“You may imitate, but never counterfeit,” French novelist Honoré de Balzac famously once said. In other words, imitation is fine, even essential. However, if it’s done so without passion, without heart and without an authentic understanding of what is being imitated, then the endeavour in question becomes as hollow and fake as a pre-fab, cardboard cut-out. I’m saying this as The Surge is an action-RPG that borrows heavily from From Software’s seminal Dark Souls series. Like Deck13 Interactive’s previous medieval fantasy RPG Lords of the Fallen, it very much fits the mould of yet another unabashed love-letter to Hidetaka Miyazaki’s critically lauded franchise. However, it’s important to ask: is this imitation a counterfeit, or is it heartfelt? Well, the short answer is, it’s a bit of both.
The game takes place in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian future closely overseen by a powerful and ominous technology corporation known as CREO. Cybernetic augmentation is prevalent, Total Recall-esque memory trips are a thing, and all the robots are really, really angry for some unknown reason. Similar to its inspiration, the direct plot is fairly minimal; you wake up in a war-torn world, attempt to plot a course to safety, and fight your way through a factory of nasty automatons that want to eat your face off. Another day at the office, I guess.
Though there’s only a smattering of sci-fi narrative background flavour, the future setting gives off a strong first impression that helps differentiate itself from other titles in the Souls’ sub-genre. Crumbling skyscrapers, dilapidated industrial factories and futuristic bio-engineering laboratories are effectively brought to life with gritty realism by virtue of its in-your-face environmental storytelling, impressive lighting and unearthly atmosphere. It may not have the strongest or deepest story out there, but its unique, sci-fi setting helps to offset this. The eerie, intersecting, blood-soaked corridors don’t harbour the meticulous level design found in the game’s peers, but they do hide a bounty of interesting nooks and crannies to loot and explore.
Defeating enemies accrues new gear, schematics and weapons, along with scrap metal that can be used to craft new and exponentially more powerful upgrades that can be applied to both your armour and weaponry. These increase your overall damage output, strengthen your armour rating, or give various combat or defensive buffs that help you to more effectively cut through the automaton menace snapping at your bio-mechanical heels. Further still, various health and weapon boosting implants can be inserted into your mechanical exoskeleton at the Med-bay, which also functions as a sort of bonfire-esque health-restoring base. Enemies also respawn from fixed spawn-points when you visit Med-bays.
Onto the combat and I’m happy to report that The Surge doesn’t drop the ball here. Moment-to-moment gameplay is satisfyingly heavy and feels meaty. The crunch of your neon blue laser-blades, bulky industrial pipes and vibrating electric saws on robotic metal, skin and bone feels weighty and impactful. Thankfully, the game makes a few welcome tweaks to the established 3rd-person action formula set out by its inspiration that helps to keep combat both familiar and fresh. The most eye-catching of these is its cool execution system.
While battling the cyborg threats The Surge throws at you, you’ll be given the opportunity to target specific limbs, a little like a real-time VATS system from the Fallout series. The probability of a direct cut of a limb is dependent on the damage that limb receives in a fight, so the more damage you do to say, an arm, the more likely that arm will be successfully cut off during a tremendously gory execution. These wonderfully grizzly slo-mo finishing moves look really cool and help set the game apart from its brethren. That said, some animations can occasionally look a little clunky. If you start an execution with an enemy on the floor, the adversary in question will spring up to a standing position in one awkward looking frame. It’s pretty minor, but an extra layer of polish could have ironed these visual quirks out.
The execution system is also intimately connected to the game’s loot mechanics. If you successfully cut off an enemy’s arm, then you’ll have more of a chance that the opposition will drop some arm-related armour schematics when they fall, and if you successfully cut off a leg, then they’ll likely drop some leg protection blueprints and so on. You soon realize that being mindful of where you attack becomes just as important as how you attack. If you’re on the hunt for a new helmet for example, then it’s best to make sure that those heads are gonna roll. To set up these executions, players must first build up their energy meter, which is directly tied to the amount of physical damage you dish out. Energy quickly evaporates, so wailing on a target usually builds up enough energy to initiate a hasty, one-hit-kill takedown to finish them off fast.
There are a few other little tweaks that freshen things up, too. Consistently using each individual armament levels up its Weapon Proficiency and increases its damage output. In the Souls series, you’d sometimes hit a brick wall and feel like you’re getting nowhere. When that happens in The Surge, you’re lucky as you’ll continue to progress and level up your weaponry, even if the adversary in question is continually kicking your ass into next Sunday. Also, remote drones further spice things up and can be used to autonomously aggro robotic monstrosities and pepper them with some light laser fire and other useful goodies.
Unfortunately, the levelling system feels a touch underpowered. Each time you level up, your HP increases by a lone, measly point, though it’ll also increase your exoskeleton’s overall power which enables you to install more sophisticated weaponry, armour and implants. Retrieval of lost scrap is a similar risk/reward system from the Souls series, but much like Lords of the Fallen, a timer helps to up the ante. If you don’t make it to the spot where you died in time, then prepare to say goodbye to all your lost scrap for good. However, defeating enemies adds a little more time onto your timer, so it’s advantageous to vanquish nasties on your journey back to your gravestone.
As always, boss battles are a highlight, but there doesn’t seem to be as many of them as Lords of the Fallen or the Souls series. Large, lumbering automaton bosses are some of the coolest encounters on your journey, but I would’ve ideally liked to see more of them, particularly in the game’s first half.
That being said, the difficulty level is quite well pitched overall; this is undoubtedly a much tougher game than Lords of the Fallen, which was criticized for its more accessible hack-and-slash, action-oriented take on the formula. Some of the enemies can legitimately kill you in a couple of hits, and this continues to be the case even when you’ve levelled up your gear and installed a ton of constitution boosting implants in the second half of your playthrough. Those with a penchant for punishment – like me – will most likely resonate with the challenge.
It may seem reductive calling The Surge a sci-fi Dark Souls clone, but the truth is, it doesn’t really try to be much more than that. It’s very tough trying to imitate something as seminal, as influential and as exceptional as its crystal-clear inspiration. A lack of compelling boss encounters, some ropey animations and some underwhelming level-design hold it back, but as a whole, it’s a fine addition to the Souls’ sub-genre that nails the majority of the core tenets set forth by what’s come before it. Ultimately, it’s by no means a counterfeit, but it’s not the genuine article, either.
This review is based on the PS4 version.
It may seem reductive calling The Surge a sci-fi Dark Souls clone, but the truth is, it doesn't really try to be much more than that.