The Surge Review
No Darkness, No Soul
While even the worst games in FromSoftware’s Souls series are pretty good, it would be an understatement to say that most of them are not technical masterpieces. These game were meticulously planned, down to the last detail, to work under very specific conditions; any change in these conditions, be it bumping the frame-rate up to 60fps, using the wrong TV picture settings, or having a real-world internet connection – and the engine issues that the game was so diligently designed around would be exposed.
Unfortunately, despite its clear intention to capitalize on Souls’ popularity, The Surge shares neither its deliberateness nor the technical competence of its latest offering. While many aspects of its atmosphere and level design are truly inspired, they cannot saved a game mired in bad design, sci-fi cliches, and a clumsy, frustrating combat system.
It’s tempting to describe The Surge solely in terms of the games it’s aping, but for the uninitiated, a more detailed description is in order: the Souls games, and the many Souls-likes that have been made in the wake of their success, are action RPGs with an emphasis on minimalistic storytelling, sprawling level design, and, most famously, a punishing and challenging combat system. This system is ruled primarily by a stamina bar, which is whittled down by active actions – attacking, defending, running, etc. – and only regenerates after a short cooldown period, forcing players to carefully plan their offensive to maximize their effectiveness while also evading counter-attacks.
The Surge fits this rough description, and initially gives the impression of an enjoyable, if clunky, Souls-like (indeed, early impressions were positive). In terms of level design, those who adore clever shortcut placement and connected worlds will find a lot to love here, with hidden paths cleverly hidden in plain sight making levels feel cohesive and easy to make sense of. There is also some clever environmental storytelling in the game, giving insight to the way the machines interact with each other and the world – the sight of five androids staring at a vending machine for no apparent reason is one I’m likely to remember for a while.
The combat system also enjoys some fine tweaks to the familiar formula. Instead of the usual dichotomy of light and heavy attacks, The Surge separates attacks to horizontal and vertical, keeping combos varied without giving a stamina bias either way. Each attack builds up the blue energy bar, and when it reaches a certain level, a finishing move becomes available, instantly killing the enemy if their health is low enough and protecting the player from any last-minute reprisal. The lock-on system is also a vast improvement over what Souls games offer: I never felt like I had a hard time locking onto the enemy that was clearly in my sights.
That I mention the lock-on system, however, is not a good sign.
For, indeed, the things that The Surge gets right pale in comparison to all the things it gets terribly, terribly wrong. Combat is where this is most obvious. The common idea is that the Souls game are popular because they’re hard, but that’s only half-true, at best. The Souls games aren’t just hard, they’re challenging. They confront you with powerful enemies that seem impossible to beat at first and slowly hint at ways you can overcome them. Attacks that land at the right time stagger enemies; a successful parry provides a wide opening for a deadly counter-attack. Mistakes are expensive, but doing things just right is incredibly rewarding. There are frustrating exceptions to this role, but on the whole, Souls challenges you to learn its rules and thrive – or stubbornly stick to bad habits and die.
“everything about The Surge’s movement and reactive combat feels clumsy”
This design philosophy is nowhere to be found in The Surge. Awkward movement means that even when you are fully prepared for an ambush, you could still get one-shot by an enemy simply because your character refused to dodge at the right time. While every button press in a Souls game corresponds to a single attack – one that you may regret attempting, but one nonetheless – attacking in The Surge will often result in a comically long combo that will leave you helpless to defend yourself. Even if you do manage to react to an attack in time, the broken hit detection means that you can often be hit by attacks that clearly missed you. Lunging at an appendage that missed you will also still cause damage because contact damage is a thing in this game for some reason.
Another fun fact about lunging – enemy lunges actually go around corners, hitting you even if you take cover to avoid them. So that’s good.
The developers have claimed that The Surge should be approached “from a Bloodborne state of mind”. I challenge anyone to attempt such an approach. Bloodborne combat relies heavily on parrying and evading, eschewing the more conservative approach encouraged by earlier Souls games. Counterattacking and moving around is fluid, making combat quick and brutal.
Meanwhile, everything about The Surge’s movement and reactive combat feels clumsy. While The Surge technically has parrying and dodging, they don’t really work. There is no indication of parrying being effective, leaving the player to guess whether they should proceed with a counter or retreat. It doesn’t help that health loss and gain are indicated by the same color in the health bar – an appaling design decision – meaning that it’s hard to say whether or not you just got hit. Dodging in itself is just plain awkward, clearing very short distances, and often going the wrong direction, if it indeed happens at all.
But this is only part of the problem. Souls combat is talked about to no end, but few people realize just how much fascination these games maintain purely through their stories and worlds, even long after they’ve stopped being challenging to veterans. Some YouTubers with millions of subscribers do nothing but discuss Souls lore; Bloodborne has had hundreds, if not thousands, of pages written about its lore. These games do an amazing job of creating an alien, strange world and making it exciting to explore it and to uncover its mysteries. Bloodborne, in particular, is so layered and subtle in its storytelling that to this day it inspires passionate discussions.
I won’t spoil The Surge’s plot, but it has hostile androids, a friendly-looking-but-actually-sinister corporation, and it’s called The Surge. If you’ve ever seen a sci-fi movie or read a sci-fi book, you likely already know everything that’s going to happen.
Art design is another culprit that constantly sabotages the atmosphere. If scenarios are sometimes interesting, the way everything in the world of The Surge looks is just boring. Yellow-red-grey buildings are home to yellow-red-grey – and occasionally neon-blue and green – enemies, who lazily swing about various pieces of industrial gear. Occasionally drones and other generic-looking robots break up the monotony in favor of another monotony.
The protagonist himself lacks any sort of personality, to the point where I can’t be bothered to remember his name. Frustratingly, he didn’t have to be this dull. The game opens up with him in a wheelchair, hinting at a more interesting backstory that could have been expanded on, but this is mostly forgotten for the remainder of the game, and one is left with yet another generic white guy.
This message never went away in all my time with the game
This is the point where I would probably say that The Surge is frustrating because it could’ve been so much better, but maybe it couldn’t have. Maybe the project of making a game that’s Souls but in a slightly different setting was doomed from the start. Maybe we should all learn from Hidetaka Miyazaki, a much better game designer than any of his latter-day epigones, and leave this poor series alone. We have five Souls games. That’s enough. They’re still good, and you can still play them, I swear. Hell, I’m playing Demon’s Souls right now, as you are reading this review, having a blast and forgetting about this dull, frustrating game.
I recommend you do the same.