There were difficult games before Dark Souls came along. At least I think there were. It’s all a bit of a blur.
FromSoftware’s series has been the cause of controller-throwing rage for years, and has been the inspiration for other developers looking to get in on the player-baiting, anger-inducing action.
Deck13 tried it back in 2014 with Lords of the Fallen, but the overly-similar setting didn’t hold up well in comparison. Rather than retread the same epic fantasy angle this time around, the team has wisely leaped forward into a gritty sci-fi future.
The Surge is a refreshing switch that’ll please anyone put off by the abundance of swords and sorcery in the Souls games. It’s not perfect, but if you’re a glutton for punishment, it’ll certainly give you plenty to grind your teeth over.
SIGN HERE TO RECEIVE EMPLOYMENT
The opening five minutes hit you like a sledgehammer. Our man Warren is stuck in a wheelchair - but is on the way to Silicon Valley megacorp CREO, to get fitted with a mechanical exo-suit that can help him to walk again.
Things don’t exactly go to plan, though (to call the exo-suit installation procedure “invasive” would be an understatement) and when you come round from the op, CREO has been thrown into chaos.
Still, at least you’ve now got working legs, and can stomp around in your new robo-gear - either slow but powerful, or light and quick depending on which kit you picked at the outset. From here it’s onto the game proper, fighting your way out of CREO HQ and doing your best to survive in one seriously hostile workplace.
The rest of the ‘employees’ are either mechanical nasties programmed to put you down, or mind-warped humans being controlled by their exo-suits. Pretty much everything can down you in one or two beefy hits, so remember your dodgeball training and duck, dodge, dip, dive and dodge - while whacking back with a few hits of your own.
TIS BUT A SCRATCH
You can target individual body parts, doing more damage to any unprotected fleshy bits than by brute-forcing your way through metal armour. Drain enough of the enemy’s health and you can finish them off with an execution move, lopping off that particular body part and usually leaving you with an extra bit of loot to upgrade your own exo-suit with.
There aren’t any ranged weapons so you can keep your distance, either - you’ve got to get up close and personal with every enemy. And with no Dark Souls-style phantoms to hold your hand through the tougher battles, you really are on your own.
Each attack depletes your stamina bar, so you can’t just spam buttons and hope for the best. An energy bar builds up as you land consecutive hits, too, which can be used to activate skills like an energy shield, EMP blast or health recharge.
These skills are installed in Operations rooms, the sci-fi equivalent of a Dark Souls bonfire. You level up, craft new gear and upgrade your equipment using scrap dropped from enemies. Eventually, you’re going to take a beating, but you’ll respawn at the last Operations room ready to try again - minus any scrap you collected.
You’ll need to backtrack to where you died to pick it back up, but The Surge adds an extra challenge here: it’ll all vanish if you don’t collect it before a timer runs out. Killing enemies grants a little extra time, and unless you’re dragging your feet the whole way back, you’ll usually make it with time to spare.
Combat is methodical, but doesn’t flow quite as smoothly as the games developer Deck13 are trying to emulate.
Warren can pull off all manner of multi-hit combos, depending on whether he’s wielding a basic club, chainsaw-blade, electro-axe or pneumatic battering ram. They usually come out after just one or two button presses, though - and once you’re locked into one, you can’t stop mid-swing.
That means when you get it wrong (and you will) you won’t be able to dodge out of the way, and will lose a big chunk of your health bar. You need a lot more restraint here than you did with any of FromSoftware’s Souls games.
Blocking isn’t exactly useful, either. It pins you to the spot, with the up and down buttons blocking high and low attacks. This massively slows down the pace of combat, and seems counterintuitive when you’ve got a rapid dash button that’ll get you out of reach of most enemy swings.
Those enemies don’t have the most obvious attack animations, either - things feel a lot less choreographed here, so timing the perfect block felt more down to luck than recognising and reacting to patterns.
Oh, and the camera is a force unto itself, too. Sometimes it’ll lock onto the wrong enemy, rather than the one that’s all up in your face, and other times it’ll refuse to let go, even when you’re clearly trying to go a different direction. A problem that Dark Souls suffers from too, admittedly, but still a problem.
OK, NOW I’M LOST
That might sound damning, but I was happy to push past it all so I could keep exploring CREO’s labyrinthine headquarters.
Each new area doesn’t deviate much from the previous one, and splitting the map into separate sections with train-rides between each one makes it all feel that little bit more enclosed, rather than a sprawling, singular whole, but somehow it all works.
With no fast travel cheesing going on, you’ve still got to trek back to any previously-explored areas, and Operations rooms aren’t always easy to come by, so you’ll quickly come to rely on all manner of shortcuts. Most are obvious, some are hidden, but all of them are oh so satisfying when they open back out into a familiar area where you’ve learned to deal with the enemies and know how to make it safely back to level up.
They aren’t quite so common further into the game, where you’ll be desperate to bank your scrap in case you get thwomped in the next fight, meaning you never get too comfortable and you’re always one or two hits away from disaster. These are easily the best moments in the game, so it’s a shame that the combat isn’t quite on the same level.
The Surge Verdict
Did I actually manage to beat The Surge? Nope, my Souls-like skills are sadly lacking and I had to bow out before the credits rolled in order to write this review. Unlike FromSoftware's fantasy epics, though, I didn't feel the need to jump back in and carry on once I'd hit publish.
It's decent enough, even with a finicky camera and punishing combat that is arguably even more of a challenge than anything you'll encounter in Lothric, but it doesn't have quite the same charm. Kind of ironic, then, that a game borrowing so much from the Dark Souls series doesn't have much soul of its own.
That's partly down to the sterile setting, with each new area feeling a bit too similar to the last, and partly because combat just isn't as fluid here. Enemies aren't as predictable, and certain mechanics feel half-baked.
Still, The Surge is packed with shortcuts to uncover and it's definitely going to tax even the most seasoned Souls veterans - so if you're a glutton for punishment, CREO will be waiting for your application.