The Surge 2 Review – The Sci-fi Dark Souls

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Let me preface this review with an important message: I didn’t play The Surge. It has been sitting in my teetering tower of backlogged games for ages now and I just never found the time to get around to it. But when review code for The Surge 2 dropped into my inbox, I couldn’t say no to some challenging combat in a sci-fi environment. So this review won’t be talking about what The Surge 2 does better than The Surge 2. Instead, it’ll be about what The Surge 2 does right, and what it does wrong.

You’re the survivor of a mysterious plane crash, and find yourself locked in a cell in the city of Jericho which is currently having a nanite crisis, the tiny machines having meant to have helped clean up the environment but actually wound up killing a whole lot of people. The whole city has gone nuts it seems, as indicated by a stranger who advises you to head for the giant purple building shaped like an octopus. Seems legit. Anyway, the streets are being roamed by people all too willing to smack you in the face with large weapons, so that’s an issue, and at the same time you’re also trying to find out what happened to a mysterious girl who also survived the plane crash. So you strap on a metal exoskeleton and head out to figure out what the hell is going on.

Available On: Xbox One, PC, PS4
Reviewed On: Xbox One X
Developer: Deck13
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive

Review code provided for free by the publisher.

If like me you didn’t happen to play the first game then rest assured: you don’t need to know what happened in The Surge to enjoy The Surge 2’s story. While they are certainly related you don’t need to be familiar with the events of the first game to understand the plot. With that said, the narrative that The Surge 2 offers failed to capture my interest, mostly due to the lack of compelling characters, including your own. That isn’t to say there aren’t brief moments to latch on to, such as the time you come across a seemingly kind lady, do a quest for her and then discover that she’s actually been chopping up people to use as food. Those flashes of interesting stories were never enough to keep me hooked, though.

What does keep you playing is the combat and the continuous feeling of progression that stems from it. Before we get to that however, we need to tackle the city of Jericho. I can only assume that the people in charge of designing The Surge 2’s map also make elaborate mazes on the weekends in which to trap unsuspecting idiots because the world constantly cuts back on itself and is littered with shortcuts. The amount of times I was exploring, opened a gate and was like, “Okay, shit, I’m right back where I was a minute ago,” was bonkers. The streets, alleys and rooftops twist together in wonderful ways, so it’s very easy to get lost or spend ages just trying to figure out where the hell you’re meant to be going. A character might mention meeting you at the canal but without a map that could mean you spend the next hour growing increasingly annoyed at how labyrinthine the map is. What I’m saying is that if you like a strong sense of direction and a clear objective The Surge 2 might not be for you.

But it is worth all the work of exploring. Like Dark Souls dying means losing your hard earned currency, which is called scrap in The Surge 2. You have a few minutes to go back and retrieve your lost scrap, so shortcuts can be handy. Plus, you can only spend scrap at med-bays to upgrade gears and level up, thus finding new ways back to those bays saves a lot of annoying backtracking.

There’s a metroidvania element mixed into The Surge 2’s world with a couple of items you pick up being capable of opening up new areas and routes. The lifted hook is a prime example, letting you ride the lengthy cables you see scattered around the world. It gives you a strong reason to pick your way back through the map and see what new stuff can be uncovered.

Another reason to take your time and try to check out every little nook and cranny are the side-quests. While some of them are cut and paste filler barely worth the effort of completing there also quite a few great ones that reward you with good loot and snippets of story.

I do wish the world of The Surge 2 was more visually interesting, though. The streets of Jericho city are drab and dull, which is fitting given the tone the game is going for but it means that everywhere sort of looks the same. There’s little detail in the alleyways, streets and rooftops of the city, washed out colors wherever you look and an overall feeling that you’re wandering around the set of a cheap TV show. It makes the mid-game trip to a woodland park area really stand out, the greens and browns being such a welcome break from the constant grey. That one area is memorable, not because it’s actually visually interesting but because when compared to everything else it stands out.

The Surge 2 is basically the kind of the game where a regular foe that you come across constantly presents a genuine threat. I have to admit that I found myself getting my arse handed to me multiple times by simple enemies in the opening hours, and even once I had gotten better a smackdown was never far off.

Instead of light and heavy attacks there are vertical and horizontal strikes which you can turn into combos. There’s a strong sense of weight to the combat, especially if you opt to use some of the heavier weapons. Your character will swing them with the same sense of momentum as a charging elephant – it might not look fast, but there’s no stopping it. Using these you mostly chip away at enemies, analysing their attacks in order to pick a moment where you can get a few hits in before scuttling backwards. Based on what the enemy is wearing and wielding you can get a good sense of what they can do before the first attack is ever swung.

