Sekiro rattled me a little bit, making me wonder if I was no longer “gud” enough to play these soulslike games anymore. Part of it is definitely time, I have a lot less of that to dedicate to challenging titles ever since I became a dad, but there’s always that lingering thing in the back of my head that’s telling me father time is catching up to me. So when I saw The Surge 2 appear on Steam I was conflicted, knowing that if I didn’t smash this one then it could be the beginning of the end for me with this genre. I’m happy to report that my fears were just that and I quickly found myself thoroughly enjoying the soulslike experience that Deck13 has built with this franchise. It’s still got some very rough edges however but if you can get past them what lies beneath is a pretty great game, one that’s definitely found a comfortable niche for itself.
Taking place right after the events of the original game The Surge 2 puts you on a plane that was enroute to Jericho city at the time of the rocket launch. Unfortunately your plane is struck by the rocket after it launched, sending it careening down on the outskirts of the city. You somehow manage to survive and are evacuated to a nearby medical facility. Months later you awaken to visions of a young girl speaking to you, calling her your warrior. You quickly find out that you’ve been put in a prison medical facility and it’s been thrown into disarray as a nanite infused beast tears through it, killing anyone in its path. With little more than a hospital gown and the remnants of your restraints for weapons you set out to find out why you’ve been imprisoned and what the hell has happened to Jericho city.
Deck13 has mentioned that there has been a lot of improvements made to the FLEDGE engine in order to support the larger, more open world of The Surge 2. For many that’s meant a marked decrease in performance, myself included. Indeed to start off with the game was aggressively down-resing, so much so that it was rendering in what I can only assume was 640 x 480. Fixing that made the game a lot more legible but it quickly became apparent that my rig wasn’t really up to the task. The first performance patch and a driver update addressed it somewhat, but it’s still clear that whatever is going on under the hood is either poorly optimised or requires a ton more grunt than my near 5 year old rig can provide. It’s somewhat of a shame given that The Surge 2 doesn’t look much better than its predecessor and that ran perfectly fine. Perhaps the improvements Deck13 made become more apparent at higher resolutions, something that only a really modern PC is going to be able to provide.
The Surge 2 is an evolution of its predecessor, streamlining the experience considerably whilst leaving the core game loop mostly intact. The same soulslike combat experience is back again, requiring you to learn the movesets of your enemies so you can pummel them down and lop off their limbs. Tech scrap is still the currency and main source of progression, levelling up your core power that will enable you to use better armour and mods. The drone is now more of a standalone mechanic in its own right, no longer using energy and instead having its own ammo and differing mods that provide a whole range of different combat options. What’s really changed however is the inclusion of the online social interactions that the Dark Souls series has become famous for, allowing for a limited set of interaction with other players by leaving messages and playing an interesting version of hide and seek. The world is also much more open than it used to be with a lot more options for exploration and a truckload more sidequests for you to tackle if you want. The improvements are very much welcome, even if the game still has a little ways to go if it’s ever going to be considered to be in the same league as the games that inspired it.
Combat retains the same structure as the original with you focusing on a particular body part to wail on (either for damage or to cut off to get their armour or crafting mats). It didn’t take long for me to get back into the swing of things although there was a good 5+ hours there where things were definitely a bit of a struggle. Part of this is due to the lack of options you have at that early stage of the game, limiting your ability to craft a build specifically designed to counter the challenges you’re facing. However this is a game where certain weapons, armour and mods are simply straight up better than others and as you progress through the game it becomes possible to construct a build that renders you untouchable within certain limits.
The sharp difficulty jumps are still here, although they were a non-issue for about 60% of the game after I settled on a build that seemed to be able to deal with pretty much anything that came my way. My weapon of choice was the double-duty style, specifically the spark disciple one that did added electric damage. It was possible to blow all my stamina on attacks before they had a chance to fight back and, most of the time, would net me a stun so I could then take a beat and begin it all again. To be sure there are some enemies where this was a sub-optimal strategy, especially those that couldn’t be staggered for whatever reason, but with the amount of energy that my build would generate I never had an issue out healing them before I could get a stun off and then finish them. Later on the only mods I made to the build was to swap out the electric weapon for a nano one when enemies were immune to electric damage.
