The Surge 2
Up a short flight of stairs and down an alleyway from the initial hub of the first major area in The Surge 2 is a door that can only be opened from the other side. Roughly a dozen hours later you will find yourself standing on the other side of this door before opening it and returning to the very place in which you began, keenly aware of how far you've progressed while not really traveling anywhere at all.
Yes, The Surge 2 is that kind of game: an action RPG with a looping, labyrinthine structure and a heavy debt owed to Dark Souls. It's a hard game in the sense that it demands patience and attention to detail, but it's not especially punishing. Sure, when you die or rest at a medbay (read: bonfire) all the enemies respawn and many of them can kill you in a couple of hits. And sure, you have to make it back to where you died to recover your tech scrap (read: souls). But as with the Souls series and its ilk, this isn't really a game about clearing an area and leveling up; it's about learning through repetition and deepening your understanding of the game.
On a purely mechanical level, the robust combat engine, intricate level design and substantive gear, and crafting systems all leave The Surge 2 far from embarrassed by the From Software comparison. Yet where The Surge 2's blushes are not spared is in giving you a reason to care about anything you're doing. Lackluster world-building, forgettable characters and cringeworthy dialogue all conspire against persuading you this is a world worth saving.
It begins with a plane crash. On board was some sort of nanotechnology that triggers an environmental disaster requiring a city-wide quarantine and leaving those infected to wander the streets with a permanently hostile demeanor. You were also on the plane, yet somehow survived the crash and, at the start of the game, wake up in the medical wing of the Jericho City Police Department. Soon you're having sporadic visions of a young girl, the granddaughter of the CEO of nanotech firm CREO Industries, who you're sure was also on the plane and now appears to have been kidnapped by a mysterious security force.
There's not a great deal to the story and what little there is quickly reduces to stale sci-fi musings about the relationship between humans and machines and all sorts of hackneyed military-industrial complex pot-boiling. Your pursuit of the elusive young girl is essentially the pretext for exploring the multi-faceted and interconnected districts of Jericho City and whacking nearly all of its inhabitants in the face.
Fighting in The Surge 2 feels strategic and skillful. There's the element of stamina management you'd expect--you've got to understand when you can commit and when you need to pull back and recover. There's the ability to manage multiple enemies when any one of them alone is dangerous enough to be life-threatening if you're not careful. And there's the necessity of learning to read enemy attack patterns--one may be quick and aggressive, while another is slower and turtles behind a shield, and a third may hang back and takes pot shots.
Combat is almost exclusively focused on melee attacks. There are dozens of weapons to be wielded in one hand or two and each can be deployed in heavy and light attacks as well as combos that alternate between the two. Movesets are shared across a weapon class but various stats--such as base damage, stamina consumption or additional damage types--serve to differentiate unique weapons within the same class. All spears, for example, have the same long reach and forward thrusting attacks, but this one hits slightly quicker for less damage while that one consumes more stamina per attack but delivers bonus electrical damage every hit.
Smartly, no weapons are simply outright better than the others, meaning your choice of armament comes down to a combination of what you've managed to find, which particular mix of moveset and stats suit your preferred playstyle, and to a lesser extent the nature of the obstacle you're trying to overcome. Some weapons are better suited to certain situations, but ultimately it comes down to how you want to approach combat. Weapons taken from the one-handed (think futuristic longswords) and twin-rigged (think futuristic knuckle-dusters) classes hit with speed and will let you get the drop on an enemy then deliver a swift combo. Hammers and anything from the heavy-duty class will instead take longer to wind up but when they hit they hit hard and can easily stagger an opponent.
I enjoy the flexibility of a double load class, a type of weapon that can be changed between slow and heavy bumps and fast impact sounds. And for situations that justify different tactics, I turn to coworkers to expand the reach of their swirl attacks and cause additional nano damage. There are many variations here, and after trying every new weapon I found during my first exploration, I look forward to exploring various weapons charges in future playgrounds.
