It’s January 2018, every site out there has written up their Games of the Year list (including GameSpew), and the usual suspects are all accounted for.
You’ve got the obvious choices like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Horizon Zero Dawn (my personal game of the year), and Assassin’s Creed: Origins. There have been early access games inexplicably getting nominated – *cough* PUBG *cough* – and then there have been some surprises like NieR: Automata and Doki Doki Literature Club. All games worthy of any best of the year list. However, you will be hard pressed to find one game on any major site’s list that truly overcame its origins, its also-ran dismissals and sheer uphill battle to go up against the most hyped games of 2017. That one game is Deck13’s The Surge, and it is easily the most criminally underrated and underplayed game of 2017.
Deck13 made some niche headway a few years back with its Dark Souls-inspired Lords of the Fallen, a game that shamelessly aped FromSoftware’s now signature series. By going the way of fantasy, Lords of the Fallen, while a solid enough game, didn’t stand a chance when people could just play the vastly superior Souls games. It’s because of this that many, including myself, didn’t have much faith in Deck13’s next game, The Surge. It looked promising enough: a Souls-like with a sci-fi setting and a unique spin on the usual tried and tested combat in which you can target individual limbs of enemies, severing them and using the weapons and gear from the fallen body parts. The Surge’s May release came and went and the game currently sits at a 73 on Metacritic for PlayStation 4. Hardly the type of score that will drive the masses to the store to buy it.
As 2017 wound down, I had a hole in my game time that I wanted to fill, so I gave The Surge a go. 50 hours later I can safely say that I absolutely loved the game, and that it sits nicely in my top five games of the year. Company kept with the aforementioned Horizon Zero Dawn and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, as well as Wolfenstein 2 and Ghost Recon: Wildlands. If you’re reading that list and thinking The Surge is the odd-game-out, you’re not wrong. It lacked the budget and marketing of any of them, but it still managed to stand out and impress me despite all of that.
Why? Because quite honestly, it’s a lot of fun. The setting lends itself well to the core gameplay systems which involve exosuits, four classes of weapons, implants, a handy drone, huge, expansive levels with shortcuts galore, and most importantly, the best combat in an action RPG that I’ve played since Bloodborne. In fact, I would say the best way to play the game is like Bloodborne: getting in a quick succession of hits, dodging powerful enemy attacks and quickly healing. Anyone who enjoyed Bloodborne will find a lot to enjoy here, and I would be lying if I didn’t say that in some areas, The Surge actually improves on the Souls formula in a few key areas.
First is the combat. It uses much of the same controls as the Souls games, making it instantly familiar to any fan of the series, but it’s also incredibly polished in this regard. Using the right stick to target one of the six body parts is intuitive and fast, and with enemies often switching up which body parts are armoured it gives repeat encounters even just a smidgen of variety which feels fresh. Tying this mechanic not only into how you gain weapons and armour but also how you strategically approach combat makes every fight worthwhile well into the later parts of the game. Coupled with the fact that the game can be downright punishing should you make even the tiniest of mistakes, it scratches that Souls itch in all the best ways.
Next there is the implant slot system. Want more healing injections? As long as you’ve found the implant for it somewhere in The Surge’s labyrinthine levels you can stack all of them and have a seemingly endless supply. Want to use late game gear early? It’s a challenge early on, but you can absolutely do so by hacking off the tails of security bots that drop implants that boost your exoskeleton’s core power, allowing you to use better, more power consuming gear earlier in the game. Or you can go light and free up those slots for energy and stamina boosts which can also greatly impact the way you play. There is enough freedom here using the implant system to vary up your builds a decent amount. And your drone can essentially become a spellcaster provided you find the modules and have the energy – earned from successful melee attacks. It’s a really robust and well-designed system.
Another way in which The Surge improves upon the Souls formula is how it handles currency – in this case, scrap. By killing enemies you acquire scrap which, like souls, can be used to level up your character as well as craft and upgrade armour and weapons. Where The Surge takes a turn is that you can store your unused scrap at the Medstation, which serves as the bonfire/lamp. This may seem like “easy Souls” but it isn’t, because unlike the Souls games – especially Dark Souls 3 where lamps and bonfires are actually pretty plentiful – there is only one Medstation per area, so the further away you get, the further it is to run back – unless you find an always welcome shortcut, that is.
Should you die while carrying any scraps, they’ll be left at your place of death and you’re given just two and half minutes to retrieve them. Fail to collect them before the timer runs out and they’re gone forever. Adding to the incredibly satisfying risk/reward system is that you can add time by killing enemies or press your luck and simply run as fast as you can to where you died. Good luck with that though, as enemies will sometimes chase you pretty far, and unless you’ve got your bearings it’s easy to forget exactly where you died. Sure, this isn’t a game changer, but I found it to be a nice addition to the existing core mechanics of the genre.
If you like the Souls games, you really should pick up The Surge. What it does so well is so underappreciated by even the relatively niche Souls crowd. I could gush for days about how consistently satisfying the combat is, how polished and and precise it is, how gratifying the level design is once you’ve sorted it all out, and the rush of getting out of each and every hairy situation alive with your scrap intact. The Surge surprised me at nearly every turn, and I can only hope that Deck13 keep going with this. If not this series then at least this genre, because I feel like it has created something that not only has reverence for the games that inspired The Surge, but also stands as a worthy companion piece.