It took me a while to decide whether or not I like The Surge, but one thing was clear from the beginning; The Surge does not like me. The comparisons to Dark Souls that you’ve almost certainly seen flying around are well-warranted and inevitable. This is a game where death waits around every corner, impatience and carelessness much deadlier than any of the bosses that await you (not that those are easy fights). Pretty much any bog-standard enemy can kill you within seconds if you let them.
You’ll die a lot and, when you do, you’ll respawn at the nearest ‘medbay’ and all nearby enemies will respawn too. This results in a lot of repetition. A lot of repetition results from the fact that, when you die and respawn at the nearest ‘medbay’, all enemies will respawn. Enemies (which respawn when you die) can kill you easily, meaning that you’ll often respawn at the nearest ‘medbay’ and battle through repetition to get back to where you were. In effect, you’ll be walking the same corridors and fighting the same fights repeatedly due to the fact that enemies respawn when you die (you’ll respawn in the nearest ‘medbay’) so be warned, there’ll be a lot of repetition, repetition… repetition.
You get the idea.
Now that I’ve (somewhat childishly) made my point, let’s get on with things. You play as a chap called Warren, and the game opens with you in a train on the way to your new job working for a company called CREO. It’s not entirely clear what job you’re going to do to be honest, but the important thing is that it necessitates wearing an exo suit. Everything rapidly goes to poop for reasons initially unknown, and you wake up in your exo with a big pipe nearby to hit things with.
A little further into the game, you acquire a drone capable of long-range attacks (of extremely limited effectiveness). 99% of combat though is strictly melee-based. The combat system is… well, it’s explained to you competently, and it’s fit for purpose, but it’s not great to be honest. It’s slow and clunky, and the blocking mechanic isn’t as user-friendly as it first appears. This is all intentional I’m sure, but it immediately alienates the sort of person who might say “Ooh, I’ll give this a go, it has robots and swearing in it”.
While things are designed for you to perfectly time blocks and dodges for various counters, the truth is that certain enemies are best dealt with by jumping in and hammering the horizontal attack button (slightly faster than a vertical attack) until they fall over and don’t get back up. This is not a viable tactic for everything mind you, and if you try to convince yourself that it is you will die very, very quickly. The main combat hook is the fact that you can target individual body parts. Your exo ‘rig’ can be built upon and upgraded throughout the game, and you get new part schematics by lopping those bits off your enemies. Want to know how to build yourself that neat arm piece or torso armour? Rip a damaged one off your foe!
Parts and weapons are built and upgraded, and the power of your core increased, with scrap. The higher your power core value, the more consumables, buffs, and powerful parts you can install. This is where things get even more Dark Soulbots. You’re rewarded with scrap for each enemy you kill; but if something kills you, all the scrap you were carrying at the time is dropped where you fell. If you die again before you pick it up, it’s gone forever. Sound familiar? The Surge adds a time limit for recovering your goodies, although you get a time extension for each baddie you kill on the way.
In a way, though, this game is more forgiving in that respect than the From Software series. For one thing, the medbay I may have mentioned previously allows you to bank any and all scrap on your virtual person. Also, collections of scrap are sometimes bundled together as an item that you can either find, or pick up from fallen enemies. These items are not dropped on death, and are only converted to scrap when you initiate this yourself within your inventory. No items at all are lost when you die; so any upgrades, weapons, and part schematics that you might be carrying around are all perfectly safe.
It might start to sound like The Surge is a little soft for a Soulsalike, but the truth is that what few user-friendly concessions there are prevent the game from being infuriating to the point of having all the fun sucked out of it. You are, after all, entirely on your own here. There’s no summoning mechanic, and therefore no hope of another player helping (or, indeed, hindering) you.
It’s on balance an unforgiving game but, that said, wise choices made regarding your loadout will eventually start to reap rewards. After six hours or so, mistakes are still punished ruthlessly, but you’ll start to notice little signs of personal progress. At the beginning of the game, 1000 scrap seems like a fortune, and you’ll probably be terrified of losing it. Later, it’s a pittance that you know you can recoup fairly quickly. To begin with, dying in one of every three enemy encounters seems almost inevitable; later, your armour and understanding of the game mechanics see you breeze through fights that would have previously destroyed you. You deal a little extra damage, take one more hit before dying, better understand the signposting of enemy attacks.
This sense of self-improvement might, briefly, distract you from the fact that it soon becomes clear there’s not going to be much variety in terms of environment. You’re basically in a huge run-down factory and industrial estate, with a sprinkle of corpses for decoration. I also can’t help but think that the aforementioned janky combat, while intentionally awkward to an extent, is also a symptom of the game treading water technically. The frame rate’s just fine, and I’ve only come across one bug (an enemy was happy for me to pick him off from a distance with my drone, 1HP at a time, with absolutely no resistance). But sometimes, things just feel a little… off. The toughest enemies can be a grind rather than a tactical dance, and I’m drawn back to the time when I spotted a conveyer belt just four feet below my character that appeared to lead to a shortcut; but when I dropped down, I died instantly. It was obviously meant to be lethal to my character, but I still don’t know why. It wasn’t even moving!
If you look for games that truly challenge you – and you’re able to summon huge amounts of patience – then The Surge is right up your grubby industrial alley. Retracing your steps can be painful in between finding and unlocking shortcuts; but if you persevere, you’ll be rewarded with victories that actually feel like you earned them.
What’s the bottom line? Like its protagonist, The Surge is tough, clunky, and slightly iffy looking; but like a duckling, over time it grows into a beautiful swan. Or something.
Review by the one and only Luke Kemp who is also editor of www.criticalgamer.co.uk. Thanks to Xbox for the review code!