Yes, we're going to talk about Blizzard. But I'm saving that for next week, because I want to drag out our cultural memory for as long as humanly possible.
Anyway. Because I work hard and pay my taxes, I was able to pick up not one, but two new games over the past couple of weeks: The Surge 2 and Code Vein. Sharp-eyed readers will no doubt notice that both of these games are what have been aptly dubbed as “Souls-likes”, in that they’re games that ape the style of the titular Dark Souls in one way or another – an informal but extremely popular moniker like Roguelike or Metroidvania. Having played both games more-or less in parallel, I’ve made some observations about the different ways they each shake up the souls formula – and the different ways it affects how you play.
Let’s start with all the things they have similar.
For one, both games are tried and true Souls experiences, wearing their inspiration on their sleeve. You make your own character, who fights through waves of challenging enemies, collecting a currency that is used to both level yourself up and improve your gear. If you die, you re-spawn at the previous check-point, lose all your currency, and are forced to track down the spot where you died to pick them up again. You get new equipment, new fighting styles, and have the scour the world for keys and hidden passageways that can either lead back to previously explored locations or to hidden little secrets. And in combat, your abilities are limited by a rather unforgiving stamina bar. It’s these qualities that really make them essential souls-like experiences.
But now, let’s explore what makes them different. And we’ll start with The Surge 2.
The Surge 2 is a Sci-Fi pre-apocalypse world that’s about to get it’s butt kicked by a strange nanite plague that might have been explained in the first game but I never played it so I’m never going to find out. You play some random airplane passenger who survives a crash and somehow becomes mentally linked with a young girl who is the key to everything, because plot reasons.
Gameplay wise, The Surge 2 is actually considerably more limited than Dark Souls or Code Vein. There are only a handful of weapon variants, and a handful different types of weapons. Likewise, there’s only a dozen or so unique sets of armor you can dress yourself in, and the world is much smaller as well. It compensates for this, however, through extreme polish. Each weapon type has a wide variety of moves that can be unleashed with the right combination of horizontal and vertical attacks, which helps keep combat fluid and enjoyable. Likewise, while the armor choices are limited, they don’t just provide raw stats like in Code Vein or even in Dark Souls – each set has a set bonus, which on one hand allows deep customization of your gameplay style, but on the other means you can’t just dress to impress which is unforgivable. And finally, while the areas are limited, they are complex and layered and extremely detailed, which means you’ll find items and passages you missed every time you have to go back.
Much has been said about the game’s unique combat mechanic of allowing you to target and sever the body parts of your enemies, which will in turn net you specific upgrades and equipment. It’s a cool mechanic, without a doubt, but when the novelty wears out, it’s ultimately just a way to ensure you get the upgrade loot you need – which makes it more a convenience than anything else. No, I find the battery system, which was never quite as hyped, far more interesting.
See, as you wail on your enemies, you’ll quickly build up charges of a “battery”, which is a third bar under your stamina. The battery bar is split up into three chunks (although it can get up to 5 if you upgrade it) and when you upgrade a chunk, you can spend it on a number of ‘injectable’ – the most common use will be to get some health back, but you could also improve your defenses, get some extra stamina, cure poison, and the like. These batteries will expire after a few seconds (ten or so) of not hitting stuff, which means that if you don’t spend them quickly, you’ll lose your chance.
So in effect: it’s the HP regeneration system from Bloodborne, but a bit more forgiving, since you can build up your battery, get hit, and then use that battery you’ve been building up to heal immediately and completely… and I love it. Like Bloodbone, it awards aggressive play, but unlike Bloodborne, it means early aggression isn’t wasted, and it means you can still take your time after getting smashed to collect yourself and consider your next move before you throw yourself into danger again. Plus, even more importantly, it means that you’re never really in a situation where you HAVE to go back to the checkpoint and respawn enemies: as long as you can keep fighting intelligently, you can heal yourself back to full through the sheer act of combat and venture onward boldly. It was downright liberating to be allowed to explore, unshackled by limited healing items.
Which is important, because in this game, the longer you can last without resting at a checkpoint (which, by the way, lets you ‘bank’ your currency), the more currency you’ll get from enemies you kill.
Oh, and in The Surge 2, you have a limited window to pick up dropped currency. If you don’t rush back to where you died, it’s gone for good. Which basically means, unless you want to lose all your cash, you’re forced to confront whatever killed you instead of exploring or getting stronger in anticipation for the rematch.
Now: on to Code Vein.
Code Vein is about post-apocalyptic vampires trying to save the world. Given that it’s a JRPG I’m sure the plot is actually way more complicated but I’m only like 8 hours in and that basically means I’m still in the starting area. Still, it’s more than enough time for me to appreciate just how different Code Vein is from The Surge 2.
Namely, it really, really leans into the RPG aspect.
In addition to having a way better character customizer (although your armor options are still limited to a SINGLE clothing piece, which disgusts me), you collect new character classes all throughout your time in Code Vein, which affect which passive and active skills you have equipped. So far, most of these skills are just buffs or differently-colored projectiles, but it can still fairly dramatically change how you play. I prefer playing a Hunter class, which is lightweight and agile, while using the skills of the Dark Hunter, which utilized venoms and poison attacks. It’s a semi-valid build, but if I were to ever change my mind and want to try something else, it would be as easy as changing my outfit, class, and my weapons – they’re what determine my stats, after all, since leveling up only seems to improve your HP, Stamina, and resistances.
So outside equipment upgrades, it’s shockingly easy to just hop between loadouts, skills, and classes, to find whatever floats your boat the most. Compared to Dark Souls, where respeccing is possible if unforgiving, Code Vein really is keen on letting you experiment and mess around with your build.
Like Dark Souls, Code Vein has limited healing that regenerates when you rest at a checkpoint, but like The Surge 2, it still gives you an incentive to avoid resting up unnecessarily: Ichor. To use any of your cool combat moves, buffs, and projectiles, you need to spend a fairly easy to acquire resource called Ichor. Ichor can be earned by wailing on enemies and using consumables, so even if you’re running low, some smart play will re-stock your storage of the stuff moderately quickly. However, you can also improve your max Ichor by using special charged attacks, backstabbing foes, or parrying them. Considering how expensive the good skills are, and how low most classes base Ichor pool is, it becomes very important to improve your max stock and keep yourself topped off for the challenging battles ahead.
And it’s not really hard to do: the charged attacks can be used frequently if you’re intelligent about it, backstabs are imprecise but unchallenging, and parrying is much more forgiving in this game than Dark Souls. But if you rest up at the checkpoint, you lose all the bonus ichor you’ve earned in your travels. It’s not quite as nice as what The Surge 2 does, but it is incentive nonetheless.
In any case, both games do a pretty good job scratching that itch, but if you were to ask me which game is objectively better, I’d have to say The Surge 2. That said, if you asked what game I’m spending more time with, I’d say Code Vein, because I have a weakness for stupid anime crap and there reached a point in The Surge 2 where the bosses kept kicking my ass and figuring out how to beat them required way too much grinding, so.
Do what you will with that recommendation.