There's a moment in Deck13 Interactive's action RPG soulslike The Surge 2 that perfectly summed up my playthrough. Some ways in, you'll reach a location called Gideon's Rock. It's a breathtaking verdant paradise full of trees, foliage, and other natural wonders. Since Jericho City has been a hodgepodge of urban-industrial areas up to that point, Gideon's Rock is a real breath of fresh air. What kind of weird and wonderful enemies will you fight here? Oh. More humanoids. Sigh.
That's The Surge 2 in a nutshell. In many ways, it's a huge improvement over its predecessor. Combat feels much more fluid and potent. Enemies seem more reactive thanks to better AI. The level design isn't quite so flat. Unfortunately, any good ideas lie underneath an avalanche of samey environment design and weak storytelling. If things continue like this, Deck13's The Surge 6 will be spectacular. There's just a long, long way to go before we get there.
Storytelling and Worldbuilding in The Surge 2
The Surge 2 kicks off shortly after the first game ends. You play a random dude or dudette whose plane crashes down over Jericho City. Awakening in a hospital, you've got to piece together why your plane crashed, what the mysterious Defrag disease is, and why you're seeing the digital ghost of a little girl everywhere. It's a nice, straightforward start that kicks off the plot and establishes the stakes much more effectively than The Surge did.
Unfortunately, it doesn't take long for the cracks to show. There's just nothing interesting or imaginative about Jericho City as a place. Rather than using "science fiction" as a springboard for any number of innovative ideas or concepts, The Surge 2 is happy to wallow in a standard formula. That goes for the narrative as well. The plot doesn't progress in any interesting ways at all. The motivations of the villains are as generic as they come, with almost no attempt made to make them feel sympathetic.
Part of the problem is that much of the background narrative lies in audio logs. These journals cheap and weak, eschewing clever environmental storytelling in favor of voice narration that's one step away from text dumps. The Surge 2 is massively reliant on audio logs for any semblance of backstory, but all of the characters are so trite that it's hard to care about what they're saying. Put simply, the story in The Surge 2 isn't worth bothering with.
Combat in The Surge 2
Of course, there's every chance you're the kind of player who doesn't care about the story. Maybe, since this is a Soulslike, you're only interested in the combat. If you are, then you'll find The Surge 2 to be a massive improvement over its predecessor. As with the original, The Surge 2's combat is a heavier, weightier version of Dark Souls' stamina management-based third-person melee brawling. Deck13 has done a great job refining and sharpening the first game's combat. It's more responsive, more rewarding, and much more fair this time around.
This is mostly down to the new directional parry system. When an enemy in The Surge 2 attacks, you can block in four directions mapped to the right analog stick. It's a tad imprecise at times - many were the occasions where pressing up led to my character blocking left. Still, it's an excellent system that rewards good reflexes and makes every enemy encounter feel fair.
The Surge 2's greatest achievement in gameplay terms is probably its healing system. Charging energy batteries refills your health gadget, and dealing damage to enemies charges said battery. You can also find items scattered around that give you a free charge. This incentivizes fighting and encourages proactive exploration, which is great. The improved combat and more intuitive healing systems grant The Surge 2 a much more fluid feel when compared to its predecessor.
Enemy and Level Design in The Surge 2
Sadly, the combat system in this game just doesn't have anywhere to go. The enemy design is almost wilfully uninspired. Almost every enemy you fight in The Surge 2 is humanoid. There are some differences - some different weapon types, one or two attacks - but for the most part, the strategy is the same: aim for the head. The limb-cutting system returns from The Surge, but it's vestigial; I used armor from the first set of enemies I found in the game and it served me perfectly fine for my entire playthrough.
You'll realize early on that none of the areas have any really interesting enemy types to offer. There are times when The Surge 2 briefly comes alive - Gideon's Rock and a section later in a ruined underground spring to mind - but for the most part, you'll be fighting the same old humanoids. This repetition kills any mystique, making exploring feel rote and uninteresting. The Surge 2 may boast an inspired combat engine, but since there's nothing interesting to fight, it quickly becomes routine.
The same is unfortunately true of the environment design. Jericho City is an insipid maze of an area. The game's core loop is not dissimilar to Dark Souls; it's all about searching for checkpoints and finding shortcuts back to them before taking on bosses. For the most part, it works fine, but since every room looks like every other room - clusters of piping, ruined masonry, and "cute" in-game pop culture posters - exploration just doesn't feel rewarding at all. Knowing there's nothing to find killed my desire to explore.
Boss Fights in The Surge 2
If there's one thing a Soulslike needs to get right, it's the boss encounters. Good boss fights in this genre act as adrenaline-fueled nightmare rollercoasters. The best ones also inject a little emotional pathos into the experience; think Ludwig in Bloodborne's DLC, Gwyn in Dark Souls, or the final battle in Hollow Knight. The original Surge suffered in this area; there were only five boss encounters and they were nothing to write home about.
At first, The Surge 2 looks promising in this area. The first boss, Little Johnny, sits in a giant spider mech and must be dismantled coolant tank by coolant tank. It's a satisfying and enjoyable fight until you realize the clear limits on the boss's patterns. Once you have this revelation, it's essentially just about pulling off a tedious, repetitive string of movements until the boss is dead. The rest of the boss fights in The Surge 2 follow this disappointing pattern too. They're visually uninteresting and mechanically limited.
It's not necessarily true that The Surge 2 needs to be like Dark Souls. I've ummed and ahhed about whether Soulslikes need to exhibit the same traits as the genre's parent, but I'm not sure they do. In the end, though, they should probably strive to match Dark Souls in terms of quality. In this way, The Surge 2 falls flat on its face. The boss fights in this game are unmemorable, they don't progress the plot any further, and they all pretty much boil down to dull sequences of Simon Says.
The Surge 2 Review | Final Thoughts
The first Surge was an immensely promising game that failed to live up to its potential. While it had some excellent ideas, it was short, frustrating, and repetitive. The Surge 2 is a step in the right direction, but it's a short one. Deck13 has worked hard to improve the combat, and for the most part, the studio has succeeded. Unfortunately, everything else - exploration, enemy design, and narrative - falls severely short of the mark. This isn't so much a surge forward as a lurch.
- Fluid, Smooth Combat
- Good Narrative Start
- Decent Visuals
- Awful Enemy Variation
- Repetitive Exploration
- Poor Level Design
- Boring Boss Fights
- Confused, Uninteresting Narrative