Publisher/Developer: FuturLab Format: Vita Release: out now.
The first few minutes of Surge Deluxe feel a little like waiting for a punch line that never arrives, or staring at an installation piece consisting of a bean nailed to the wall of a gallery. “Is this it? Is there something I don’t get?”
Like its non-Deluxe predecessor, the game begins at a level best described as confusingly easy. Match coloured blocks with your finger, watch them pop, and repeat. A simple touchscreen slide to join strings of blocks and the lack of urgency or obstacles make it seem as though a child could cope with the game. But Surge is hiding a world of complexity beneath its flashing arcade neon.
It starts when simple time pressure is applied. Each level comes with a counter ticking down across the bottom and, more alarmingly, a rising gauge climbing both edges of the screen that results in failure if it reaches the top. Coloured vents that line the gauges relieve this pressure, but can only be opened once the blocks placed in front are matched and dispatched. Staying alive becomes a matter of working from the narrow column of empty space that most levels provide in the centre of the screen, then out on both sides towards these vents, with speed and utility the primary concerns. Match things, clear things, stop the level blowing up and ending the game.
Some special blocks. Combiners (with the question marks) accumulate points multipliers for heavy-scoring, while the bombs (bottom right) blast everything within a one block radius and are useful for clearing vents.
It soon becomes obvious that it’s possible to clear things in more efficient and points-optimal ways. Open vents increase the value of blocks of the corresponding colour, encouraging paths to be cleared and juicy strings saved for harvesting later. Special blocks force you to frantically remap your thinking during play, as valuable combinations emerge or, once experience begins to order the fruit machine delirium of the playing grid, are identified and forced. These specials include simple points multipliers, destructive bombs, and switchers, which can disrupt flow and demand either serious dexterity or patience to catch as they turn a specific colour.
And so the simplicity gives way to daunting sophistication, with rather too little acting as a bridge in between and, consequently, a bewildering lurch. The game either doesn’t know how or doesn’t try to make this a smooth transition, and for a stretch of time the grid will seem a seething pulse of shapes and cries for attention. But time will also bring eventual understanding. As the complex patterns become familiar, recurring strategies and points opportunities are identified on the periphery of your vision. The grid and all its possibilities coalesce into some kind of sense.
Surge Deluxe doesn’t leave players entirely on their own when it comes to understanding its points system, however. New for the Deluxe version is a puzzle mode that sets players a points target for set grids. It’s a tutorial in so much as it’s the only time the game puts a figure to the amount of points that could be earned in any situation – it’s obvious that the points are in there, and it’s down to you to understand how to get them out. It’s an important addition, a test area where the peculiar properties of the special blocks can be investigated before this higher understanding can be transferred back into the flow of the regular game.
Starred blocks are worth double points, and so form the central pillar of points-scoring chains and strategies. Here, a successfully cleared chain of eight blocks has led to the game’s excellently idiosyncratic complimentary cry of ‘Cyborg!’
Surge Deluxe is well-presented, too. The music is an upbeat strain of techno that you might hear if you were hang gliding over the silicon cities of Tron, full of purpose, clipped production, and driving beats. Sound effects are punchy and clear, from the crunch of an exploded block to wail of the pressure alarms, and another addition to this Deluxe release is that different coloured boxes are also different shapes, which is primarily to aid accessibility for colourblind players, but also provides an extra layer of quick-sort identification for everybody else.
The only occasionally clumsy element in Surge Deluxe’s otherwise efficiently streamlined processes is you – or, rather, your big fat finger. Tracing lines between blocks obscures the screen, which can make quick, precise movements difficult, especially between narrow gaps. Trailing a flickering chain of electricity onto a non-matching block kills the sequence outright, so at higher levels and with more intricate, high-scoring chains, a blindsided spill of an index finger can carry significant frustration.
That said, it is possible to get better. Training your digits not to stray is a legitimate demand made on players set on reaching the frantic and rewarding higher plane of Surge Deluxe play. The game’s only serious flaw is that this plane isn’t better signposted for the less determined, but with smart, moreish points-hoarding and presentation that finds a sweet spot between functionality and fizzing sci-fi visuals, Surge Deluxe is worth the effort.