The Surge 2 Review
A solid Souls-like sequel with a sweet new setting
The launch of the first Surge marked the moment that people began realizing that games similar to From Software's Soulsborne universe were beginning to proliferate. Not only was it Deck13's second attempt at appeasing this audience after Lords of the Fallen, but The Surge was also released a mere few months after Nioh - another hack and slash with heavy Souls inspirations.
Those who realized that the copycats were becoming commonplace also began wondering whether or not they were here to stay -- a speculation that has now been affirmed thanks to The Surge 2's existence. Games like these will undoubtedly continue to be made, but The Surge 2 is a solid albeit safe sequel that shows how such a proliferation isn't necessarily a bad thing. The small improvements and welcome new setting give this sequel solid grounds to exist even though some of the original's frustrations remain.
The Surge 2's story tries its hardest to set up an intriguing mystery that you'll uncover in bits and pieces over the course of your journey through the city of Jericho, but it doesn't do a great job of it. You play as your own custom character who, after surviving a plane crash, has awoken from a coma to find him/herself in a cyberpunk city that's now in disarray. Hostile scavengers roam the streets and warring factions establish their footholds in various buildings spread across the city. It's an awesome setting, but the plot that takes place within it doesn't leverage the world's strengths.
The story has a mysterious enough setup and it eventually reaches an intriguing destination, but the main plot you have to watch play out along the way is far from interesting. It's established early on that you have some sort of telepathic link with a young girl, and most of the game's main plotline is spent seeing flashbacks of her escaping from dangerous situations and nothing else. These flashbacks are repetitive, uninteresting, and they don't allow the player to interact with them whatsoever. You're completely robbed of any agency as you're just left to stare at scenes that prove to be far from compelling.
The main plot isn't great, but some of the game's side stories are. There was clearly a lot of thought put into this setting and its world building, and some of the side quests you find yourself wrapped up in make far better use of all that effort. Most of the quests still boil down to fetchy chores, but there are a few that tap into The Surge's propensity for whacky dystopian antics. Putting the kibosh on a woman's sketchy meat selling business or relaying the fate of someone's untimely demise to a friend proves to be extraordinarily effective at fleshing out this world, its characters, and giving the player a tangible presence that the game's main plot completely lacks. It's just a shame they aren't the focus.
Regardless of whether you're adhering to the main plot or meandering off the beaten path to help out a denizen of Jericho, you're consistently inundated with opportunities to lop the limbs off of foes and steal their armor -- and that's a very good thing. To begin with, the combat is swift, satisfying, and fails to grow stale even after a twenty hour long playthrough. It utilizes the slow pacing and long wind up attack animations typical of the subgenre, but there are plenty of weapon types to play with, a variety of enemies, and frequent challenges that test your mettle. Aside from the fact that they copied the feel of the Dark Souls jump (which doesn't feel good at all), movements are snappy, responsive, and feedback is almost instantaneous.
The smart progression systems also serve to keep the hacking and slashing enticing and satisfying. You'll gradually accrue scrap as you dispatch enemies, and there are lots of things to spend that scrap on. You can buy unique equipment from shops, craft a new piece of armor, or level your character up which lets you increase your max health, stamina, or energy meter. The energy meter charges up as you hit foes, but it fills more quickly if you can find an opening to land a charged attack which incentivizes more risky play in a smart fashion. Increasing the bar's capacity allows you more stored usages of the ability you have equipped, and you'll start out with a healing skill which is perfect for the early game as it enhances your survivability.
The highlight of the game's progression is the equipment crafting and upgrading which cleverly coincides with the combat courtesy of a great targeting system that's carried over from the first game. It's the same as it was before -- target an armored limb, beat it up a bit, perform an execution to cut it off, and pick up the components to upgrade or craft your own -- it works well and feels like it handles just a bit better. It sounds far more complex and difficult than it is as the targeting system does a great job of instantly illustrating which limb you're targeting and how much health is left before you can initiate an execution, and limbs can be swapped between with a simple flick of the right stick. Unfortunately, that means switching between multiple targets is still stuck on R2 which handicaps your ability to switch targets on the fly -- especially if you're getting flanked by multiple people. It makes encounters with groups even more frustrating than they already are, but it's a sacrifice that benefits the essential targeting system that lets you decapitate someone to steal their helmet.
