Paying homage to the slice-and-dice gameplay and ominous ambience of the Souls series, Deck13 Interactive’s The Surge offers much more than initially meets the eye. With an obscure story, impressive graphics, decent audio, and fast-paced combat mechanics that take a bit of adjustment, The Surge cuts its way into players’ hearts with surgical precision.
From the first moment players dive into the futuristic dystopia, an overwhelming atmosphere is evoked. The peppy voice of a CREO representative rings hollow. CREO, the corporation behind the advanced mechanical devices hardwired into humans, is the company responsible for the game’s setting. The representative’s two-faced persona is easily perceptible, more a mark of clever voice acting and plot structure than unpracticed delivery. The player-character, Warren, begins his journey in a wheelchair, and players must wheel him to one of two rooms in a mechanical factory. In each of these rooms lies one type of cybernetic operating system, and players must choose which one they wish to have embedded into Warren. A basic explanation of this choice is the player deciding between a lighter, faster character build or a slower, stronger one.
Once the choice is made, a cutscene occurs. In this scene, players witness Warren’s mechanical parts being installed on his body with a brutal show of drills and prods digging into and lacerating flesh. The moment is one likely to cause players to wince as blood sprays in fine mists and leaks out of skin riddled with holes—holes that are plugged with mechanical parts while a “core” is drilled into the back of the Warren’s skull. From there, the story unfolds in a truly obscure fashion. Throughout much of the narrative, players are unaware what has caused the machines and other cybernetically-enhanced humans to rise up and seize control of the colossal CREO facility. Due to this confusion, navigating the different environments can feel aimless. This disorientation can be rather frustrating, especially after spending chunks of time running in enormous circles, trying to figure out where to go and what to do. The plot thickens as players traverse the oppressive environment. The frustration is further exacerbated by the dialogue offering no real answers as to what, exactly, is happening. Depending on a player’s level of patience, the obscure tale can either be an intriguing mystery waiting to be solved, or a disheartening effort to press forward through.
Intriguing story notwithstanding, the voice acting quality in The Surge is a roller coaster. Some characters express convincing personalities that reflect panic, curiosity, or a mixture of several different emotions. Conversely, other characters, including the protagonist, are less believable. Warren does not seem panicked enough, especially given he is thrust into this robotic nightmare just after being granted the ability to walk again through his cybernetics. Warren does, however, seem plenty confused, which is understandable given the lack of answers regarding the chaotic events at the facility. Deck13 should have taken more time to polish the game’s dialogue and ensure each character (or at least the important ones) is as crisp and valid as the marred environment.
However, the obscure, somewhat baffling story says nothing of the graphics quality. Deck13’s clever decision to replace waypoints with small signposts on walls, which can easily be overlooked, result in the requirement of a sense of self-reliance to navigate the game world. When combined with the convincing motif of blood-spattering, severed body parts, and battle-torn environments, these signposts serve as the tiniest beacons of hope in an otherwise bleak and discouraging world. Moreover, everything from air streaks resulting from swinging weapons to the sparks that spring out of damaged machinery, including the cybernetics carved into humans, serves to reinforce the powerful invigoration that results from moving through the CREO facility. The amount of detail put into each environment is applaudable. Every room, hallway, catwalk, ventilation shaft, and outdoor area offers a consistent, yet unique, depiction of something having gone horribly wrong. Battered walls, broken machinery, and piles of scrap and trash all blend together to fabricate a troublesome yet riveting experience.
Given the game has superior graphics, Deck13 not providing appearance customization for Warren is odd. When playing The Surge, gamers are stuck with a character whose looks are predetermined. Most RPGs give players at least a few customization options for their characters, including gender, hair and eye colors, and even height or weight. The Surge contains no such feature, and not having that option can perturb those players who are used to their character(s) reflecting the gamers’ vision. Such an oversight can also break players’ immersion as well, if said players cannot picture themselves as the character.
Unfortunately, while the graphics are impressive, the audio is simply decent. The Surge’s sounds become white noise after a few hours of gameplay, despite being appropriate for a mechanical, violent setting. Players will find themselves paying more attention to the audio when dialogue comes around, but possibly turning down the volume when the clunking footsteps, clanging weapons, whining swivels, and repetitive in-game announcements recommence. In other words, the audio is dependable and fitting, but repetitious. Although the audio is standard, the sounds do not detract much from the overall experience.
The greatest part of playing through The Surge is the combat. Fluid, tactical, and challenging, combat in the game will test players’ patience and strategic maneuvering, for taking down the varied enemies requires different approaches. Some enemies can be easily lacerated and cut apart, while others need to be dodged and blocked and worn down with guerrilla tactics to achieve victory. Targeting specific body parts for a chance to use a finishing move to cut off and acquire the weapon or armor attached is also crucial to both survival and progress in The Surge. Continually defeating enemies and gathering “tech scrap” and other resources allows the player to craft new equipment or upgrade existing items. Both approaches are acceptable means to outfitting Warren with stronger weapons and armor. Upgrading “core” power and using implants are also pivotal to tackling stronger enemies, for the former allows players to use higher quality equipment and utilize more implants, and the latter provides bonuses to health, stamina, and energy. A higher core power will also permit players to access certain doors, which lead to new pathways or resources. While engaged in combat, players must be aware of their stamina, as every action—sprinting, attacking, dodging, and blocking—depletes the stamina meter. Naturally, once the stamina meter is depleted, players must wait until the meter replenishes before they can perform more actions.
All the above gameplay elements make combat and exploration exciting and adaptive. The reliance on stamina, in particular, is a gratifying reprieve from the typical unlimited wells of vitality that accompany action games. Even basic attacks require stamina, something missing from the most popular RPGs, such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The different types of weapon styles also provide more depth and personalization for players when deciding what kind of fighting style they wish Warren to have. In a nutshell, the smaller the weapon, the faster that weapon can be swung but the less attack power the weapon has. Bigger weapons are slower, but hit harder. In either case, The Surge’s combat flows well and is difficult enough to be challenging, rewarding, and satisfying.
Deck13 Interactive does a splendid job taking a dystopian world and spinning that world into something that pumps adrenaline through players. Despite average audio, missing character customization, and fluctuating voice-acting quality, The Surge is a riveting experience that is both mentally stimulating and action-packed. Players who enjoy relying on their observation skills and thrive on tactical third-person combat will find playing through the game worth their time. Indeed, The Surge is truly akin to the ominous, fast-paced atmosphere of the Souls series. If Deck13 Interactive can keep up the quality and strengthen the few weaknesses present in The Surge, the independent German video game developer might find itself on a more level playing field with leading companies such as Bethesda Games Studios, Ubisoft Montreal, Square Enix, and many others.