Your first day on the job was probably a little less grisly than this. Dark Souls meets System Shock in The Surge, the new action-RPG from Germany-based developer Deck 13. Its prior title, Lords of the Fallen, drew inspiration from the Dark Souls games, and The Surge follows suit.
While the Souls games had you stabbing old men to sad music, The Surge sees you traversing twisted factories while battling homicidal machinery and zombified workers. Set in a dystopian future where Earth's resources are all but spent, players assume the role of hapless new employee Warren, as he finds himself in the middle of a catastrophe at Creo, a vague, philanthropic megacorporation with a total disregard for employee safety.
The story is pretty flat past the premise. Warren isn't a terribly charismatic fellow, nor are the any of the other survivors you encounter. Things start to get a bit more interesting around the middle of the game as you discover Creo's more twisted experiments, but nothing is ever really explained in great detail. A plot twist towards the end tries to mix things up, but will probably leave you wondering what just happened, rather than challenging your perceptions.
A brief introduction leaves you stranded in the scrapyards outside of the main factory, where the game begins proper. A short jaunt down the hill finds you at the first of the Medbays, which act as checkpoints and are equipped with crafting stations for you to assemble new gear. There's only one per zone, and they eventually grow into shortcut hubs as you explore further and further.
Risk versus reward is the name of the game, as the only way to collect upgrade materials and gear schematics is to saw your enemies apart. Individual body parts can be targeted by tilting the camera, and once sufficiently weakened, hacked-off with some hilariously brutal execution animations. Dismembered body parts and salvaged armor can be brought back to a Medbay and recycled into crafting materials, which can then be spent to craft new equipment, or to upgrade existing pieces. The limb system is surprisingly effective at keeping the combat fresh throughout, offering a tingle of twisted excitement when you spot a piece of gear you haven't collected yet.
Dressing sharply is rewarded, as each armour set comes with a unique and (mostly) powerful set bonus. The variety in armour offers plenty of build potential when paired with the right implants, and regularly upgrading your kit can keep even the early-game armour sets relevant throughout the course of the adventure. You'll have to get your hands dirty with farming to complete the high-end gear sets, as material costs spike around tier 3.
In terms of weaponry, Warren's arsenal consists primarily of repurposed power tools and manufacturing equipment, such as a man-sized wrench, an overcharged plasma cutter, and even the still-flaming throttle pried from an oversized drone. Not all weapons are created equal, however – lightweight options tend to dominate, as most enemies move too quickly for heavy-duty weapons to be of much use.
A lot of weapons suffer from needlessly flashy, twirly animations that are irritatingly impractical. This can make the intricacies of the combat system difficult to practice, as most enemies have little in the way of attack patterns other than lunging towards you, leaving you little time to wind up a swing. Later in, just about everything has some sort of gap-closing dash and will swerve to hit you as if they've been magnetised, with one hit often spelling death. Some enemies are obnoxiously buggy, as well. Creo's Security Guards are the worst offenders, with broken attack animations and spontaneous moonwalking, and they even occasionally teleport away and reset their health.
The situation isn't helped by the camera, which simply wasn't built to handle more than one enemy. Drawing the attention of a group will more often than not result in a short trip back to the Medbay. As a result, most areas fall into a loop of using your drone's ranged attack to pull an enemy to you, killing it, pulling another, and so on. This becomes especially bad after the first zone, as the game descends into a jumbled corridor-fest with enemies hidden behind just about every corner waiting to pounce.
The game's insufferable habit of hiding enemies around almost every bend turns exploration into a chore, as one misstep can cost you a large portion of your health bar. While this can be mitigated with some patience, it quickly becomes tedious and flow-breaking having to inch through every single room. Later sections devolve into a resoundly unfun stunlock-fest with powerful enemies jam-packed into cramped quarters, giving you little room to maneuver or react. This reaches a fever pitch in the final level, which is a nightmarish slog of tight corridors and instagibs.
The enemies come as a stark contrast to the boss fights, which are generally great fun. The boss encounters have you throwing down against the heavy-duty machinery at Creo, such as a towering security droid, an irate guard captain, and even a malevolent assembly line, along with a sufficiently insane final showdown at Creo's central launchpad to cap out the adventure. The fights themselves are paced much better than scraps with regular enemies, and have a progression of mechanics and phases that will keep you on your toes throughout the battle.
The Surge is an awkward experience. At its best, it's a decent action-RPG, which might be able to fill the void if Nioh and Dark Souls III's DLC left you hungry for more. But at its worst, it's a lightning round of "dodge the stunlock" as you struggle against spastic, buggy enemies. It feels frustrating for the wrong reasons, and doesn't play to its strengths – there's a good game hidden in here somewhere, but the combat balancing and level design will do everything in their power to hinder your enjoyment.