If you are not quite familiar with the developers at Deck13, you're certainly not the only one. While the Germany-based developer has been active for more than 15 years, their catalog largely consists of point-and-click adventure games (Ankh series) with some relatively unknown action RPGs in the mix.
2014's Lords of the Fallen was certainly a bit of a spotlight for the developer, being their largest game to date and reportedly selling around one million copies. However, co-developer CI Games is moving forward with a sequel in that franchise without Deck13, leaving them free to work on their next project - The Surge - which is out next month.
I got a chance to try a preview PC build of The Surge to see what this new IP had to offer for the Action RPG genre.
The Surge is very obviously going for a near-future dystopian sci-fi theme. To illustrate this aesthetic - if the screenshots weren't clear enough already - the very first thing I did in the preview build is pick up a loose piston and started bashing drones with it. It certainly feels like sci-fi, but with a less sleek and more industrial feel to everything from how the game plays to the art-style.
You see, the build I played started with a cold open, dropping the player in the shoes of 'Warren', a new employee of tech megacorporation CREO, which develops hulking exoskeleton suits. However, apparently something has gone terribly wrong at the CREO factory, and now Warren finds himself using his exo-suit to fend off rogue drones and other exo-suited employees who have seemingly gone feral.
Much of the Surge will feel familiar to those used to action RPGs. As is typical with the genre, you have a stamina meter which dictates how long you can sprint and how often you can swing your piston or whatever other weapons you have on hand. You have two different types of attacks you can use: a horizontal swing and a vertical swing which can be chained together in various ways to perform different combos. You also collect various sorts of loot which can be used to power up your exo-suit and gain new weapons. This is an action RPG through and through and has the typical elements you'd expect from the genre.
The Surge is light on tutorials but seems to throws a lot on the player at once. Core Power and Core Power consumption, Implants, Tech Scrap, Schematics, loots scraps and other gear specifics. Once you get past the jargon, though, it's not much different than what you'd find in other games. Tech Scraps are the primary currency and can be used to either create new parts (which you need Schematics to make) or they can be used to increase 'Core Power', which allows Warren to equip more Implants - a secondary type of Gear with various effects.
Other elements should also sound very familiar. If you run out of HP on the field, you are transported back to a central safe area, which you can then go back out into the field and travel back to the place you fell in attempt to pick up the Tech Scraps you were previously holding.
The safe area is where tech scraps can be used or safely deposited (so you don't lose them if you fall in battle), gear can be built/equipped, and Core Power can be increased. It's basically your RPG base in how to decide to build your exo-suit and what to do with all the loot you've been collecting from various enemies.
Outside of the safe zone, you progress through various junkyards and buildings, and you'll find several one-way doors or elevators along the way. When these are activated from "the other side", they open up a shortcut to make traversing the world a bit more free, allowing you to return to the safe area more easily.
There are also some doors that require a certain value of Core Power in order to open, often to find special loot inside. One door in the preview required 55 Core Power, which was much higher than anything else at the time, so I assume this is there as an incentive to backtrack a bit once players are further in the game.
A couple of less familiar elements creep their way in as well, however. For example, Warren can flick the right analog stick to easily switch between different body parts of an enemy such as their limbs or head. When attacking, an energy bar fills, which when full enough, allows him to perform a finisher type move. After a cinematic animation usually involving decapitation or amputation, these finishers guarantee a loot drop based on the body part being targeted.
So, essentially, Warren travels various regions of the factory, chops down some foes and steals their stuff, find shortcuts, and takes it back to base to create a stronger exo-suit. Combat is fairly rapid, and some enemies can quickly get to attacking you if you aren't paying close enough attention to your surroundings. The exo-suit allows Warren to jump and sidestep easily, so maneuvering around during combat was quite intuitive and responsive. Finishing moves, being mostly a cinematic thing to begin with, sometimes animated oddly if the enemy was stuck near a corner or wall with the character models in the wrong place, but still worked perfectly functionally.
The preview ended with a large security drone boss fight. Rather than just whittling down a single HP bar, you have to deal enough damage to fill a secondary bar which effectively 'breaks' the boss momentarily, allowing Warren to damage the main HP as the boss lays stunned. I felt the camera and controls during this were a bit harder to work with than the rest of the game, with the perspective too close to the action.
Also, making contact with the boss was trickier than it needed to be. Even locked on, sometimes my swings would go straight through the enemy model and not make contact. It seemed very particular in where you need to be in order to deal damage, maybe that's intentional but it didn't feel intuitive to me.
My one main concern for the Surge is how many times this general gameplay loop will repeat and can the combat stay engaging over the course of the game? My experience was only limited to a short demo, but I already was getting tired of the two enemy types scattered throughout (flying drones and exo-suited humans) and the cinematic takedowns didn't take long to start feeling a bit stagnant either.
Outside of a few typical audiologs and some environmental context, there also wasn't much plot to the section of game I played. At this point, it's difficult to say if Warren or the world he finds himself in will stay compelling for the long haul. I'm interested, but I'm not sold just yet.