The reason I’m a bit late with a final verdict on The Surge 2 is the same reason it’s looking to be a mostly positive one: this shinier, sleeker sequel to Deck 13’s Sci-Fi Soulslike is tough as an old boot you fished out of the lake and decided to try beer-battering and eating anyway – in the best way possible.
While it never quite manages to build outside the blueprint of Fromsoftware’s masocore classics, it fuses on enough new ideas and iterates on enough old ones to make it a worthwhile upgrade for anyone who enjoys using twin buzzsaws to saw the limbs off brutally difficult enemies. So, most of us then.
After creating a character from five or so presets, you’ll wake up on an operating table in the middle of a prison break, armed with – what else – a pair of defibrillators you can use to batter folk with. An impossibly strong start already. The prison acts as both tutorial and introduction, and once you’re out, you’ll enter the game’s semi-open world, laden with all the shortcuts and metroidvania-style progression you’d expect.
Reminiscent of a rundown, US analogue for Akira’s Neo Tokyo, Jericho City is brimming with mechs, cults, gangs, neon signage, and decaying remnants of a once-thriving metropolis. Although the city never feels as coherent or evokes the sense of place of something like Bloodborne’s Yharnam, there’s some seriously impressive, maze-like design that can sometimes lead to a shortcut you unlock hours into the game taking you all the way back to the first medbay.
Medbays, by the way, are the Surge 2’s equivalent of Dark Souls’ bonfires. Pods you can enter to spend the tech scrap you gain from enemies on upgrades, level-ups, and new equipment, and that act as checkpoints you’ll restart from after you die.
Medbays, like so many of the Surge 2’s mechanics, are the sort of thing I’m not sure how I’d view if I wasn’t already such a huge fan of the Soulsborne games. Take tech scrap, for example. You’ll still lose your accumulated scrap if you die, but you’re also given a time limit to return to the spot of your death to retrieve it. To balance this out, your lost pile of scrap gradually heals you when you’re in its vicinity, and restores your health fully when you pick it up.
I’m so used to the way souls work in From Software titles that the way Surge 2 handles its equivalent can’t help feeling like a response to those games, continuing a conversation about mechanics and design. Again, as a Souls’ fan, it’s enjoyable to think about, and it certainly brings its own gameplay quirks, but it does means that, even while I’m playing the Surge 2, I’m still thinking about Dark Souls. I’ll leave it up to you whether you consider that a good thing or not.
One thing that is almost undeniably cooler than the Souls’ series is how you acquire new equipment and weapons. During combat, you can use an (occasionally finicky) lock-on system to target individual body parts. You whittle down the health of the individual arm or leg or face, building up energy in a battery meter, and when you’ve got the health low enough, you can spend a battery to perform a brutal finisher which invariably ends in a torrent of well-earned gore. Chop off a leg, get a schematic for the leg armour. Chop off a weapon arm, get a new weapon, and so on. It’s a novel approach to collecting new toys that plays well into the kinetic brutality of the combat.
Sitting somewhere between the methodical, dangerous weaving and striking of classic Dark Souls and a more fluid, aggressive iteration that rewards confident, creative play, The Surge 2’s combat is undoubtedly the star of the show. Managing stamina with light, heavy, and charge attacks form the foundations, but timed directional blocks and parries, evades and combo timing elevate the basic formula to something that allows for creativity and rewards skillful risk-taking, rather than dictating a ‘correct’ approach.
If the fundamentals provide a solid framework, it’s the animation that really sells the fantasy. Sci-Fi equivalents of swords, double daggers, spears, hammers, and axes all make an appearance, and each has its own set of moves that make a huge impact on the rhythms of combat. While the visual spectacle never interferes with the readability so vital to these kind of high-consequence fights, a few taps of a button has your character performing twirls, backflips, and other brutally satisfying martial-arts inspired moves. It all adds up to make you feel a lot cooler than you actually are…right until it stomps you into the ground for missing a dodge, anyway.
As you level up and find different equipment, you’ll also collect equipable bonuses called ‘implants’, which you can mix and match to augment your playstyle, such as various buffs and stat boosters. Like the games that inspired it, the focus seems far more on personal skill than grinding, but the RPG elements feel fleshed-out enough to allow for some interesting build-variety.
Needless to say, I’m already sold on the Surge 2’s combat, with a final verdict hinging on how the increasingly intriguing narrative unfolds, and how much more enemy and boss variety I encounter. Jericho City is filled with side quests and odd characters, some more interesting than others, but I’m yet to see how it all comes together to provide the Surge 2 with the same character some of its more interesting visuals and story mysteries hint at. Stay tuned for a full score.