For the last month, I’ve been livestreaming my playthrough of The Surge on Kotaku’s Twitch channel, defeating one boss a week. Last night, I completed the game. While it was exciting at first, I can now officially confirm that The Surge is not very good.
The Surge seemed like a natural fit for a weekly stream. An action-RPG much like Dark Souls, it’s full of complex levels, intense boss fights, and limb chopping. Grinding and slicing my way through the game was fun at first, but there are a few big problems that get in the way of fully enjoying it.
Rooted in an industrial setting, The Surge’s levels are both forgettable in their visual design and frustrating in their actual construction. While the game does occasionally get clever by integrating helpful shortcuts that make travel easier and stress the world as an interconnected space, the levels are far too constricted to work with The Surge’s combat. This is a game about dodging and weaving around enemies to attack specific limbs and weak points, but the levels largely consist of tight corridors that limit player mobility and funnel enemies. The result is that combat is often claustrophobic and chaotic when it works best in open arenas
Additionally, the game is poor as conveying where the player is meant to go. One of the strengths of Dark Souls and Nioh is that they slowly guide the player towards major locations, growing player’s knowledge and encouraging them to remember important spaces. The Surge stresses verticality through levels that stretch upwards. Counterintuitively, the way to progress is very often not to ascend but to fall down random holes or lower pathways to flip random switches that unlock doors elsewhere in the level.
When I reach the end of a level in a Souls-like, I hope to be challenged by a boss that integrates the themes of the level while adding unexpected challenges. I breezed through the first three areas. While the last two bosses were more difficult, it was mostly due to the game’s temperamental camera. What might have been stunning and a true test of the game’s strong core combat mechanics mostly comes down to nondescript fights against large robots. If you’ve hit one giant mech, you’ve hit them all.
The final stretch of the game finally changes things up with a strong human enemy and a nanotechnological monster, but these boiled down to a very particular kind of pattern recognition that didn’t feel rewarding. Monster Hunter fights make me feel like I am learning the behaviors of great beasts, and Nioh’s boss fight duels gave the illusion of learning to read an opponent. The Surge’s fights mostly feel like finding the best way to exploit the AI due to their predictability. It made each encounter anti-climatic.
While the game’s bosses pose little threat, the regular enemies located around the world are challenging. The Surge boasts a collection of robots and power-armored humans that provide tense combat in small doses. Early levels strike a good balance and allow players to experiment with different weapons and abilities, but the last third of the game features one of the most dramatic difficulty spikes I’ve ever encountered in a game. Not only does enemy durability ramp up, with many armored opponents who have no proper weakness to exploit, but the sheer amount of enemies skyrockets.
Here’s a scenario: There is a door at the end of a hallway. To get there from your safe room, you must go up a ladder into a tight corridor with two guards before fighting an incredibly fast robotic dog and defeating two drones and four more heavily armored guards before reaching the actual hallway. Here, you will fight three drones and two shielded guards before having to fight another frighteningly fast robo-dog and a slightly less durable version of the last level’s boss. Three to four hits will kill you; if you die, you start over from saferoom. It’s cruel encounter design that mostly feels mean-spirited instead of clever.
At its core, The Surge longs to be a critique of corporatism and Silicon Valley culture. All of the enemies in the game are either production robots that threaten to replace human labor or security guards who fight to protect greedy executives and amoral scientists. The protagonist, Warren, is a working class Joe mixed up in grander plots, but even he engages in exploitative consumption by chopping off enemy limbs to take their weapons and industrial armor rigs. In theory this should all mesh together into a game that condemns wanton consumption of labor and the exploitation of workers, but The Surge never quite commits. Instead, its final act focuses on rogue nanotech. It’s a missed opportunity to turn the game into an effective and biting satire.
I want to like The Surge. The combat is fast and exciting, full of bloody death and wild weapons. The story shows hints of something bold, but the experience ultimately sours due to inconsistent difficulty and confusing world design. I loved streaming The Surge and had a blast spending time with our wonderful Kotaku viewers, but I can’t recommend that solo players square off against its robotic hordes.