It’s no secret that Souls-like titles are the latest fad in an emerging genre. Ever since Demon’s Souls hit the PS3 back in 2009, many people have gotten enthralled by the series’ tough, yet methodical gameplay. Its popularity has attracted quite a few other companies, including The Surge’s own Deck13, to create games that play in a similar vein. Sadly, many of these titles pale in comparison to the originals, and the Souls-like genre (outside of NiOh) has yet to find its first big hit outside of the From Software developed titles.
Luckily, by actively building on and changing up the Souls-like formula with a unique limb targeting mechanic as well as focusing on an original world, The Surge is one of the first standout Souls-like that fans of both those kind of games and Sci-Fi worlds should play, even if it does have a few problems.
The opening cutscene does a great job establishing The Surge’s world — one that was rattled by global warming. CREO, a large technology company led by character Jonah Guttenberg who is now revered at a near-Godlike level, created Project Resolve. The purpose of the mission was to fire rockets into the air that release chemicals to stabilize Earth’s atmosphere. CREO’s employees wear giant exoskeletons to help them work and move heavier objects.
Warren, whom the player controls, applies to work for CREO at the start of the game. As soon as players take control of him, a very depressing thing, which I won’t spoil here, is revealed about Warren that immediately made me understand his motivations. That is why it’s all the more gruesome to watch as robots go haywire during his exoskeleton surgery, forgetting to put him under anesthesia; he feels the exoskeleton drilling into his arms, legs, body, and head.
When he awakens, many of the employees have abandoned the CREO facility, or have been left in a zombiefied state. He soon makes his way to a MedBay, where he meets a girl named Sally who urges Warren to meet her in another part of the plant. This sets off his adventure throughout CREO’s plant in order to find out what truly went on there.
While The Surge’s world is very interesting, as it reflects what our society could become over the next fifty years, the story ultimately never really grasped me beyond the initial reveal about Warren. One thing this game shouldn’t have borrowed from the Souls series is the hands-off story, as The Surge would have benefited from a more focused and eventful narrative rather than one that is mostly fleshed out by the occasional character interaction and audio log.
It also doesn’t help that the voice acting is a mixed bag. Warren for the most part sounds bland and, while a few of the voice actors feel like they are trying, most side characters lack emotion. The consequence obviously is some of the dramatic moments not land as well.
When players run into their first humanoid enemy, they are introduced to the mechanic that separates The Surge from other Souls-likes: its body-limb target gameplay mechanic. While players have basic light horizontal and heavy vertical attacks, they can also choose to aim for specific parts of their enemies body. More vulnerable parts of the enemy shine blue and, if players strike those ones, they can do extra damage.
If one decides to combo a specific limb, they can also get the ability to pull of a gory finisher. For instance, you can rip that part of the enemy’s exo-suit off, allowing Warren to salvage it and equip it to himself. While animations did start to get repetitive after I used the same weapon for a while, there was enough weapon variety I was hardly bothered by it.
Weapons can be single-rigged or dual-rigged, and have varying attacking speeds, impact levels, and use a different amounts of energy. The exo-suit pieces also vary in their defense level and special abilities. Some allow Warren to trudge through poisonous gas without being damaged, while others give Warren a massive boost to his defense. All weapons and exo-suit pieces can be upgraded at the MedBay in order to make them stronger.
Players can also equip implants to Warren, which can boost his health, stamina, or energy. Most implants and pieces of equipment take up a certain amount of Core Power — the game’s leveling system. Core Power is also used to overcharge certain stations around CREO’s facility, and can be upgraded at the various MedBays if players have enough Tech Scrap — items that function similarly to Souls in Dark Souls.
Every time a player kills an enemy, they receive a small amount of tech scrap, which they can use to upgrade and craft equipment or weapons, or increase Core Power, as I mentioned before. If players die, they drop the Tech Scrap that they are currently carrying, and must go retrieve it before they die again or they risk losing what they had.
The Surge’s Core Power system creates a neat risk-and-reward system, where players can craft Warren and play the game anyway they want. One you give themselves a ton of implants that restore health at the cost of equipping exo-suit pieces with high defense, or opt to have less helpful implants in order to have a stronger exo-suit. This gives The Surge tons of replayability, as no two players’ Warrens are likely to be the same.
Players also get a companion drone early on, which they can upgrade throughout the game to attack enemies, open doors, and overcharge stations that are out of reach. Warren also has the ability to dodge and block high, medium, and low blows. I found dodging to be much more useful than blocking, which keeps the game much faster-paced than its Souls counterpart.
While I was afraid early on that many of the enemies would become too same-y. I assumed the limb-targeting mechanic would require humanoid enemies in some form. Thankfully, this is luckily not the case. As the game goes on players are introduced to non-humanoid enemies that still retain the targeting mechanic.
The larger than life bosses that also appear occasionally, like a giant robotic Firebug that can spout flames, are super hard, but are immensely rewarding to defeat. When they are felled, they drop ultra-powerful weapons and tons of tech scrap, rewarding players for all the hard work they put in to defeat them. Some of the bosses are a bit too hard, and can get annoying when you are fighting them for the 50th time, but they are always beatable.
In general, The Surge is a very hard game. Expect to die again and again, especially towards the beginning of the game because many of the enemies are much more powerful than you and far more health. While the game is fair most of the time, it can get extremely frustrating when facing off against three or more enemies.
There isn’t a good way to quickly switch which enemy you are locked on to, meaning you can easily get ganged up on and quickly killed when facing larger groups of baddies. In these few moments, The Surge becomes more frustrating than fair, hampering the experience. Luckily, these experiences are few and far between: The Surge is able to stay difficult, but fair most of the time. The limb targeting mechanic keeps each encounter with an enemy fresh, which prevents the game from becoming boring, but it still doesn’t escape from becoming frustrating sometimes.
Deck13’s last Soulslike, Lords of the Fallen, had performance problems at launch, so I was curious to see how The Surge ran at release. Luckily, on my normal PlayStation 4 I never experienced frame rate problems with The Surge, even when fighting the larger enemies. While the sound effects could occasionally glitch, and some off the ragdoll physics looked wonky, I never ran into anything game-breaking.
The music in The Surge is mostly ambient, and is nothing memorable. The environmental sounds are spot-on, making one feel like they are actually making their way through a heavily industrial environment.
The limb targeting mechanic offers up some true innovation to the combat formula established in Demon’s Souls. This makes The Surge the one of the first real competitors to the Souls series, as The Surge offers up its own unique gameplay style that keeps each encounter fresh in a very unique setting. Fighting multiple enemies at the same time can be a pain, and the game does suffer a bit in the narrative department, even with its interesting world, but overall I found The Surge to be a well built Souls-like.
If this genre of games inspired by the Souls series is going to continue, it is important that future titles in it can build upon what has already been established and try to do something new with it. That is why I am so happy The Surge is able to do so. Even if it falters in a few areas, the game’s limb targeting and Core Power mechanics coupled with its unique world create a fun experience that even people like me, who aren’t mega-fans of the Souls series, can enjoy.