In the creatively inept cesspool known as the modern video game industry, one publisher must tirelessly remind us every year that there are still worthwhile games and developers out there. Last year, Focus Home Interactive along with Spiders gave us my personal game of the year; The Technomancer. Now in 2017, it seems Focus Home Interactive are doubling down with Deck13 Interactive and their latest release: The Surge. However, unlike The Technomancer, The Surge is a hack and slash RPG set in a cyberpunk robotics facility with a heavy emphasis on patience and difficulty.
Before I even begin, I already know the first complaint that will be made about The Surge. "It's just Dark Souls, but in the future." And while that's right, it's also wrong. It's right in the sense that Dark Souls is also a hack and slash RPG with an emphasis on patience and difficulty, but Dark Souls, nor Demons Souls, were the original pioneers of that subgenre of video games. They merely popularized it. The cherry on this bad comparison sundae is that The Surge having an original story and setting already sets it leagues above a generic medieval dungeon crawler with its only gimmick being that it's difficult.
As Warren, you arrive at CREO, a robotics company desperately trying to reverse the effects of climate change, for your first day on the job. You quickly learn that your character, Warren, is paraplegic. Now how are you supposed to play an action RPG as a guy in a wheelchair? Well, luckily for the player, the position Warren has signed up for at CREO needs him to undergo a painful operation that will give him the ability to walk again as well as giving him near superhuman strength. The catch is that, in doing so, he must agree to have a metal exoskeleton surgically bound to his body.
"Show, don't tell" seems to be the motto for The Surge's story. Similar to many games that follow this narrative style, you enter CREO's facility after it has already gone through hell, and your main goal is to survive the mad house and get out. Just the environment alone does a great job of visually telling you of what happened. It also doesn't hurt that there are occasional audio logs and survivors scattered around to help put the pieces together. While told in a way that has been proven to be great time and time again, the story itself isn't anything special and merely serves as a backdrop for the vastly superior gameplay.
While nothing entirely special at first glance, the visuals of The Surge are quite impressive for a middle market game. From the highly detailed combination of the flesh and metal textures on Warren's newly modified body, to the sprawling, seemingly lived in, facility of the CREO complex, The Surge is a testament to the fact that you don't hundreds of millions of dollars to make a pretty game.
At this point, we're all familiar with combining light and heavy attacks as well as occasionally blocking and dodging to overcome hack and slash gameplay challenges. So what does The Surge bring to the table? Instead of needlessly adding arbitrary gameplay gimmicks or complicating systems that were fine the way they were before, The Surge chooses to refine already tried and true gameplay as well as putting a twist on some to make it its own.
Normally this is the part where I would say something along the lines of, "if you're familiar with Deck13's previous hack and slash outing, Lords of the Fallen, you'll be right at home with The Surge," but that would actually be wrong. If you did, by chance, play the criminally underrated Lords of the Fallen, then you would remember just how slow and deliberate it felt. The Surge is not at all like that. While it's still just as, if not more, deliberate as its predecessor, it's also much, much faster. Think of the nature evolution from Dark Souls to Bloodborne in terms of speed, and that's one of the only Dark Souls comparison that can be made here.
It's the little things that have a place in my heart. Something as simple as targeting seems like something that doesn't need to be improved on or tampered with in anyway, right? Well The Surge does just that and now it's how I want targeting to be in every game I play from now on. There's many things you have to pay attention to in The Surge, and enemy's armor is one of them. The Surge allows you to target individual body parts in real time and make decisions on the fly of where your attacks should land to inflict the most damage.
"Cutting" was, by far, my favorite feature in The Surge's. To cut, you must first build up your energy level by successfully chaining together light and heavy attacks to perform an instant kill. The benefits of cutting also go beyond just an instant kill. Say there's an enemy with a weapon you want. Simply target the body part that the enemy is holding the weapon in and cut it off. The successful cut will result in the enemy dropping said weapon and allow you to pick it up and use it. This also works for armor, so mutilating your enemies is greatly rewarded.
Just having light and heavy attacks is so 2011. Why not have vertical and horizontal attacks as well being able to combine those with light and heavy variants? With the addition of cutting individual body parts, having the ability to choose between vertical and horizontal attacks was definitely a needed option, and we got it. You wouldn't want to swing downwards when attacking someone's legs, you'd want to swing from the side.
Killing enemies rewards you with experience points. Take those experience points back to the designated safe area to level up, but if you die before you make it back to the safe area, you drop your experience points and have to pick them back up, and returning to these safe areas respawns all the enemies. Sound familiar? Well it should be to anyone that's played this kind of game in the last 5 or 6 years. There's nothing inherently wrong with this formula because many developers in the past have proven it to be effective. The problem The Surge has with it though is that it spreads these safe areas out thinner than Assassin's Creed's premise. There's only one or two safe areas, or "MedBays," per level, and these levels are huge. So you're either going to have to trek all the way back to the only MedBay in the level or pray to God that you can make it all the way through to the next level. Having more than one MedBay wouldn't have hurt the difficulty, Deck13.
Starting on the outskirts of CREO's facility, Warren must delve into the heart of a robotics lab in order to escape. As far as level design goes, The Surge offers enough to serve its intended purpose, but still nothing to write home about. The levels go far beyond the samey grey corridors and interiors that you would initially expect from a fictional facility like this, and they even feel lived in, as if they were designed with an actual purpose other than mindlessly murdering enemies scattered around, but nothing ever really stood out to me; or gave me that "wow" moment.
I also couldn't help but feel somewhat let down with the sound department. Now don't get me wrong, whether it's a chainsaw tearing through flesh and metal or bludgeoning unsuspecting crazy people to death, The Surge elevates the sound of death to an art form, but the music is seriously lacking. You would think that a cyberpunk action game would be a great excuse for the developers to throw in some fast, hard hitting synthwave, but with the exception of some occasional ambient tracks and a single Stumfol track, your ears will be treated to musical stylings of nothing ft. nada.
While not exactly the greatest game Focus Home Interactive have ever published, The Surge is an incredible experience and worthy of standing among the greats such as Dark Souls and Bloodborne. The soundtrack and level design leave much to be desired, but I'd be lying if I said that wasn't all made up by the beautifully refined gameplay. The Surge is a win for Deck13, Focus Home Interactive, and anyone fortunate enough to play through this game of the year contender.