I don’t know why I’m such a sucker for Deck13’s Surge series. While I can readily admit that The Surge came packaged with some hefty problems — its same-y maze-like setting being the biggest offender — I still had an absolute blast roaming its junky landscape and assembling a hero who was equal parts man and machine. Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for stories, movies, and games that meld flesh and technology in horrifying but visually satisfying ways. Or maybe I just enjoy creating a character that loosely resembles Matt Damon and living out my bizarre Elysium fantasies. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Whatever the reason may be, I had no problem defending The Surge against people who wanted to dismiss it as nothing more than a wannabe Soulsborne game set inside a drab, uninspired location. And while I can’t argue with those on-point critiques, but it didn’t stop me from loving The Surge to death. (For the record, I’ve logged more hours in The Surge than I have Bloodborne, and I really love me some Bloodborne despite my gross ineptitude at mastering its punishing gameplay.)
So, needless to say, I had pretty high hopes for The Surge 2, though I didn’t necessarily believe Deck13 would step too far outside the boundaries they set with the first installment. To my surprise, the follow-up to their 2017 action-RPG takes the foundation laid by the original, blows it out, injects some refinements, and spins some cheeky (and unexpected) humor into the mix. Sure, it still doesn’t look nearly as good as other like-minded endeavors, but The Surge 2 suggests that the developers paid close attention to the complaints lodged against their previous effort. It’s not a perfect experience by any stretch of your wild imagination, and it doesn’t really match the level of world-building that From Software seems to achieve with every release, but this is a worthy follow-up to a game I still feel receives far too much hate.
Without giving too much away — both for The Surge and The Surge 2 — I’ll dance around the plot with the fluidity of an elderly man strapped into several pieces of makeshift armor. Picking up years after the original game, you play an individual who wakes up inside a prison cell after something very, very terrible has gone down. For this review, we’ll call my guy Harold, who seems to be in his mid-sixties with thinning, gray hair and a gait that suggests he suffers from serious (and possibly permanent) gastrointestinal problems. Once he makes his way out of the city, Harold discovers a dystopian hellscape called Jericho City, a place inhabited by cultists, Blue Sparkle drug addicts, heavily armed thugs, and a vast array of peculiar NPCs. As you play through the game, you’ll stumble into the middle of a violent sibling rivalry, the hunt for a nightmarish beast (and the man who wants its brain), and a mystery involving a strange little girl. As you can tell, there’s a bit more going on here story-wise than in The Surge, and it’s definitely for the best, though it doesn’t always make a lot of sense.
After you escape from the prison and defeat your first boss, which serves as a kind of tutorial for the game’s fighting system, you’ll finally stumble out into fresh air. The first thing you’ll notice: The Surge 2 is a lot more open than The Surge, and the sensation feels fantastic. Although I loved hacking apart goons, thugs, and mechanical monstrosities to piece together my hero’s armor and weaponry during the first installment, The Surge didn’t give players very much to look at. I hope you enjoy running around a factory because that’s basically all you’re going to get. With The Surge 2, however, Deck13 effectively kicks down the factory walls and gives you a sprawling city to explore, complete with dank, dark underground passages, bombed-out buildings, and narrow rooftops. And although you can’t go everywhere you want as soon as you arrive in Jericho City — unless you think you can handle some of the game’s tougher foes right out of the box — you still have a lot of room to move while you get a handle on how the game plays. And once you level up and acquire some of the tools needed to access Jericho City’s more out-of-the-way locales, that sense of openness increases tenfold. I loved doubling back to see what I could find.
And, for the most part, The Surge 2 feels nice. Again, fans of the whole Soulsborne style of gameplay shouldn’t expect an adventure on the same technical level as those offered by From Software, but the developers have taken great care to tighten the overall experience for the sequel. Sure, The Surge controlled well enough, but sometimes it felt as though you didn’t have complete control over your character or their actions. With the sequel, the fights feel more kinetic and break-neck without leaving you struggling to maintain control. You still have a wide assortment of weapons to choose from, and after some experimentation, chances are that you’ll settle on one type of weapon and take it without you for the duration of your adventure. You can, however, mark certain weapons as favorites, which allows you to quickly cycle through them by pressing up on the directional pad. This came in extremely handy during one of the game’s early boss battles when I quickly realized my short-range weapon just couldn’t seal the deal. After switching to a longer weapon mid-fight, I emerged as the victor — and with more than a little cockiness to spare. Of course, the next boss fight brought me back down to earth.
Thankfully, The Surge 2 doesn’t muck around too much with the formula established in The Surge when it comes to creating your character. To build your hero’s suit of armor, you need to savagely hack off arms, legs, heads, and torsos belonging to other people in Jericho City. Using valuable tech scraps, which can also level up your character to boost his or her health, stamina, and battery power, you construct outrageous sets based on how you like to play. Want to create a suit that does massive amounts of damage but drastically slows you down? Feel free to slap that sucker together and hit the town. If, like me, you want a guy who’s quick, nimble, and capable of delivering a few blows and then getting the hell out of the way, you can pursue that strategic route as well. The Surge also allows you to play somewhere in the middle — all you need to do is find the right weapon and armor. After that, you’ll need to practice, because The Surge 2 will not hold your hand. It’s not as punishing as other games in this genre, but it doesn’t let you make too many errors without any repercussions.
While the combat feels nice, the setting allows the maze-like level design to feel a bit more organic, and the story never seems to take itself very seriously, The Surge 2 often struggles to make all of this work on a technical level. The framerate often suffers a bit, and if you decide you prefer quality over performance, the screen will tear whenever you spin the camera a little too fast. What’s more, the textures look a little milky, and sometimes the lighting looks garish and uneven, particularly when the HDR is active. Let’s put it this way: There’s never a point where I thought, “The Surge 2 is a fine-looking game, and I simply cannot take my eyes off it.” Because it’s not. The graphics look okay, and if you make the switch to the performance setting, the frame rate definitely becomes more serviceable, but the game never feels technically proficient. I know this has become a standard in many reviews, but there’s always the chance that the game will look better after the developers deploy a few much-needed patches. But the version I played for the purpose of this review always looked a little rough around the edges, though it rarely stopped me from enjoying the carnage. Adjust your expectations accordingly.
After an entire review that held up The Surge 2 on a modestly sized pedestal, the last paragraph probably seems a little cruel. Do I enjoy pulling the rug out from under a game that’s fun, challenging, and, according to our rating system, “good”? I don’t, really. But the fact that The Surge 2 feels, at times, a little incomplete never escaped my attention. In fact, during my playthrough, the game jumped from version 1.01 to 1.02, and I could notice a few quality-of-life changes that made things operate a bit smoother (the way you swap out implants, for example). And while it will never rise to the greatness of games such as Bloodborne, Dark Souls, even Nioh, The Surge 2 manages to occupy its own niche in the hardcore action-RPG genre thanks to its setting, its armor/weapon creation system, and the punchiness of its combat. The Surge 2 probably won’t convert too many newcomers to the fold, but it’s a noticeable improvement over the original in a number of noteworthy ways. And if Deck13 hammers out some of the technical issues post-launch, it could be a sleeper hit in this season of way too many video games.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A review copy was provided to us by Focus Home Interactive.
Despite some technical problems that ultimately sour the experience, The Surge 2 delivers a solid action-RPG adventure that's powered by its dystopian setting and unique combat system.