For a franchise that is misunderstood as being a niche product too difficult for many gamers, Dark Souls and its progeny spawned a great many copycat and "influenced by" products. We've seen games that aped Dark Souls' sword and sorcery setting (Lords of the Fallen), 2D platformers (Salt and Sanctuary), an Asian-themed Souls clone (Nioh) and now Deck13's The Surge, which is simultaneously the most aesthetically divergent Souls-like game and yet captures the feel of a Dark Souls experience better than just about any recent product.
The Surge is a post-apocalyptic, sci-fi action game that has been deliberately crafted in the Dark Souls mode. But what does that mean? If you take away the medieval fantasy setting and obtuse story and characters that typify a Souls game, what you're left with is structural mechanics and a unique style of combat that demands patience, precision, and practice. While its setting and structure ultimately prove repetitive and limited, The Surge nails the challenging melee combat that gamers love about Souls.
The Surge is set in a near future in which the forces of climate change and war have created a dystopian society under the rule of CREO, a Big Brother mega-corporation that is both the hope and demise of human civilization. You play as Warren, a low-level employee who wakes up after a catastrophic event then spends the entirety of The Surge making his way through the CREO factory complex, fighting drones, robots, and zombie-like human/machine hybrids. The cast is very small, really just a handful of named characters and a limited number of side-quest givers. Unlike the Souls games, there are no characters with epic or poignant or mysterious back stories. The Surge is dominated by machines.
While The Surge's setting helps distinguish itself from other Souls-influenced games, it is also responsible for the first of a couple significant flaws. Although there are some imposing set pieces and scenes inside the CREO complex, and each frame is filled with detail and effective lighting, ultimately the setting and enemy design grow repetitive. Indoor areas dominated by machinery and mechanical scrap are alternated with outdoor areas dominated by machinery and mechanical scrap. While the convoluted level design itself includes some very Dark Souls-like shortcuts and secrets, the visual langue of The Surge relies heavily on a limited number of repeated motifs. Additionally, the "fashion-Souls" aspect of From's games is almost entirely absent. There are essentially only two classes -- an agile fighter and a heavy fighter -- and no character creation tool. Even at the more advanced levels, Warren himself looks like a walking pile of scrap metal.
Every successful Souls-influenced game has added something to the formula, and The Surge accomplishes this by making character progression and combat more nuanced and specific (if visually limited) than that found in From's games. Enemy body-parts can be targeted and there is an interesting risk-reward mechanic folded in. Attack un-armored parts and the combat becomes a little easier; attack armored areas and combat becomes significantly more difficult but the reward is a specific piece of armor that can be used for crafting. While most enemies respawn, their vulnerable hit locations change with each reappearance.
The almost entirely melee-based combat in The Surge feels closer to a Souls game than even the more explicitly copycat Nioh, with every encounter being a life-or-death situation. While there are less than ten bosses, Deck13 has instead made every trash mob a challenge, easily capable of killing Warren in a few hits. There is no room for careless play. Warren's biomechanical EXO-suit can be outfitted with a number of implants (i.e. buffs and special abilities which are related to the overall character level) and his armor and weapons can be upgraded. In lieu of souls, Warren collects mechanical scrap and spare parts and instead of returning to a bonfire, his home base for each area is a medbay. Multiplayer coop and invasions -- two important elements for many Souls players -- are entirely absent in The Surge's single-player only experience.
The Surge's combat is excellent but its reliance on grinding through consistently difficult enemies and very slow progression creates the game's second major fault: pacing. The Souls games include a great many low-level enemies that can eventually be dispatched more-and-more easily as the character increases in power, but there is rarely this sense of relief in The Surge. Players are drawn to games like The Surge because they enjoy a challenge but even the most hardcore may find themselves a little frustrated by the slow progression and difficulty.
Although the visceral feel of its combat comes as close to Souls as any game, The Surge would really benefit from more variety in enemies, story, setting, and player character options -- as well as difficulty -- which eventually start to become repetitive. The decision to make every fight significant and potentially deadly certainly adds tension but there is rarely a sense of power or growing mastery, simply a more easily found relief at not dying. Thanks to its sci-fi setting and excellent combat, The Surge is overall a very solid, unique addition to the growing catalog of Souls-like games.