Platforms: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Creating a sequel is kind of like walking across a metaphorical tightrope. You have to bring back whatever spark captured audiences the first time around, but you can’t just rehash it. You have to innovate, but also not innovate too much lest you alienate the core fanbase. Lean too far in either of those directions, original flavor or innovation, and you’ll tumble into disaster.
Developer Deck 13’s Souls-like title The Surge didn’t set the gaming world on fire when it launched in 2017, but it carved out a niche of its own, and its follow-up successfully navigates the dreaded sequel tightrope. The Surge 2 feels like just the right balance of familiarity and creativity, reacquainting players with the core gameplay they enjoyed the first time around but also expanding upon that gameplay in clever ways. Of all the options sci-fi Souls-like fans have to pick from, The Surge 2 is undoubtedly one of the best games in the genre.
Welcome to Jericho City
The Surge 2 makes an admirable effort to connect its storyline to the events from The Surge, but if you don’t remember what happened in the first game (or you never played it), don’t fret. The sequel’s narrative is basically just a hodgepodge of sci-fi tropes and boilerplate story hooks that you’ll likely forget shortly after seeing them, which is fine since strong storytelling likely isn’t what fans are here for. All you have to know is that you’re trapped in a futuristic dystopia called Jericho City which has, surprise surprise, been plunged into anarchy, and you must find a young girl named Athena.
In The Surge, players controlled an engineer named Warren, but for The Surge 2 Deck 13 went ahead and implemented a full character creation system which lets players customize the protagonist’s gender, appearance and starting background. This change allows the sequel to fully embrace the RPG aspects of the Souls-like genre without sacrificing narrative strength since in the first game Warren was basically just a voiceless cipher for the player anyways.
Aside from the players’ custom-created protagonist, the other major star of The Surge 2 is Jericho City itself, a surprisingly compact cityscape that’s made up of several interconnected districts and landmarks. When compared to the sprawling worlds found in other Souls-like games like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Ashen, or even the 2D Salt and Sanctuary, Jericho City seems rather tiny. But of course Deck 13 makes the most of the limited space it has created by drawing on another genre that compliments the Souls-like format perfectly: the metroidvania genre.
Tools of the Trade
The Surge 2 is hardly the first game to add some metroidvania varnish to the Souls-like template, but it’s still worth mentioning just how successfully Deck 13’s sequel marries the two concepts. As with other Souls-like games, players slowly uncover shortcuts and hidden routes which connect the various districts they explore. Key items gained from defeating bosses also open up additional movement paths which in turn add new dimensions of verticality and scope to areas that at first seemed rather small and straightforward.
Seeing how Jericho City steadily unfolds is honestly one of the most compelling parts of The Surge 2, and it might even be the most compelling if the game’s visceral and brutal melee combat system wasn’t so darn satisfying.
The Surge differentiated itself from other Souls-like games by featuring a unique limb-severing combat mechanic, and that mechanic returns with a vengeance in The Surge 2. By targeting specific limbs on an enemy’s body, players can sever those limbs using stylish finisher moves to obtain new weapons, armor schematics, and upgrade materials. These badass-looking finisher moves pair well with a fast-paced combo system that’s a far cry from the more lumbering and deliberate combat found in the Dark Souls series.
In The Surge 2, players can utilize light and heavy attacks, dodges, animation cancels, and even a unique directional blocking system to pummel, crush, stun, and eviscerate their foes before moving in for the coup de grace finisher. There’s also a surprisingly large variety of different weapon types that can accommodate any sort of playstyle, from lightning-quick chain attacks to slow but highly-damaging swings and everything in between. In fact, The Surge 2 throws so many different weapon types at you during its opening hour that it’s hard not to feel a little overwhelmed (in a good way).
Along with the bevy of melee weapons at their disposal, players can also utilize a helpful drone that provides ranged support, armor sets that grant unique set bonuses, and implants which augment existing abilities and combat tactics. These various weapon types, armor sets, drone modules, and implants can be combined to create all sorts of different character builds, which is good because The Surge 2’s enemies don’t hold back.
This being a Souls-like game, even basic enemies can cut the player to ribbons if they’re not careful, so it’s important to craft a character build that’s effective and adaptable. Defeating enemies awards scrap which can be used to level up the player’s rig and permanently increase their health, stamina, or battery power (more on that in a moment), but as with any Souls-like game, padding your stats through level-ups can only get you so far. Razor-sharp combat instincts are the true key to success in The Surge 2, and the only way to get those is by pitting yourself against the baddest dudes and robots the game can throw at you.
Since The Surge 2 is a Souls-like game, it’s impossible to avoid the topic of difficulty. In case the above paragraphs regarding combat weren’t clear enough, Deck 13’s sequel wholly embraces the harsh and unforgiving high-difficulty format that has long defined the Souls-like genre. Attack an enemy too aggressively and they’ll gladly punish you for your error. Get too overconfident during a boss fight and you’ll soon learn just how quickly any sort of perceived advantage can evaporate.
This constant undercurrent of never knowing if you’re fully prepared for the next fight is perhaps best exemplified by The Surge 2’s battery power mechanic. By attacking enemies, you build up a “charge” of battery power that’s stored as a number of segments in your rig (you start out with three segment slots but can eventually upgrade up to a total of five). These segments can then be expended either to dismember a badly-wounded enemy or trigger your healing stim.
If a charge isn’t used after a certain number of seconds, it degrades and disappears unless the player finds a new enemy to attack. Since battery charges are used both to execute enemies and heal the player, they create a sort of risk/reward mechanic that operates on multiple levels. If you’re facing several enemies at once, you might have to make a split-second decision between healing mid-fight or executing one of your foes, potentially allowing the other enemies to finish you off. Properly utilizing charges can also give you a theoretically infinite health supply, but only if you’re overly aggressive and thus more prone to making costly mistakes.
This battery charge mechanic adds yet another wrinkle onto a combat system that’s already quite engaging, but it can also be a frustrating barrier for players who like to be prepared beforehand or who’d rather fight more defensively. It’s not enough to completely disrupt The Surge 2’s otherwise well-paced combat flow, but it can certainly be an adjustment for certain types of players.
Best of Both Worlds
If you can acclimate to the battery charge combat mechanic and you’re ok with The Surge 2’s unforgiving difficulty, there’s really little else about the sequel that could be considered a negative. It’s an incredibly fun action-combat title, a competent RPG, and a sequel that tops its predecessor in all the ways that matter. Plus, it runs pretty well on mid-range PC’s if you’re a PC gamer. I’m not exactly working with a high-end gaming rig, but The Surge 2 ran smoothly on medium-high settings for me nonetheless.
The Surge 2 may not wholly embrace the innovation I hope to one day see from the Souls-like genre, but the innovation it does bring to the table is more than enough to make it worth playing. With its engaging combat, well-rounded RPG components, and immersive explorable world, The Surge 2 is everything one could hope for in a sequel, and that’s certainly not an easy feat to accomplish.