Not only does this limb-targeting system keep you constantly collecting components, but it also allows for a satisfying balance of risk and reward. Enemies will almost always have some limbs that are armored and some that aren't. While targeting an armored piece and chopping it off will net you some valuable materials, hitting an unarmored location will do more damage to the enemy's base health. So, if you're looking to play it safe and get an encounter over with, it behooves you to target something that isn't armored; but you then also lose out on the potential spoils that might drop if you chop off that flamethrower that's on their left arm. This is all the same as it was in the first game, but it works so well that it's just nice to have an excuse to interface with it again.
The Soulsborne-like enjoyment extends to the exploration which is also handled surprisingly well for the most part. You'll be running all around the cyberpunk dystopian city of Jericho which includes city streets, irradiated harbors, dilapidated structures, and sweeping scaffolds that all twist and fold into each other. Med bays serve as checkpoints that you use to heal up, bank scrap, and do your crafting. In a bit of a shakeup on the formula, these checkpoints are incredibly infrequent as you'll usually find and open up shortcuts back to them instead of finding new ones. This facilitates frequent feelings of euphoria and relief as you find and open a quick path back to your current location in the event of a death brought on by a series of sloppy mistakes in a fashion that's improved over Deck13's last outing.
Even though opening up a shortcut that illustrates the interconnected nature of a location is extremely satisfying, navigating The Surge 2's maze-like locales can frequently feel clumsy. Deck13 sought to implement more verticality and, while they succeeded in doing so, it can be incredibly easy to get lost while you're running around. Levels are haphazardly laid out on purpose to make them seem more like the ruins of a dystopian metropolis than the levels of a video game, but they aren't at all easy to navigate as a result. You're frequently required to jump across chasms, drop off bridges, and circle back to some unclear location after hitting a button. Getting lost can be a fun diversion in small enough doses, but it quickly becomes frustrating when you find yourself running circles in a feeble attempt to find where to go next for the umpteenth time.
The inventory system is another one of the game's weak spots. The menu for levelling up is laid out in a bizarre and user-unfriendly fashion; your equipment and weapons all just pile up in a single barely-sorted inventory grid that quickly becomes an overwhelming mess of colored squares, and the mods you can equip to give your character a buff to nearly any stat or action utilize the same disorienting system. The menus don't look good, navigating them feels stiff, and the item icons rarely stand out because they're usually surrounded by other icons that create a discombobulating cacophony of colors. There's the welcome addition of swapping between a set of predefined armor loadouts, but it doesn't do much for this overall mess of a system. A bad inventory system would usually just be a nitpick, but it's far less forgivable in a game that's so focused on crafting and inventory management.
The sequel's main menu lets you choose between two visual options on PS4 Pro -- resolution and performance -- but they both exhibit sacrifices that can be hard to accept. The Surge 2 isn't the best looking game by any stretch, but its already-muddled textures and shoddy assets look even worse when you're playing in performance mode. Textures will often refuse to load-in unless you sit still for a handful of seconds, and screen tearing is a far too frequent occurrence. On the plus side, performance mode does get you much smoother 60 fps targeted gameplay. It doesn't always hit that mark, but it does most of the time and feels great. If you're willing to give up the responsiveness and smoothness of the higher framerate, resolution mode sharpens things up a bit, but it only does so much for the texture pop-in and comes at the hefty price of sacrificed responsiveness in a game that rewards tight timing. Performance mode appears to be the lesser of two evils, but it's unfortunate that neither option feels wholly sufficient.
The Surge 2 is largely an excuse to revisit the first game's awesome and fresh combat system that's largely gone unchanged. The new setting enhances exploration, swappable loadouts are a welcome new quality of life improvement, and the controls feel a bit tighter than they did last time around; but most of your time will be spent doing the same satisfying executions that send an appendage of your choice flying into the air. It's an excellent gameplay loop, but it hasn't drastically changed. It makes The Surge 2 easy to recommend for franchise newcomers with an appreciation for solid Souls-likes, or Surge die-hards that didn't get enough the first time around; but if you fall into neither category, it's not as easy of a decision. The new setting is neat, but the minor improvements and still-lackluster plot won't make someone who wasn't sold on the first game want to jump into this one for more of the same.