Firelink Shrine, the first major bonfire location in the original Dark Souls, doesn’t seem like much at first. Overgrown, stone steps encircle a fire, with a few different paths splitting off in opposite directions. A strange man laughs at you. Over time, you learn the combat, die over and over, and eventually, venture deep into the world. It isn’t until sometime later that Firelink takes on significance, as you open one of the many paths that snake back to that initial bonfire.
Again and again, new doors unlock, creating a complicated web that always returns you to the safety of Firelink Shrine. It’s a beautiful bit of game design that falls away not only over the course of the back half of the game, but in subsequent From Software games. Sure, Bloodborne and Sekiro have doors that get you back to safety, but they seem to offer them out of necessity rather than novelty.
With The Surge 2, developer Deck13 seems just as nostalgic for Firelink Shrine as I am, crafting an ode to it in every bit of Jericho City’s layout. The level design is truly the star here, giving The Surge 2 a notch in its belt that even the creators of the Souls-like genre have forgotten.
Yes, this game, like its predecessor, takes more than a few pages from Dark Souls and the like. And again, like the first game, it tweaks the dials of the Souls-like in just the right ways to stand out.
There’s an incredibly satisfying loop at the heart of The Surge 2. Strike out into the environment, dismember your enemies to take their weapons and armor, and find a way back to the nearest Med Bay to cash in your spoils. Forward progress is the name of the game, even if that forward progress is often a new path that loops back to the beginning.
This loop is the heart of the game. Boss fights are there, of course, but they’re not nearly the main attraction the way they are in From Software’s games. If you’ve ever hit back-to-back boss fights in Dark Souls and wished you could just explore the world instead, then The Surge 2 is the game for you.
The first game prioritized exploration over boss fights as well, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Jericho City’s intricate design. There are secrets around every corner, and a swiss cheese network of catwalks, burned-out buildings, and out-of-reach zip-lines that will leave you wondering just how much more this world has to offer.
The answer to that question was consistently surprising. Deck13 combines the collapsing paths of the first hours of Dark Souls with the mysterious locked doors of a Metroid game, keeping the pace for a solid 20-30 hours of gameplay. And just when you think you’re getting the lay of the land, they throw curveballs that are even more impressive.
All this video game cartography wouldn’t amount to much on its own, and thankfully the combat and upgrade systems are a nice refinement of the first game. A 4-directional parry system is added on to the limb-targeting/dismemberment hook, allowing you to deflect enemy attacks with the right timing. For the most part this system works pretty well, but since limb-targeting and parries are both on the right stick, it’s a little too easy to mess up one or the other in a scramble.
Dozens of weapons and gear sets allow you to craft unique synergies and playstyles. A light-armored button-mashing, hyper-combo build felt just as viable and satisfying as grafting monster truck parts into my flesh and dropping log-sized hammers onto my enemies. And thanks to a forgiving upgrade system with the ability to quickly flick through loadouts, I was encouraged to experiment.
But while the core mechanics and design of The Surge 2 are quite improved, it’s clear this is being done on the same tech that powered the first game’s simple hallways. I bounced between The Surge 2 on Xbox One X and The Surge on PS4 Pro before writing this review and the graphical downgrade required to support the sequel’s huge environments is profound. The Surge 2’s world is pocked with muddy textures, framerate hiccups, screen-tearing, and a generally rough aesthetic.
That ugliness isn’t helped at all by the game’s story, which picks up from the first game but forgets everything that made the CREO facility interesting and weird. Jericho City is filled with cringe-worthy dialogue spouted from insincere shopkeepers, dreary religious cultists, and a lame spoof of…Robert Downey Jr…I guess?
And while I’m pointing out flaws, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a couple late-game boss fights. The final boss in particular felt like an aggressive difficulty spike meant to encourage one last session of grinding. That would be fine, welcome even, considering how many optional areas I missed. Unfortunately, the limited fast-travel system made one last romp around the huge world difficult to justify.
The Surge 2 fails to cash in on the premise established in the first game, and it stumbles in a few spots that it should have improved on. But while they’re noteworthy flaws, they’re not nearly as important as what the game gets right: the core loop of exploration, combat, and upgrading. Its world construction is a masterclass in complex, but understandable level design jam-packed with satisfying secrets. Even if The Surge 3 made all the same mistakes, I’d be right back in on day one if they can offer level design as engaging as Jericho City.