While I’ve taken the effort to not include it in this particular preview’s heading, like it or loathe it, any game from hereon encompassing a pedigree of Action RPG combat will immediately have the word Souls flung around its neck, as if anything else distinguishable is automatically made inconsequential. While I myself prefer to keep the Action RPG tag, that doesn’t mean I can’t understand people’s reasoning for doing so. But this isn’t developer Deck13’s first rodeo when it comes to making a game revolved around real-time, melee-based combat, inter-connected environments and, of course, the upturn in difficulty — treating one’s player with a bit more respect than your average AAA venture. Following on from their own fantasy-based (and rather acclaimed) take on FromSoftware’s formula with Lord of the Fallen, The Surge takes us instead to a distinctively near-future but dystopian sci-fi setting this time around. The aesthetic a little bit more crisp, a little more corporate, but no less unsettling and more importantly, intriguing to uncover one careful step at a time.
The Surge may indeed, like the studio’s own predecessor, draw plenty of inspiration from the Souls games with its emphasis on reaction-homed combat, situational awareness (enemies ready to ambush and/or strike at you from all angles) and keeping that risk:reward benefactor in constant focus. And while players coming straight out of Dark Souls 3‘s eventual climax will recognise the very same systems and flow with which Deck13 use — safe-spots which act as the means to level-up, craft/upgrade items but also the mechanism by which enemies respawn — not to mention how familiar the UI is with its placement of health/stamina/special ability bars, The Surge, much like Bloodborne, is a game (an iteration if you will) with noticeable tweaks or subtle additions to make itself stand out as more than just, what many may perceive, as a mere clone. Actively encouraging fast, agile movement and constant momentum over some patient slog through a horde of foes. And while you can — least in the early stages — get away perhaps with merely spamming attacks, the game’s limb-targeting system here integrates the game’s more strategic ends in an enticingly interesting fashion.
When met with a foe, players can immediately target one of up to five body parts with a flick of the analog stick (though this very function can admittedly frustrating pretty quickly when one is attempting to target either the body area, or either a limb obstructed by other parts). Limbs are categorized as belonging to one of two states: yellow, which indicates it’s protected by some kind of armor, or blue in which case they’re not. While more damage will of course be delivered if focusing on a bare limb, Deck13’s integration of the RPG genre’s regular improving/upgrading/building one’s self up, comes into noticeable play here. The fact that attacking armored parts, lower damage it might inflict, will — providing you execute a finishing move — allow you to acquire modular armor or even weapons that you can craft to fit as part of your base exoskeleton. Upgradeable too as a means to improve its attributes that govern such things as attack, defense and even stamina usage.
It’s a small but noticeable addition to what is (regardless of the enemy type) often a very dry, cut-and-paste manner of interaction and it means that every fight one partakes in will come, usually, with an added incentive should you desire that better, more enhanced armor or weapon your enemy is wielding. Not all enemies come with acquirable loot as is the case with the robotic/AI foes that litter the environment. While not the most aggressive in the build shown, do offer early hints as to The Surge‘s teaching the player that defense is just a crucial a thought as one’s manner of attack. Not to mention the fact that a larger group of foes will inadvertently keep you on your toes for large periods of time.
Speaking of keeping on one’s toes, perhaps the most interesting talking point gameplay-wise is the boss battles (or battle as is the case) discovered in The Surge and how they mean to evolve the basic formula of simply having just one big health-bar to whittle down. Players, instead, required to get their adversary to a particular attacking state — indicated by an accompanying yellow bar that increases the more damage is inflicted — at which point the boss in question (a fairly large security drone here) attacks in a certain way that leaves it open to exploitation. Only then, once stunned, can players inflict actual HP damage on the main red bar accompanying. Providing that a player’s attacks actually hit — and don’t just clip through as had unfortunately ocurred during my first play-through of the preview build — this is perhaps one of the more curious mechanics The Surge can potentially hold as its own when it comes to finally deducing just how independent Deck13 have managed to stand within the growing Action RPG crowd.
As noted the developer’s own take on this new-fangled “loot” phenomenon should come as proof that they are at least looking to expand the ways players can approach but also customize the way they prepare themselves for later struggles — outside of the regular find stuff, equip stuff monotony. Even if the notable button-prompts that govern finishing moves can rear the odd pre-programmed animation from time to time; enemies seeming to glitch/skate towards predetermined positions so that the player-character can actually execute their slow-down, bullet-time like dismembering of a limb. And that’s without bringing to light how the game seems to veer, if briefly, into this would-be cinematic lull that ends up repeating the same three or four animations based on the area of contact. Alongside some occasional momentary freezing, not to mention frame-rate stutter from time to time playing on PC, there’s no shortage of concern at the same time as to how well the general performance of a title like this will fair. Especially when it’s a title that can leave you clinging to the last slither of red on your health bar — knowing the only (let alone best) means of defense is a good offense.
And that’s perhaps the most critical thing that The Surge seems to get right — one that all fans and players alike, be it those who adore what FromSoftware have created all-round, or those who are a little more selective in their preference. That while the physicality of say the Dark Souls trilogy may not be as apparent or indeed present — replaced by a movement system that fashions itself, aesthetically, on the bulky, robotic feel of its setting — the tonal and indeed narrative leanings are certainly made apparent for players to, at least, start to wrap their heads around. Even something as simple as the semi-synthesized wailing from the zombie-like employees that masquerade as early, low-level enemies or the odd juxtapose the World’s slick corporate guise conflicts with its current state of affair, goes a way to fleshing out the absurd mix-up its players are unfortunately thrust into at the game’s start.
That’s something the original Dark Souls never carved out, least not in a way that made me care for what would follow. The Surge may not offer the same liberties such as your usual create-a-character, placing you in the boots of the developer’s own determined protagonist instead, but the intention to offer a more visceral presentation — even if the sci-fi leaning, arguably, has about as much relation as any dark fantasy trope — is also one of the reasons why Bloodborne was such a noticeable step-up from what came before. Taking the tactile emergence of its gameplay and placing it in a setting that not only demanded a faster, more responsive style of play…but in all honesty, was just more interesting to figure out just what on Earth was going on.
This won’t stop many — fellow writers/critics included — from that ill-fated brandishing I spoke of at the start, yet all points considered, The Surge is doing exactly what that much talked-about 2015 entry did phenomenally at. Resulting in a game that is shaping up to be a promising next-step in the Action RPG mold. One that doesn’t drastically shake up the formula admittedly, but instead adds to it in very particular ways in order to make the all-around package feel less like inspiration and more like an alternate take. But more importantly, one that demands from its players a second-glance as to how a particular task should in fact be approached, if at all any differently from the ones before. “Sci-fi Souls”? Nope, it’s called The Surge my friend…and it’s deserving of a bit more respect than your lone brandishing is likely offering.