The Surge Review-in-Progress: 'Sci-Fi Souls' Borrows Tropes, Expertly Reinvents Others

Game publishers take pride in being killers. Growing up, every FPS post-1993 was touted as a Doom killer. Diablo took me to hell, and imitators boasted of gameplay so good it could banish Blizzard's devil back from whence it came (and then kill it). Deck13 Interactive makes no bones about The Surge standing on the shoulders of giants. It's a Dark Souls-like, and it knows it. To its credit, however, The Surge does not hide in FromSoftware's shadow. It lurks there, drawing influence from certain sources before stepping into the light to present refinements that feel fresh and fun.

Early hours of The Surge abound with Dark Souls corollaries. Instead of earning souls for killing enemies and consuming certain items, you get tech scraps. Instead of resting at a bonfire to refill your healing items at the cost of resetting slain enemies, you convalesce at medical bays. Combat was, for me, the point where The Surge broke away from FromSoftware's successful formula.

The major difference lies in your ability to target specific body parts on your opponents. Opponents wear a hodgepodge of armor that leaves their head, body, or limbs exposed. Attacking vulnerable regions inflicts more damage than hammering on armor. The catch is that while killing an enemy by attacking armor takes longer, you're rewarded with a better drop: a schematic to forge that same piece of armor, or material to upgrade your armor, letting you outfit your avatar with a Mr. Potato Head-like assortment of gear and weapons.

Killing an enemy by bashing on its armor doesn't guarantee that a schematic or upgrade material will drop, but it raises the odds, which spurred me to experiment. The first thing I do when I come across a tough enemy is lock on and scan around to find a weak spot. I get in two or three hits, then switch to target an armored region for a part I want. It's an incredibly deep system that adds an extra layer of strategy to every fight—attempt to harvest parts from this guy's leg gear, or bash in his unprotected head quickly since I'm out of healing items and low on hit points?—on top of Souls concerns like managing stamina, the combination of which had me gripping my controller in sweaty palms.

Tech scraps, too, are an area of design baked in a Souls mold but given a dash of spice. Tech scraps double as currency and experience points. You drop tech scraps when and where you die, and you'll lose them for good if you die before you retrieve them. The wrinkle is that The Surge imposes a time limit on retrieving them. The HUD keeps you apprised of how close or far you are from your scraps, like a game of hot-or-cold, and killing enemies adds precious seconds to the timer.

That's the rub. Killing enemies buys you time, but also puts you at greater risk of dying. Whether sprinting pell-mell back to my tech scraps or surgically dispatching every enemy in my path to give myself a buffer, the gravity of death pressed down on me tighter and heavier than in Dark Souls, where I was practically assured of reclaiming my bloodstain as long as I took the slow-and-steady approach.

If the heightened risk-reward systems aren't enough to set your heart to racing, The Surge's atmosphere should seal the deal. I spent as much time inching through pitch-black culverts and abandoned tunnels, the light from my body armor shining a faint beam in front of me and listening to cyborgs moan and shuffle around in the darkness, as I did running around in the open. The game's creepy ambiance recalls the scariest settings and moments from Dead Space, playing to the eeriness of Demon's Souls and Bloodborne but capitalizing on its science-fiction setting and trappings.

Levels are sprawling and intricately designed. Deck13's designers did their homework, planting shortcuts at precisely the time and place I was desperate for a quick escape back to a medical bay. Just as impressive, though, is that they nailed that ineffable feeling of wonderment and satisfaction that comes from opening shortcuts that let you circumvent enemies and architecture you worked hard to conquer so you can set your sights on what lies ahead.

While the game proceeds linearly, having you leave one level to begin the next, you're able to backtrack at your leisure. Good thing, too, because certain doors and apparatuses cannot be opened or activated until you level up your suit a certain amount, infusing The Surge with a Metroidvania style of exploration that rewards players who possess the drive and patience to return to early areas once they're stronger.

The Surge's more traditional level structure means a boss awaits you at the end of each stage. Boss fights tend to unfold in phases, with the first phase spent figuring out how to get each hulking, mech-sized monstrosity to expose its Achilles heel, and the second phase an all-out brawl. These showdowns are part Dark Souls, part classic (read: pre-Breath of the Wild) Legend of Zelda, and should delight you if you have a soft spot for bosses that force you to work out the riddle of how to crack their shell before letting you at the soft meat within.

If The Surge has one major flaw, it's the absence of multiplayer. My wife and I have played through every Souls game together; knowing that we won't be able to engage in jolly cooperation (or jolly invasion) in The Surge is disappointing. Furthermore, the game is quite difficult—as expected and demanded by its target audience—and if you get stuck, there's no way to summon a friend or total stranger to your aid. Although that will sit just fine with the most rugged Souls players who insist on soloing every area and boss, there's no denying that multiplayer was one of the most integral part of Souls games. For certain players, the void it leaves could swallow any chance The Surge has at longevity.

I've steered clear of discussing story and lore so as to avoid spoilers. The long and short is that The Surge offers a more traditional narrative: everyone plays the same character, and dialogue trees beget more direct interaction with NPCs than in Souls games, where everyone talked at you and maniacal laughter was considered ending punctuation. If that worries you, as it did me at first, rest assured that The Surge stays out of your way. Gameplay reigns supreme, allowing deep customization in terms of gear load-outs and permitting you to digest story as you please or ignore it.

"Like Dark Souls" has become a frequent and often eyerolling-inducing comparison, albeit with good reason. Love it or hate it, Dark Souls has informed countless games since it burst onto the scene in a spray of blood and smashed controllers. The Surge excels by knowing when to take cues from the king of the genre, and when to turn left where its predecessors turned right. I'm over a dozen hours in, and I'll happily play dozens more.

This review is based on a Steam download code supplied by the publisher. The Surge launches on May 16 on Xbox One, PS4, and PC.

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