It’s rare that a genre hits such a high note on its first time out like the Souls-like genre. FromSoftware’s own games have yet to be matched or topped by any studio that isn’t Team Ninja. But that doesn’t stop teams from trying. German developer Deck13 is one of those teams, churning out three Souls-like games in since 2014. THE SURGE 2 is its newest effort and despite the presence of beloved, familiar systems, it’s a formulaic, jumbled mess of an RPG that sits at the bottom of the junk pile because of its inability to meaningfully apply the genre staples it has shamelessly borrowed.
Familiarity breeds a facade that can lull players into a false expectation of quality because, at a glance, most of the signature aspects of Dark Souls are here: high difficulty, a stamina meter, deliberate melee combat, “Souls” that upgrade your character and drop upon death, and more. But The Surge 2 fundamentally lacks the nuance that silently glues all of those important elements together and that neglect manifests in different and damning ways.
The Surge 2 Review | Building a better you… with severed limbs
Animation-heavy combat is arguably the biggest offender since it is the action you’ll be doing the most, even if it does have some positive qualities. Methodically swiping at cybernetic monstrosities is functional and sometimes cathartic as you duck and dodge between fatal slashes and land a critical blow. The game’s targeted dismemberment mechanic also gives combat meaning as aiming at certain limbs fuels the game’s upgrade system. Armored appendages yield vital materials for upgrades but are more resilient while unarmored body parts are weaker yet yield no parts when cut off.
There are always choices to make and it’s a simple but effective way to get players to go into fights with certain objectives depending on what parts they need to get better loot. Your active participation drives the gear system rather than the RNG gods, which is as novel as it is refreshing.
The Surge 2 Review | Death by a thousand slices
But there are enough issues, both small and large, that combine and drag down the combat as a whole. For example, there are far too extremely sluggish heavy weapons and not enough faster ones. This would create a frustrating dichotomy of weapons but spears upend the issue because of their unmatched balance of agility and strength. No other class can compete since spears have strength, range, and agility on their side, turning a giant pool of cool but frustratingly slow weapons into a small puddle of ones that are actually useful.
Regardless of the weapon, enemies can also shrug off some of your more powerful attacks, unfairly bending the rules in their favor; a luxury you rarely get in return. They’ll even bend other rules too, given how prone they are to warping and sliding across the arena to strike you if you’re out of range. Bosses abuse these exploits too and while a small pinch of bullshit makes sense for bosses to be formidable foes, these climactic fights also test the limits of the camera in a way normal grunts don’t. As is the case with many of its genre siblings, the lock-on camera is not built toward huge boss fights and freaks out as big enemies zip around fly around the screen, hitting you with cheap shots as you acclimate to your sporadic and rapidly changing viewpoint.
Bosses and grunts alike also begin to pile on the annoying status effects later in the game, like its Frenzy-like equivalent and paralyzing electric attacks that basically guarantee that you’ll take a bludgeon or two. While still a pain to deal with, these sorts of ailments can keep you on your toes, but this game goes too far by coating the environment in these hazards while also infusing almost every enemy attack with them, which turns the game’s difficulty dial into unfair territory. All of these don’t appear to be game-breaking and might be in other types of games, but when a title prides itself on difficulty, these frustrating shortcomings magnify how inept it is in the genre it is clumsily trying to force its way into.
The Surge 2 Review | Encountering fatal errors
Almost all of these issues are dwarfed and made worse by the game’s directional counter system. In a way that’s somewhat similar to For Honor, incoming attacks are telegraphed by a directional marker on the screen. Blocking and moving the right analog stick in the correct direction at the right time can deflect your opponent’s attack and leave them vulnerable. Conceptually, it opens up the combat and allows for more strategic play that rewards good timing. And sometimes, it does.
But it doesn’t most of the time because of its inconsistent notifier. The telltale flash of an incoming attack will sometimes appear just before a slash or a handful of seconds ahead of the actual blow. This timing discrepancy is incredibly confusing in the heat of battle as it can often cause you to eat some damage after whiffing a vital counter. Having to memorize what attacks hit right when the notification pops up and what ones hit well after adds an infuriating level of tedium to a game that’s already full of it. Turning off the notifications doesn’t help either because the animations are still hard to read, especially in a pinch. As the Batman Arkham games made clear, a consistent, easy-to-read counter icon is paramount to a good combat system.
Part of that confusion lies within the game’s horrendous, murky visuals that can make it difficult to decipher how attacks are coming in. The Surge 2 is an ugly, ugly video game that can neither lean on a creative art style or technical chops to prove that it is indeed a game that was released in 2019. Its boring dystopia is washed out in boring colors and boring environments that have the texture quality of a budget PS3 or Xbox 360 game from 2009.
Some of those textures have trouble popping in, too, but some don’t; they’re just that low res. It was even difficult to find decent screen shots for this review because the game never looks good enough to warrant pressing the Share button. And many of the title’s official screen shots are downright misleading, almost rivaling the deception seen in Aliens: Colonial Marines’ pre-release images. Even The Surge and Lords of the Fallen, Deck13’s prior creations, look (and play, for that matter) far better than this game even though they came out years earlier.
The Surge 2 Review | An ugly world with no soul
The Surge 2’s visual quality, or lack thereof, make its mediocre performance even more puzzling. While the frame rate is relatively solid, long load times separate zones and the game’s susceptibility to crashing frequently take you out of the world. And that’s what the genre, at its best, should be avoiding at all costs. Souls games thrive on their alluring worlds that keep players in at almost all times and encourage exploration. Polish, be it visual or technical, is vital in establishing that connection and The Surge 2 is rough enough around the edges to repeatedly remind you that you’re playing a video game — a flawed, disappointing video game with little desire to push it beyond its derivative core.
Its world also doesn’t overcome its many problems to draw you in. There’s no sense of wonder lurking in its walls or interesting worldbuilding tidbits that push you around the next corner and the few glimmers of hopeful threads are dashed away via clunky voice acting and embarrassingly forced audio logs. Its story also fails on all fronts as it is confusing from the outset and utterly fails to gain any sort of traction after its literal and metaphorical plane crash of an intro. The mysterious little girl that the whole plot revolves also around isn’t compelling enough to act like the hook the game desperately wants her to be. And all of this isn’t helped by the aforementioned lousy side characters and voiceless husk of a protagonist.
An unfortunately hollow universe is troublesome but ultimately a low-priority concern in the grand scheme of The Surge 2’s more pressing matters. Its multiple failings are almost bewildering because of how closely it copies much of its identity from its spiritual predecessors. But those similarities to much better games just point out how little imagination The Surge 2 has and how inadequately it has attempted to implement those popular mechanics. Like its protagonist, The Surge 2 is built from disparate parts from other things, but unlike its protagonist, the game ends up being a boorish abomination that can’t properly combine the various elements that it has directly lifted from other sources. It’s not only one of the worst Souls-likes; it’s also an awful game above all else that should be sent straight to the scrap heap.
GameRevolution reviewed The Surge 2 on PS4 with a copy provided by the publisher.