This was mainly because the fight at The Surge 2 felt very good. Supported by subtle effects of sound effects and responsiveness of animated characters, you can feel the severity of each attack in a way that never fails. Successfully repelling an attack will give you the gift "Whop!" Tone, a short frame to freeze and slow down your opponent when the opponent is emptied and you get a gap to start a critical blow. Better, perhaps, is the cinematic slow wheel that is observed when you can cut your opponent's limbs and draw your character from a variety of very impressive deadly stroke animations that are only interested in finding the simplest. Astrologer in doomsday post. However, be careful: they are not intended to scream (and fortunately there is an option to disable this scene to reduce the above factors.)
But it is increasingly complicated. When tied to an enemy, you can target individual limbs and switch between head, body, arms and legs with the correct analog stick at once. You want to do this for two reasons. First, some limbs may not be armed. So, if you aim at your left hand open, you can do more damage and speed up killing. Second, if you deal enough damage to a particular member, you have the ability to cut it off and claim it as a skill with a strange game logic application. If you have beheaded enough of your enemies, you will have the materials you need to make new hats or improve existing ones. The risks / artificial rewards are clear: Are you looking for a weak spot or continuing the struggle for this important craft component? The boss fights twice against this element, some of which force you to hack several limbs to drop it, while others make special weapons for the boss when aiming for the right limb during a duel.
In addition to complexity, you can also block attacks (assuming you have enough stamina) by holding down L1 / LB. However, to distract the attack, you must press the right stick in the direction of the incoming punch at the right time. Skip your experience and you will be hit. Not only does this huge risk / return arrangement, it also shows one of the smartest ways Surge 2 can overcome its difficulties. Even though there are no difficulty levels to choose from, you can complete a variety of implants that will enhance your character in certain ways. One of them has a UI panel that lets you know which direction the next attack is coming from. So if you want to use a distracting style of play and aren't comfortable reading animated enemy attacks, you can use these implants and get lots of useful visual assistance.
This is a very smart system that extends to other areas. Implants consume nuclear power, a symbolic value that increases with level. The more useful the implant is, the more energy is usually consumed. Armor also draws power from the same source and - yes, you know - the better defense statistics, the more power it draws. You never have the power to equip the best armor and all your favorite implants. So here you have to make a difficult choice of characters that you will choose. There were many phases, especially at the beginning of the game, when I had to leave several armor slots and implants empty because I didn't have the strength to fill them. In this situation, where you sacrifice a useful tool and really have to be involved in the game, Surge 2 shines as an RPG.
It also shines at the design level - at least in a cool and theoretical way. Like the Dark Soul, Surge 2 is also strong with a Metroidvania structure where you circle the layers and move forward until you reach the point where you just started. You have activated the link. If you keep clicking, you will return to many previously visited sites and review them after purchasing a number of key elements that will allow you to access areas that were previously inaccessible.
There's nothing especially novel about that structure. The Surge 2 is simply an extremely accomplished version of it. The areas you explore are just so tightly designed, so compact and yet simultaneously sprawling and dense. There's almost a honeycomb quality to the level design, this vast network of winding tunnels existing almost on top of each other, branching and converging in surprising ways. No space is wasted.
It's just a shame few of the locations are memorable for reasons other than how they connect to other locations. There's a midgame detour to a rather scenic wooded parkland, the odd impressive future city skyline vista, and the constant looming presence of the giant metal wall that was hastily erected after the nano-disaster struck. But in between everything is basically the same handful of debris-strewn streets, toxic tunnels and partially collapsed buildings--and it's all so boringly brown and grey. More than a mere aesthetic complaint, it actually makes it difficult to find your bearings at times. I found myself getting lost and turned around on quite a few occasions thanks to the unremarkable nature of much of the scenery.
Even worse, the characters you meet on the road are equally soulless, if not more so. Conversations with large NPCs are written as if they are performing additional tasks, avoiding any form of character development that supports job exposure. Actual secondary tasks are certainly no better - rewarding them at least quickly and accurately, even if they are almost unbreakable and rarely offer valuable prizes.
Apart from the search for stories and sides, The Surge 2 is worth the effort when the fight itself. Not only does it crash, it also adds depth to the limb extraction and deflection system and is expertly supported by a truly diverse collection of weapons and potential character enhancements.