THE SURGE Game Review: Do Machines Have (Dark) Souls?

Turns out droids tear people’s arms off when they win.

 “Dark Souls, but sci-fi” is a common description for Deck13's The Surge, but it’s a simplistic one. The German studio's Lords of the Fallen hewed close to the venerated Souls series’ dark fantasy stylings, but The Surge breaks away - mechanically as well as in theme. Now that “Soulslike” is a legitimate genre, it's time for third parties to bring some innovation to the table. The Surge delivers some.
Taking place in a technopunk future dominated by the seemingly-benign CREO Corporation, The Surge opens with its paraplegic hero Warren getting a robotic exoskeleton grafted onto his skeletal and nervous systems. Waking up from the barbaric surgery permanently bound to his mechanical chassis, he discovers - in classic video game fashion - that something’s gone horribly wrong: CREO’s robots and augmented humans have malfunctioned, homicidally. So dramatic is this discovery that Warren completely forgets to react to his newfound ability to walk. One must have priorities.
Beset by zombified workers and killer robots, Warren does what any Souls veteran will see coming: grabs a melee weapon and starts swinging. Why, exactly, Warren can’t use any projectile weapons in this future setting is a mystery to me, but one I'll begrudgingly let slide. Souls’ melee patterns have become standards by now. You’ll execute light and heavy attacks (though here they’re horizontal and vertical); lock on, block, and heal; dodge, sprint, and jump, all while watching a stamina meter. Movement feels light and imprecise, but that’s the issue with exoskeletons: they should feel heavy, but capable of overcoming that weight. A curious animation challenge, and one not entirely hurdled by Deck13.
The Surge’s back-of-the-box feature stems from how and where you execute your attacks. Move the right stick while targeting an enemy, and you lock onto specific body parts - like in Fallout’s VATS, but fiddlier and in real-time. Certain parts will be labeled as weak spots, enabling you to take the enemy down quicker. Or, for a more rewarding mechani-kill, you can execute finishing moves to tear body parts from your enemies, unlocking a schematic enabling you to craft that part for yourself. It makes sense: torn-off arms help build or upgrade arms, and so on - and it's much more meaningful than random loot drops.
But ripping off limbs takes energy, as any Wookiee will tell you. One of The Surge’s many subtle tweaks to the Souls ethos, energy builds up with attacks, then vanishes quickly thereafter, promoting fast, flowing combat finishers. Warren’s drone buddy, capable of fulfilling all manner of helpful tasks (including much-needed ranged attacks), also uses energy to operate effectively. So one really must leap on energy-use opportunities quickly to make the most of the system. I generally failed to do so.
Character progression in The Surge borrows inconsistently from a range of styles. Basic stats - health, stamina, et cetera - are linked to Warren’s overall level, upgraded with the game’s “scrap” currency. Implants - healing items, powerups, and passive abilities - are found just lying around like so much discarded trash. But combat proficiency levels up as in Skyrim: using a weapon increases Warren’s skill with its class. That’s a double-edged sword: you’ll be more effective with the weapons you use most, but you’ll also be bound to one class of weapon over the others. Why be a melee dilettante when it’s more efficient to put all your levelling eggs into one basket?
Aside from that fairly sizeable pile of unique features, The Surge is a more or less 1:1 sci-fi Dark Souls translation. You unlock shortcuts back to your Ops station as you progress through levels. You find items hidden in out-of-reach places, and NPCs who send you on ill-explained sidequests. You die a lot. You collect scrap when killing enemies, which you drop when you die and must pick up on respawn. Here, though, you can bank scrap at medbays, and any dropped scrap exists on a countdown timer. That timer helps add tension, but given the emphasis on slow, methodical combat, it plays against the game’s core mechanics, suggesting a sprint past enemies is more efficient. Which it usually is. Similarly, technology and engineering feels more tactile than magic and sorcery, but also make arbitrary game mechanics seem even more so. Respawning makes little sense in this context, and God only knows why using a medbay respawns enemies.
It's the enemy design that really starts to illustrate The Surge’s unsuccessful side. Aside from the odd surviving human, the post-disaster CREO Complex is populated with half-mechanical zombies and all-mechanical robots. The boss design isn’t bad, each sporting a different gameplay mechanic, but regular enemies are uninspiring. Though tough, they’re neither scary nor intimidating, which is a problem. When a dude in power armour stabs you dead for the sixth time, it doesn't invoke feelings of despair - or any feelings at all. It’s just coldly irritating.
On a similar note: The Surge is set amongst the industrial gleam and grime of the CREO Complex. Its factories, laboratories, and corporate facilities look remarkably good for a scant 5GB game, but that download size makes more sense once the levels’ sameyness becomes apparent. Far from being a source of wonder or atmosphere, CREO is dull, which stymies any exploratory impetus one might have. The Surge lacks a sense that its environments are functional spaces. Its obligatory level-skipping shortcuts are immediately visible upon reaching new areas, draining any surprise from their eventual unlocking. It’s all just a series of video game levels, architecture serving no purpose other than offering players a challenge. Those drab metallic environments are emblematic of The Surge’s worst issue: its dread-inducing difficulty just isn't supported by its visual and narrative design.
The Surge can boast some great gameplay ideas. Not all are perfectly balanced, but they still represent thoughtful evolutions to the Souls DNA. It’s just a bummer how uninspiring the story and setting are. It may yet be possible to translate Souls-style gameplay into a genre other than fantasy or horror, but despite its innovations, The Surge isn’t quite it. So close, but so far away.