It’s been a busy time around here with releases starting to drop. February used to be a bit of a dumping ground but now, as games are delayed and release windows are hard to nail down, games feel like they can arrive at any time of year. Step forth, Scars Above, a third-person shooter with soulslike elements from Mad Head Games. Whilst we’ve certainly seen that combination of genre before, this looks towards a story that, whilst slow to get going, does unravel nicely.
You play as Kate Ward, a member of the SCARS team on a ship that’s been sent to investigate the Metahedron. This mysterious space pyramid has arrived in a definite first contact scenario that is played out pretty well in cutscenes. There’s a mix of excitement and nervousness on the ship and, almost immediately, calamity strikes. Kate is teleported to the planet’s surface and her initial goal is to find out just what remains of her colleagues and the Helios.
She’s guided on her journey almost immediately by an alien presence and this escort does well to lay out the exposition. It’s slow to start but I did find the narrative to be decently told. Kate’s motivation is to rescue her crew but her curiosity as a scientist has her asking probing questions. There’s not a lot of space for twists but the ones they do deploy are delivered succinctly.
The cast do well to sell it. The initial crew of four have these nervous energy about them that can only come about from being the first to discover alien life. It’s momentous and your superior Robinson tries to give it the platitude it deserves. I do wish they had a little more going on under the hood. We barely see the gang before things go south so there’s little time to bond. On top of that, they all seem to have their minds on the job. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for personality.
Gameplay is handled in a mix of discovery and third-person combat. Shooting is handled competently but the first half of Scars Above feels a little undercooked. Your guns all deal elemental damage and they’re drip-fed to Kate throughout the 6-8 hour story. Whilst gating them does all you to get used to them, I didn’t feel the combat was fully formed until I had all four of the base weapons. Once you have tools and other options unlocked, it can be satisfying to control a fight. Combining status effects to quickly down a foe can really work well.
Unfortunately, there’s another aspect of gameplay which makes the majority of combat almost obsolete. As a scientist, Kate gets her experience from discovering new species, flora, fauna and audio logs. There’s also these mysterious cubes that, whilst plentiful, hide in nooks for a curious player to find. Whilst Scars Above is a largely linear experience, these cubes can be fun to seek out. Sadly, this handling of progression means, aside from your first fight with a new enemy type, you have very little incentive to fight.
The game does block you into arenas but the early going has ammo in tight supply and some enemies will hit hard. Again, the tide does turn in the player’s favour but the opening salvo doesn’t make the best first impression. At times it can feel clumsy switching between guns and some brutes can really trap you in corners. Ammo pick-ups are usually available in the biggest arenas but I did find myself ignoring fights until I had a full arsenal to deal with.
Boss fights fare a lot better. They have obvious patterns but they do tend to make use of your toolset. You can break ice to make them fall through which can, in turn make them wet. Little systems like that are fun to play with and these bosses aren’t far removed from where you’d learn these tricks elsewhere. There’s a handful of bosses scattered around the story but the pacing of Scars Above does mean they can arrive promptly.
There’s also some light puzzle elements at play. One later chapter has you almost without trouble as you operate machinery and try to reach your next destination. There are some rudimentary investigation segments which tend to turn into searching for an obvious prompt. Crafting is also simplified to the point where holding a button is all you need for a new gadget. The science stuff can feel incredibly watered down and superfluous. What I had hoped to be more fleshed out systems are nothing more than a prompt. At least it keeps the pace up and I never felt like I was missing anything.
With the elemental nature of your weaponry, environments follow suit. Some of them are nicely rendered and I do feel like your intro to the grassy plains is a treat. The rest takes on some familiar ground. Icy caverns, poison swamps and the metal monoliths arrive with varying degrees of success. At times, it looks very generic but Scars Above does spread it’s artistic wings a little towards the end. Meanwhile the music does well to invoke some atmosphere and isolation. It’s always bubbling under the surface but does well to spike up when the action gets hot.
To be honest, I was further down on Scars Above until the half-way mark. The poorly incentivised combat didn’t really strike me until I had a much broader toolset. It can become an interesting experiment of combining weapons to see what works best. At times, it can be a very generic experience with bland enemy designs and characters that don’t have much about them. It has ideas but hasn’t quite gone far enough with them. Investigations feel very basic and the crafting is in name only. All in all, it just comes off feeling distinctly average.
+ Decent sci-fi story that's well told.
+ Combat does become enjoyable once all the weapons are unlocked.
+ Great atmosphere that really portrays isolation well.
- Enemy designs are very by-the-numbers.
- Combat is poorly incentivised and tough to begin with.
- Crafting is barely a system in this.