Bosses were, of course, a different beast entirely as most of them would require their own unique build in order to get past them. Mostly that was to make up for whatever weakness I had in my playstyle that the boss was able to exploit, like my penchant for dodging over blocking or the lack of a particular resistance. There were a couple where I could just go ham on them with my default build and, shockingly, was able to one shot a couple of them without too much difficulty. The harder bosses though often challenged me to change up my playstyle a bit in order to be able to get through them, like the Delver which is an absolute nightmare to get past if you don’t know how to counter block correctly. I didn’t try any of the drone focused builds although I can’t say I wasn’t tempted for a few of them as being able to rain down hell ala Remnant: From the Ashes style was quite appealing.
The progression system feeds you a steady stream of upgrades to keep you going and is thankfully well designed enough so you don’t feel completely locked into the one build you’ve optimised everything for. Scrap is easy enough to come by, especially if you’ve got a solid route to run that allows you to execute a number of enemies along the way (which increases your multiplier for tech scrap generation). At the start you’ll most likely want to be dumping your scrap into your core over upgrading your gear as later sets of gear have a large core power requirement that you won’t be able to meet. Later on it’s all about upgrading your preferred set to the maximum whilst keeping an alternate set of gear at a similar level should you find the need to switch. That being said though crafting and upgrading is pretty cheap so if you find yourself needing or wanting another gear set it’s usually not going to take you that long to get it.
The new social system is good although it does seem to take out a massive part of the game’s challenge when everyone and his dog is putting up graffiti that points towards all the secrets that the devs have tried to hide. Sure you could still try to troll with them but given there’s a rating system for them it seems like all the troll ones have long since disappeared and the only ones left are the beneficial ones. I did quite enjoy the hide and seek mini game though as it was always fun to try and find places that players wouldn’t be able to figure out or those that others simply wouldn’t be able to get to. The tech scrap you get from that early on is a real lifesaver to, often netting you a free level.
Most of the issues of the past have been dealt with although a trove of new ones have sailed in to take their place. Alongside the graphics performance issues I also got some strange glitching that would often occur at game start and, every so often, in the game itself. It was obvious the game was running in the background but the game itself didn’t render correctly at all. The UI still worked and changing the resolution seemed to fix it. The game also crashed numerous times, sometimes for no reason and others for specific encounters with certain enemies. Some of the in-game interactive elements can take a few tries to work properly, making you wonder if you’re actually meant to interact with them at all. Pathing is still an issue, something that’s made all the worse by the more complicated environments. Most of the time it’s just funny but there’s certain times where my character inexplicably pathed off something or enemies got stuck on geometry and couldn’t figure out how to get themselves out of it. Suffice to say I think, given the fact that the series has now firmly established itself as an ongoing concern, Deck13 could spend a little extra time on polishing these various elements so that future instalments in the franchise aren’t so janky.
The Surge 2’s story is pretty straightforward, if a little forgettable and simplistic. Characters from the previous game (including the player’s character) make a return and knowing the previous story does help explain some of the more esoteric elements. However if this is your first foray into the world of The Surge then you’re not going to struggle to understand what’s going on as it’s a largely standalone narrative. The story also wraps everything up pretty nicely with some potential avenues for a sequel that were left there subtly rather than being shouted loudly at the end of the main narrative. The Surge 2 definitely isn’t a game you’d play for the story but it’s at least not a massive detractor from the game.
The Surge 2 is a solid step forward for the franchise, keeping quite a lot the same and refining the rest. The game has now carved out its own little niche in the soulslike genre, extending on the formula and defining its own little tropes. One of those is an unfortunate penchant for a lack of overall polish, resulting in some fundamental issues that Deck13 should have addressed before release. Beyond those issues however lies a game with solid mechanics that will challenge your skills as a player and reward them handsomely. I have no doubt that we’ll soon be seeing another instalment in this franchise and if they can make a similar level of improvements in that as they did here I can see them continuing on for a good long time to come.
The Surge 2 is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $69.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 22 hours play time and 59% of the achievements unlocked.
The term “Dark Souls-like” has lost a lot of its original meaning; now being applied to nearly any game that’s somewhat challenging and includes a death/recovery mechanic. Using that term to describe a game is usually part of its marketing campaign, hoping to draw in a percentage of the Dark Souls crowd with the promise of a similar experience. Such is how I first came to know about Below, the latest title from Capybara Games, which promised a fresh take on the genre. Whilst it does include many of the trappings of the games that inspired it Below’s added mechanics do nothing to improve the experience, instead turning it into a slower, less rewarding experience that simply bored me. There might be something buried deeper within the game that might interest me but I simply didn’t find enough to keep me interested past the first couple hours.
