to level the exo-skeleton, which allows players to equip tougher weapons and armour, as well as access certain doors. Upgrades also permit upgrade chips to be installed, increasing your health pool, letting you equip health items, or even use execution energy as a health boost or to activate a brief shield. Regardless of your level and gear, though, it’ll all come down to skill at the end.
Float Like A Bowling Ball, Sting Like A Truck
Mostly. There’s a little luck involved and you can thank the sometimes clunky combat system for that. In context it makes a kind of sense: you are piloting a heavy exoskeleton with additional armour and repurposed construction equipment against a series of enemies. There’s not going to be any ballet on show.
For all that, it’s more unforgiving than Souls ever was. From Software games sometimes abort a mistimed strike with a quick dodge, but not here. The Surge punishes any and all errors harshly. You’ll be rooted to the spot when you’ve missed a swing, or if you mis-time a block — which is right about when you’ll be hit for most of your health-bar. It has the effect of forcing more caution than we’d like in a game about ripping through mounds of flesh and metal.
The camera doesn’t help, getting finicky in tight quarters and offering to lock onto (and then never leave) some enemies, sometimes switching targets at the worst possible moment. The effect, again, is exaggeration caution that shouldn’t be there.
This Seems Familiar
The Dark Souls series is almost best known for its diverse and gorgeous locations, something that The Surge doesn’t pull off all that well here. Even Lords of the Fallen offered more variety in its setting.
The Surge certainly looks the part, however. Everything is nicely industrial, with waste product, hazards, and hidey-holes for bastard enemies never feeling out of place. You can almost feel the ‘but’ coming. But… there are an awful lot of reused assets here.
The game doesn’t ever descend to the level of Dragon Age II and its carbon-copy dungeons but heading into a new area will often bring an air of familiarity with it before you realise that you left that location behind some time ago. It all kinda looks the same which, again, makes a sort of sense in context. Most factories and industrial areas look like they dropped out of a 3D printer. Still, more variety would have been nice.
For some players, Dark Souls with robots will be all they need to cement this game as a must-buy. Some others might need more convincing, especially in the face of The Surge‘s flaws. They’re not insurmountable, though, just a little unfair at the outset. Anyone who stabbed their way through Lords of the Fallen is sure to find enjoyment here in this factory gone berserk but if a Dark Souls-style game is the last thing you’d enjoy, you best walk along. Quickly.