Lords of the Fallen was the first attempt at aping From Software’s popular Souls series by developer Deck13 Interactive, but it fell significantly short of matching up. Seemingly undeterred and learning from their past transgressions, The Surge (uninspiring title and all) bucks all trends by proving, on this occasion, second time is in fact the charm.
When locked onto a foe you can focus on one of six body parts, namely the head, torso, or any arm or leg. The game's systems and your current circumstance will dictate where you choose to target; focusing unarmoured areas will lead to quick kills, perfect for when you’re near death and looking to avoid combat, but taking the inherent risk in prolonging a fight by pummelling an armoured section will offer up rewards. Successive successful strikes build your energy gauge, which, when filled to the illustrated mark, allows the player to launch into a cinematic finisher on low-health enemies to sever the battered limb and claim the weapon or armour adorning it as their own. While a weapon is immediately good to go, you’ll need to craft new armour using the piece as a base schematic, gathering the materials to do so by targeting the same relevant area on additional baddies and scrapping their gear for parts.
It’s a brilliantly novel system, essentially making combat a morbid shopping spree in which you cherry pick the bits you want and cut them off your co-workers. It fundamentally changes the way you play, and, as sadistic as it may sound, the varied and violent accompanying finisher animations never ceased to satisfy.
The limb targeting system is brilliantly novel, essentially making combat a morbid shopping spree in which you cherry pick the bits you want and cut them off your co-workers.
That said, it does have its drawbacks. The busy HUD that highlights limbs and their status can be obtrusive and make it somewhat difficult to spot the more subtle tells of an incoming attack, whilst enemies can also catch you with unavoidable damage as you come out of the uninterruptible animations (despite being immune during). While those foibles are annoying, especially when one hit can be enough to immediately kill you, we found Deck13’s solution to the inevitable question of “Why doesn’t Warren - just Warren - simply loot the dead?” more amusing than anything else; corpses spontaneously combust when they hit the floor, which, while avoiding undermining their own mechanics, ranks equally on the video game nonsense scale.
In spite of the issues, combat does a great job of conveying the mechanised and improvised nature of encounters, the tools (often literal, weaponised worker’s tools) at your disposal feeling weighty and impactful or fluid and graceful dependant on which class of weapon - each with their own proficiency level that increases with use - you opt for. While there are no ranged weapons, you do acquire a companion drone that requires energy to use, much like finishing manoeuvres, and can be upgraded to gain new abilities that increase its usefulness. While dealing no significant degree of damage, it's a tactical godsend, allowing you to draw single units from groups to engage them separately and avoid being overwhelmed, or knockdown aggressive targets to dictate the pace of a battle as a couple of examples.
With those winning strategies under your belt, you’ll be earning plenty of Tech Scrap, a resource gathered by defeating enemies and serving much the same purpose as Souls do in the series bearing their name. In a twist carried over from Lords of the Fallen, the longer you stay out in the field, the more you earn, with a growing multiplier goading you into taking risks you probably shouldn’t. In doing so, you put your entire pot on the line, as when you die (and you will die) all of the Tech Scrap on your person falls to the ground and you have but one brief chance to reclaim it - if you die again or let the 02:30 timer (which can be topped up by getting kills) deplete before retrieving it, it’s gone for good.
Better to be safe than sorry is a good mantra to adopt, frequently returning to the bonfire-like Medbays to make use of all that glorious Scrap, even at the cost of resetting your multiplier and repopulating the area. Medbays are much less prevalent than bonfires, with strictly one per area, but this is balanced out by the fact you can safely bank Tech Scrap to use at a later time and occasionally find Medstations to replenish your health and items out in the wild. You’ll use Scrap to upgrade your gear - and make sure you do so frequently, because needlessly hoarding it will be your downfall - via the game’s simplified RPG systems. Rather than allocating points to specific stats, you boost your Core Power, which allows you to equip more/better equipment by having the necessary juice to power it.
That might mean you don some fancy armour modules, or that you affix an additional implant, the latter offering one of a range of active and passive perks that range from carrying additional healing items, to earning more energy, to increasing your stamina and far more beyond that. The system allows you to respec to your heart’s content, experimenting with different loadouts to discover one that fits your play style and sees the pieces fall into place. You won’t be able to get too comfortable, however, as if you were to opt for an energy-focused, lumbering tank (for example) that wouldn’t serve you well in all walks, so you’ll need to be flexible and mix things up on those occasions.
Core Power also serves as a gating mechanic, with paths opened up by overcharging electrical systems where you meet the requirement. These often serve as satisfying shortcuts back to the warm embrace of a Medbay, with environments constantly looping back on themselves in a considered display of intelligent level design.
The customisation system allows you to respec to your heart’s content, experimenting with different loadouts to discover one that fits your play style and sees the pieces fall into place.
Areas hold all manner of secrets and loot-based rewards, compelling you to explore every corner of the world, but they aren’t seamlessly interconnected or nearly as sprawling and varied as those that inspired them. That’s not to say they aren’t good - great, even - but by openly drawing comparison to arguably the very best in the business, they begin to fall short.
With no map or objective markers, Deck13 place trust in their design and the intelligence of their players to be able to intuitively follow the game’s nonlinear progression, which sometimes requires you to backtrack to put new items and abilities to use. This makes any and all progress feel satisfyingly earnt, rather than something you just take as given. The same approach is adopted for side missions (delivered by fellow survivors in awkward conversational exchanges), whereby it’s entirely on you to peruse the end goal without any form of handholding; if you can’t find what you’re looking for, you quite simply don’t complete them.
Open spaces generally betray the location of a boss, with battles being disappointingly infrequent considering their consistent high quality. Fights are unforgiving, drawn-out affairs that will generally require a few trial and error deaths before everything clicks and you figure out their attack patterns, your optimum positioning, and your windows of opportunity. With no multiplayer to speak of, and, thus, no summoning a co-op partner for help, you have to ‘get good’ and surmount these significant obstacles independently.
Often large and imposing, transforming themselves and their stages in an intimidating display as battles progress, the mechanised bosses match up to many of the Souls series’ famed behemoths in terms of visuals and mechanics, but are less memorable thanks by and large to the accompanying soundtrack. An industrial sound that, while fitting, is totally generic unsuccessfully stands in for bombastic scores that inspire fear whilst mirroring a boss’ unique personality and movement.
Despite suffering some shortfalls, once you sink your teeth into The Surge’s innovative customisation suite and find what works for you, the game’s core pillars of combat and exploration become immensely rewarding to engage with. With the Souls series officially on hiatus, The Surge offers up a riveting equivalent with plenty of its own merit, though doesn't quite best what is, to borrow a phrase from Dark Souls’ own Oscar of Astora, a game so grossly incandescent.