Below is a tale of a string of adventurers who venture to an island and set about exploring what lies below its surface. There is only ever one of them and should one die another will arrive to take their place. As I understand it there’s more to the story, potentially locked behind the game’s main collectibles or maybe in other areas I didn’t explore but I simply didn’t have the patience to find out. That could partly be due to the game’s irritatingly long opening cutscene which adds nothing to the story and only serves to make you think the game is stuck trying to load.
The game’s visuals are simple, utilising the low-poly aesthetic that has proven popular over the last couple years. It’s also very dark 90% of the time with much of the environment hidden from view. This is then cast in stark relief when there’s any kind of lightsource, illuminating a world that’s brimming with colour and detail. Whilst the decision to hide much of the environment away from you is purely a mechanical one (which is core to the game) it is a bit of a shame that the game’s beauty is hidden from you. That being said when the game does showcase itself to you through the use of generous particle and lighting effects the results are quite stunning.
At its heart Below is a roguelike, throwing you into procedurally generated environments that you reveal as you wander through them. Everything is dark, something which you can alleviate through the use of torches or your lantern, the latter of which consumes gems that enemies drop. In addition to the standard health gauge you also have 3 others: food, water and heat. The first two deplete slowly over time, needing to be replenished by finding a water source or finding food respectively. The last only comes into play in certain sections and will deplete quickly, needing to be refilled by sitting next to a fire. There’s also a crafting system, enabling you to fashion numerous helpful items including elixirs that will give you certain benefits for a short time. All in all whilst Below is a simple game on the surface there’s certainly a good depth to the mechanics. The main problem is that they’re just not particularly enjoyable.
Combat is a pretty straightforward affair as you’re equipped with a sword and shield that function as you’d expect. Most enemies in the beginning simply run at you and die in a single hit but they quickly evolve into more complex enemies with varied movesets. The health system is a little different in that taking damage will turn part of your health red which, if you’re quick enough, can be bandaged up. However to recover health that’s been completely lost you’ll need to find food. It’s definitely on the challenging side but it didn’t feel as punishing as the Souls games were when I first started playing them. Combat isn’t what bored me about Below though, it was the exploration and survival mechanics.
Exploring the levels is meant to be part of the challenge, and that I’m on board with, however having to go back through them to find level keys or other things in order to progress is a real chore. This is made worse by the fact that when you die the level gets regenerated again, meaning you have to not only fight your way back to your body at a disadvantage, the path to get there won’t be the same. This made death more of a chore than I felt it needed to be, even when I had the closest bonfire available for me to travel to. I didn’t even die that many times during my time with Below either, maybe 2 or 3, but even that was enough for me to want to stop playing.
The survival mechanics only exacerbate that issue, forcing you to dedicate even more time to keeping those meters filled. The water one is usually easy enough, either you just need to remember where a pool was or keep plodding along and you’ll eventually find one, but the food is a different story. It seemed early on in the game I’d get enough to keep me going, not enough for a large stockpile but sufficient to ensure I wasn’t constantly in peril, but later on that petered out completely. Even hunting everything in sight didn’t net me enough food to stop me from starving, clocking up another death because I simply couldn’t find enough food. Sure, this could be RNGesus screwing me over just that once, but that’s exactly the reason I usually steer clear of Roguelikes. Reading through other reviews it seems I’m not alone in feeling this way either, so hopefully the developers address it (maybe even make a mode that has it removed and blocks your achievements or something).
Below is a mechanically deep and well crafted game that struggles to capture your attention. The environments are truly beautiful, something which is unfortunately only revealed to you in fits and starts when you’re able to use a precious light source to see them. Combat is simple but challenging enough to be rewarding which is a hard balance to strike. Unfortunately the real let down of the game is in the exploration and survival mechanics that do little more than add tedium to the game. This is why I put it down after just 2 hours of game time, I simply couldn’t drive myself on with it any longer. Perhaps there’s something beyond level 4 that might’ve enticed me to stay but I’ll never know.
Below is available on PC and Xbox One right now for $22.49. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours playtime and 50% of the achievements unlocked.