The way you block incoming attacks revolves around holding down the block button and then using the right stick to match the direction of whatever form of death is currently hurtling toward your face. It’s tricky to get the timing of this right, but important to master. You can also just skirt around enemies too, or using the dodge button, although that does consume the all-important stamina. Learning to manage that stamina is vital or else you’ll run in for an attack and find yourself standing there like a chump.

Another thing you need to consider are your batteries. By attacking enemies you can harvest energy to fill up your batteries, and these can then be spent to do things like heal or perform the special finishing moves. As you probably already guessed the key phrase is “attacking enemies.” You have to be aggressive in order to heal up or activate other abilities, which I like. It stops me from just hiding in a corner while crying gently to myself.

The smartest part of the combat isn’t how much it loves to wreck you emotionally, though. Nope, the best part is the targeting system where you can decide which limb you want to aim for. This obviously lets you pick out vulnerable areas, but it also lets you target armored spots. Wear those down enough and you can use up a battery charge to slice and dice the hapless victim in a brutally awesome animation. Doing this gives you crafting materials related to the weapon or piece of armor you cut off. It’s a brilliant system that asks you whether you want to target the weakness or chase the better rewards. Every enemy becomes a walking Argos catalogue with me straining my eyes to check if they might be wearing any gear I want or if they could be sliced and diced for handy parts.

You also get a handy little drone that you can launch into the air and then use to shoot enemies that are annoying you. Oddly the foes that you have to fight often wield proper guns but the best you can do is a drone.

Just like the Dark Souls games from which The Surge 2 clearly draws a lot of inspiration the combat feels brutal, fair and rewarding. Since every enemy presents a genuine threat there’s a strong sense of tension throughout the game, each new encounter potentially resulting in your death. Of course, the downside is that The Surge 2 can be a frustrating game during the first few hours where death comes swiftly. Sometimes it’ll just be because you were squaring up against an opponent and failed to notice the other guy lurking behind the door, waiting for you to come confidently striding through. Yes, like Dark Souls this is a game that revels in having enemies hiding in silly places. Presumably they just sit there all day waiting for people to pass by. But ultimately The Surge 2’s combat absolutely nails it.

But the joy that the combat brings doesn’t carry through to the game’s boss fights. The first one is actually quite fun, a giant robot with several arms that can also spit out acid and poop electric mines. It’s fun and its challenging and then it all goes downhill. Bosses have a couple of attacks that you memorize, you’ll face off against the same recycled boss and overall they are a chore to fight.

Gear plays such a pivotal role in the whole game, with new sets of armor and weapons getting dropped at an enjoyable rate. Chunky suits of metal might be appealing but they’ll slow down attack speeds and increase the rate at which you chew through stamina. Go for the lighter gear though, and a mistake can be costly. All the various weapons and gear feel suitably different, enough that every time I came across something new I’d be excited to try it out. Plus, some things are better suited toward certain bad guys, so the fact that you can quickly cycle weapons using the D-pad is awesome.

You can’t always just slap on the very best stuff you have though, because you’re limited by your suit’s power capacity. To increase that you need to gather up scrap and rather than spending it on crafting new gear you have to use it to level up to increase your power total and giving you points to spend on three stats: health, stamina and battery efficiency.

If you should happen to be brutally murdered at some point all the scrap you’re carrying is dropped, but on respawning you’ll be given a couple of minutes to return to the scene of your demise and recoup what you lost. As an added bonus your dropped pile off scrap will offer up a small amount of health regeneration when you’re near it, and a complete heal upon picking it up. That can be a rather handy boost in a tricky fight or when facing off against a boss. The idea of losing your currency on death is a tried and true mechanic at this point, popularized by the Dark Souls games and just as effective as it ever was. Making a mad dash to retrieve your hard-earned scrap is a lot of fun, and the sinking feeling that hits when you die again and know that you lost it all is fantastic. So many games these days portray death or failure as nothing more than a loading screen, but systems like the one in The Surge 2 makes it more impactful than that.

There’s a light social element running through The Surge 2 because players can use their drones to leave graffiti on the walls. These little messages are nothing more than a few icons in a line, but it’s still kind of neat to walk around and see messages from other people indicating where extra scrap can be found or warning you of a boss fight.

Since I didn’t play the first The Surge I can’t compare them and can’t tell you if this is a big improvement. What I can say is that you can easily pick up The Surge 2 without having played the first game and enjoy it without being lost. And I can also tell you that if you’re looking for a Dark Souls fix but with a sci-fi twist then this is a solid game. The combat is the star, demanding genuine skill, precise timing and patience, but the way the world is designed to that it twists and turns in on itself shouldn’t be overlooked, either. I just wish it had managed to tell a stronger story and present a more visually engaging world.

3 out of 5

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