'The Surge' Review: Deck13's Sci-Fi Souls-Like Is A Major Letdown

It’s increasingly rare to see new games that try to reinvent the genres they represent. Carbon copies are the gaming industry’s bread and butter. So you can only imagine how thrilled I was when the promotional cycle for The Surge began. The prospect of playing an even more complex version of Dark Souls was nothing if not intriguing. And the promise of new gameplay mechanics was too good to pass up. Unfortunately, The Surge isn’t the next step in the evolution of action RPGs. But it makes a pretty convincing argument that few people outside of FromSoftware really understand why Dark Souls (and other Souls-like games) have become so popular.

The Surge is the second Souls -like from Deck13 Interactive, the studio that previously brought us Lords of the Fallen. The game follows Warren, a paraplegic man who volunteered for a program he believed would grant him the ability to walk again. But it turns out CREO, the tech company behind the program, wasn’t entirely truthful about its processes. Or their results. Warren wakes up a short time later, exosuit in disrepair, and must now escape the manufacturing complex he’d expected to walk out of. And that’s everything we know about Warren. There’s no introduction to family or friends. No mention of a significant other. No external motivation of any kind. Survival is a powerful motivator. But knowing more about Warren would have been nice. It would also give Deck13 more chances for memorable storytelling, something The Surge is sorely lacking.

His journey is no cakewalk. The enemies in The Surge won’t be remembered for their diversity. But there are hundreds of warm bodies standing between Warren and his freedom. And every encounter must be approached with even more caution than you might expect for these sorts of games. Most foes can kill Warren much faster than he can defeat them. But there are ways to close that gap. To earn new gear, you must target specific limbs on Warren’s foes, whittling away at armored limbs (or body armor) before using flashy finishing moves to end an opponent’s life. Hopefully without damaging the desired armor in the process. Successful retrievals grant Warren new crafting materials and the occasional blueprint. New gear can be purchased at Ops, the one safe place in each zone where Warren can heal, interact with NPCs and upgrade his exosuit.

There are a few dozen pieces of equipment to collect. But only a handful, namely those that scale well with Warren’s weapon proficiency, warrant further attention. Each player’s preferred armor set will likely be determined by their personal combat style. Those who prefer to stick and move will lean towards light kits while those who prefer punishing heavy attacks will gravitate towards the largest exosuits. But there’s only one in set in each class. And you’ll have to harvest dozens of additional limbs to finish upgrading each piece of gear.

Combat leaves little room for error. The areas Warren can explore are much smaller than Lothric or Lordran. And there are fewer bosses waiting to stop him. But the foot soldiers guarding each marquee battle are just as deadly as the monstrous machines they defend. Aggro circles also tend to overlap more frequently than you might expect, forcing frequent fights against multiple enemies. Some have suggested the punishing nature of the game’s combat reflects a desire to make every fight matter more. But a never-ending stream of nearly identical enemies makes large swaths of The Surge feel more like a bad remake of Groundhog Day than a series of memorable battles one might recount to friends. Shortcuts make it possible to avoid some encounters. But not enough.

Before long, you’ll find yourself rushing through less interesting sections. Some players will show less caution in combat, lulled into a false sense of security by the familiarity of their environment. Others will start sprinting past certain enemies to take another crack at the next boss or get back to a particularly troublesome corridor a bit quicker. But it doesn’t take long for a general sense of wonder and curiosity to be replaced with a simple desire to move on to something you haven’t seen 100 times already. And once it shows up, that feeling never really goes away.

To make matters worse, Deck13 has stripped out many of the systems that Souls -like fans have come to rely on in these scenarios. Most of the stories we hear about Dark Souls’ summoning systems tend to be PvP-focused, describing elaborate (sometimes comical) combat encounters between members of the DS community. But many players also relied on their allies to help with some of the biggest fights in the series, whether it be final bosses or patience-testing encounters like the fight against Ornstein and Smough. Even grinding takes longer because leveling isn’t just a matter of collecting tech scrap (The Surge’s version of souls) and increasing Warren’s core power. You’ll also have to harvest enough limbs to upgrade Warren’s gear, a process that requires a little bit of luck (for item drops) in addition to precise execution on the battlefield.

And let’s talk about difficulty for a minute. Dark Souls may be popular. But trophy and achievement data for the series suggests less than half of the community tends to finish each game. And many players rely on the systems Deck13 stripped out of The Surge. The game isn’t impossible. Most bosses still only took us a few attempts to defeat. Enough to learn the handful of attacks each has at its disposal. But those encounters aren’t particularly enjoyable, nor do they provide the sense of joy and accomplishment we feel after taking down the Ashen One’s toughest foes. The punishing nature of Dark Souls works because

  1. The worst among us still have a path to victory
  2. Constant death makes sense thematically

Neither is true for The Surge. And the game is a much worse experience for it.

The Surge does get a few things right. Each area of the map feels as labyrinthine and confusing as we’d expect from a Souls -like. Careful exploration will uncover everything from new gear to NPCs in desperate need of Warren’s help. And the energy system, filled with combo attacks and used to power drones and decapitations, is something we’d like to see mirrored in other action RPGs. But most of what makes The Surge unique also makes it less enjoyable. Combat is less interesting. Enemy diversity is non-existent. Bosses are few, far between and boring. The armory is laughably understocked. There’s more grinding and fewer interesting sights. Multiplayer is nonexistent, despite playing a huge role in the game Deck13 is trying to emulate. And it doesn’t stop there. Boring audio logs replace Dark Souls ’ archaeological storytelling. The camera lock is unreliable and your tech scrap disappears two minutes after you die. It’s a parade of bad ideas. And every change to FromSoftware’s core formula makes The Surge that much less enjoyable.

There will be some who enjoy The Surge. Sadly, I was not one of them.

The Surge is currently available on PS4, Xbox One and PC.