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

By knowing what to borrow and what to reinvent, The Surge proves itself more than a cheap sci-fi knockoff of FromSoftware's blockbuster.

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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.

Long Reads Editor

From The Chatty

    • reply
      May 15, 2017 3:10 PM

      Shack! I thought it'd be fun to do an informal AMA since I've spent over a dozen hours on this thing so far. Hit me up with questions the (pre)review doesn't answer and I'll do my best to address them.

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      May 15, 2017 3:36 PM

      Looks pretty dope

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      May 15, 2017 3:57 PM

      Does this game have dismemberment? I can't think of modern soulslike that does (Severence: Blade of Darkness being the only one that comes to mind)

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        May 15, 2017 4:05 PM

        It does. After wearing down a targeted body part, you'll get a button prompt (A on Xbox, X on PS4) to perform a finishing move. The finishing move instantly kills the enemy and hacks off the body part you were targeted. If you were wearing down an armored body part, you'll get to pick up materials to use for upgrades.

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          May 15, 2017 7:19 PM

          Isn't this also how you find a lot of new gear? I thought the tutorial said something about that.

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            May 15, 2017 8:23 PM

            Yep! The first time you defeat an enemy by targeting an armored body part, you unlock a schematic for that piece of armor. At the upgrade station, you can then transmute upgrade material into that piece of armor.

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      May 15, 2017 4:09 PM

      Cool! Looks like I will pick it up.

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        May 15, 2017 6:14 PM

        Let me know if you like it!

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          May 15, 2017 6:18 PM

          Still early but it is pretty great so far! I am struggling on the first boss but I am really enjoying the combat and systems.

          I finally figured out how to damage the boss so now it just a matter of time before it is done.

          I am playing on PC and one thing that I turned off right away was the camera bob, but after that I felt pretty at comfortable with the control scheme.

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            May 15, 2017 7:17 PM

            Yeah, the first boss is tricky. I didn't understand how I dealt damage to him at first. It seemed to just sort of... happen.

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      May 15, 2017 6:34 PM

      hmmmmm this looks...good

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      May 15, 2017 7:21 PM

      Looks pretty awesome, and I don't like the Souls games.

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      May 15, 2017 7:36 PM

      Yeah I watched the Quick Look and while I wasn't hot on their previous game Lords of Fallen, this game looks worthwhile.

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        May 15, 2017 8:23 PM

        I liked Lords of the Fallen, but it was called "Clunky Souls" for a reason. Surge has some clunkiness, but is more refined in virtually every way.

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      May 16, 2017 7:23 AM

      Is the "souls will disappear after the timer runs out" aspect as shitty as it sounds?

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        May 16, 2017 7:41 AM

        Not at all. Shortcuts are placed just far enough apart that as soon as I respawned after dying, I could take the fastest path back to where I died. Each level is also large enough that I learned its ins and outs just by playing.

        Second, as I mention in the review, every enemy you kill adds ~20 seconds to the timer. If you feel pressed for time, just lock on to the nearest bad guy and target its weakest area.

        I've never once lost tech scraps because I couldn't get to them fast enough. You'll need to know your way around an area, but Dark Souls asks that of you, too.

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      May 16, 2017 7:28 AM

      how rewarding is exploration? One thing I like about Souls games is scouring each zone for hidden loot. And some of that loot matters. Like some hidden weapon or armor set.

      A lot of souls-like games seem to try to reward exploration, but you just get crafting materials or shit to sell. It's boring, unrewarding exploration. Nioh was like this.

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        May 16, 2017 7:34 AM

        Yeah, this is key for a souls game for me

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        May 16, 2017 7:38 AM

        Extremely rewarding. Each level has plenty of side paths and cubbyholes to explore, and levels loop back in on themselves like Dark Souls 1 areas. I've never been disappointed by choosing to check out a suspicious-looking trail or room.

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          May 16, 2017 8:45 AM

          STAAWWPP EIIITTT you're going to force me to buy this and I'm only 5 hours into Prey

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            May 16, 2017 8:46 AM

            it also supports 21:9 :P

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              May 16, 2017 9:24 AM

              How well does it run?

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                May 16, 2017 2:42 PM

                I'm trying to run it at 4k on a Titan X Pascal (other hardware isn't worth mentioning, the gpu is definitely the bottleneck). Maxed out with AA filter turned off, fps dips down to ~45 occasionally.

                Dropping Texture Quality from Very High to High is a pretty big boost to fps, but it still doesn't always hold 60.

                Frame drops seem to be heavily related to volumetric lighting effects. Early on you will enter a small room with the first med station, and volumetric lighting is used pretty liberally in there. FPS drops to ~40 in that room. I tried decreasing the lighting quality setting to High, but it didn't seem to make that much of a difference in fps. I may try to drop it lower when I fire the game up again tonight.

                VSync also acts kind of flaky. Using it at 1:1, sometimes it will still cap fps at 30, but turning it off shows it fps holding well above 50 or even above 60 in some cases. Then, turning it back on seems to remove this cap, allowing variable framerates, which is how it should be working with the 1:1 setting. Maybe this can be fixed by tweaking an ini setting. I'm guessing there is a 30 fps cap that kicks in when your fps drops below 60, but the way it's implemented is kind of glitchy. Or maybe I'll just need to wait for a new nVidia driver release for it to be fixed.

                4k is really demanding and the game's graphics are nice, so I'm not disappointed with performance overall. It's much better optimized than Lords of the Fallen.

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                  May 16, 2017 2:45 PM

                  Hmmm, sounds pretty good thanks for this