With its cyberpunkish sci-fi setting, Deck13’s The Surge (2017) was one of the first action games to take Dark Souls-like mechanics out of a traditional fantasy world. Although it stuck pretty closely to the Soulsborne playbook, The Surge added a number of wrinkles and refinements to combat and character progression. For better or worse, The Surge 2 doesn’t change much about the combat, but it opens up its environments with more variety and adds a bit more story and NPC interaction to the mix.
Like the first game, The Surge 2 eschews the swords, clubs and daggers of fantasy action games in favor of brutal, mechanical melee weapons based on wielding hunks of metal that function essentially the same way. Some slice and dice, some pound the enemy into goo and others shoot flame or electrical arcs, not unlike a fantasy weapon with some magical buff. Although The Surge 2 is a strictly single player game, there is a player-controlled drone that serves a number of companion-like functions, including ranged combat, identifying loot or planting decoys. Overall, The Surge 2 is a pretty standard fantasy action game dressed up in a sci-fi clothing. Call them passive buffs or rename them implants or call it tech scrap instead XP, the names might be changed but the function is the same. Kill, earn XP… er, scrap…level up, rinse and repeat. Like Dark Souls and its many cousins, death in The Surge 2 means a loss of loot and a risk/reward calculation around making a run to retrieve it. Here, there is an added complication of the decision being on a timer. She who hesitates, looses the scrap. Overall, like Bloodborne or Sekiro, The Surge 2 rewards an aggressive play style that isn’t overly cautious, and further the game’s hard-to-time blocking mechanics seem to be purposely designed to discourage hesitation.
Where The Surge and its sequel veer from the Dark Souls model is that body parts can be highlighted and weaknesses in defenses can be exploited that earns blueprints for specific armor pieces and weapons. Although this adds some interesting specificity to the combat — and in fact is usually the key to surviving a mini-boss or boss encounter — The Surge 2 still has some issues with imprecise and inconsistent hit boxes, dodging and blocking animations and most critically, frame rates that can make frustrating work out of encounter with multiple enemies. Though there no doubt will be patches and fixes coming soon, I encountered several startup crashes and wildly inconsistent frame rates. and despite a plethora of graphical options and potential adjustments, I found it difficult to find the sweet spot where everything ran smoothly while also looking acceptable. In fact, overall I found The Surge 2’s graphics to be less sharp than the original. The lighting in some of the darker areas isn’t mysterious, it’s a jumble of mismatched effects.
Some derided the original Surge for its somewhat unvaried industrial interior spaces that were dark, labyrinthine and disorienting. The Surge 2 takes place in Jericho City, a sprawling and largely destroyed future metropolis choked with rubble, scaffolding and piles of abandoned vehicles. Filled with Dark Souls-like shortcuts that help the player avoid repetitive combat, the environments are more varied and suffused with light, and thanks to gravity lifts, much more vertical as well. While there is no mini-map, there are city maps posted here and there in the levels and generally, enough distinctive landmarks that it’s hard to get too lost. Some of the interior spaces are less memorable, though.The Surge 2 adds a player messaging system similar to Souls’ chalk messages, although using symbols instead of text, they are less clever or interesting. However, they do bring at least a little glimmer of shared humanity to the game.
The Surge 2 begins with the single most overused trope in the game storytelling — the prisoner character with amnesia tasked with escaping said facility — and although it goes out of its way to populate its world with NPCs, the story and characters are way down on the list of positive attributes. While some of the NPCs act as vendors and mission givers, both the dialogue and voice acting are pretty perfunctory with only a handful of encounters rising above the forgettable, and nearly all of the dialogue choices have no impact on the gameplay. Not that its more than cosmetic, and more or less hidden under the piles of scrap metal that serve as armor, at least there is a proper character creator this time.
While enemies and environments are more varied than in the original, The Surge 2 still suffers from a tendency towards repetition. By design and adherence to the Souls playbook, areas need to be cleared of the same enemies in the exact same locations multiple times. The combat, finishing move/brutality animations, and rewards grow less interesting the more they are repeated, in particular in boss encounters that always walk the fine line between challenge and frustration. A game that demands as much grinding as The Surge 2 needs to find ways of making it less monotonous, and simply being able to target specific body parts isn’t enough. Co-op would help, especially with bosses and group encounters that are sometimes awkward to manage. A more dynamic world would also help. Since The Surge 2 is weapon-based and not really organized around traditional classes, there isn’t much motivation to replay it with a different character.
From its title screens to its combat mechanics, The Surge 2 copy/pastes a great deal from the two-year-old original and while it moves the franchise into a more open and populated world, I was hoping for a more dramatic evolutionary leap. Like its Soulsborne models and its predecessor, The Surge 2 is a challenging game, made more so by an inconsistent frame rate and sometimes imprecise combat controls. It’s still a pleasantly familiar Souls-like experience but like The Surge, the sequel hasn’t quite discovered the alchemy that transmutes repetitive grinding into a satisfying feeling of mastery.