Review – Scars Above
Have you ever watched a trailer of a game and your first impression was that it reminded you of another very popular game? Inspiration from other games is a normal thing among artists in general, so you purchase the game hoping for a different spin on what you already loved. However, what if it turns out it’s something different than what the trailers lead you to believe? This was me with Scars Above. At first, it reminded me a lot of Returnal, one of my favorite games on the PS5 and now PC. An alien world featuring large monoliths with overgrowth all over, creepy monster designs coupled with quick third-person shooting instantly made me think Returnal. To my surprise it wasn’t just a derivative copy, but instead something that shines with its own gameplay ideas.
Scars Above starts out introducing a massive alien ship, code-named The Metahedron, has traveled to Earth. However, the ship remains dormant, not trying to make contact or anything. In come the Sentient Contact Assessment and Response (SCARS), a team of four scientists and engineers tasked to make contact with the ship. In traditional sci-fi fashion, the mission goes awry and The Metahedron turns on and deactivates the SCARS ship, sending it crash landing on a far away planet. You play as Dr. Kate Ward, who awakes dazed and alone on a hostile planet trying to survive and find her teammates. To save her crew and make it home, Kate will need to survive killer alien creatures, and uncover the mysteries of this planet.
The story of Scars Above does start out a bit slow setting up its world, and doesn’t really show its unique side for a bit. During the first couple of hours it feels like a traditional third-person shooter with basic gameplay and a story that tries to hook you, but still remains vague. You’re introduced to a vision of a tall alien creature that is asking for your help from a monster that ruined her species. This alien vision or hologram is what lets you in on a bit of the story, as it guides you along the planet offering insight and help on how to proceed.
As the alien guides you, you come across a monolith structure, which will be your save spots and respawn spots. The alien mentions that these structures are what will recreate you if you die. At first I was thinking this would become more like a roguelite gameplay structure, but think of it more like bonfires from the Souls series. Interacting will create a respawn point, as well as regain ammo, life, and respawn enemies. I was a bit worried that it was trying to be too much like other titles, but luckily it comes into its own as a traditional linear story-driven game. I won’t ruin the overall story, but if you are an avid sci-fi fan, you’ve likely seen this story played out before. It doesn’t do a great job and making me care about anyone else other than Kate, but the journey is a good one.
Kate isn’t a soldier, but she definitely holds her own. She is a scientist at heart, and this plays a role in the gameplay structure. You will start off with a basic electric rifle found near some wreckage, but from there you will scan and uncover ways to enhance your arsenal from the fauna and flora of the planet. What sets Scars Above apart from most other shooters is the focus of elemental-based weaponry. There isn’t a single gun that is bullet damage based. You have your electric semi-automatic rife, a fire rifle that charges up, an ice grenade launcher, and an acid shotgun.
I know what you’re saying, yes, there are plenty of games that have element-based weapons. That is true, however, most games use it in as slight weakness or strength buff effect. In Scars Above, it is more integral to all of the gameplay, but not limited by it. Sure, you can shoot down any enemy with your fire rifle, but if the enemy is sitting in water you can shoot your electric rifle for bonus damage and it will spread out in the water hitting other enemies. If it’s raining, you can quickly freeze enemies, switch to the electric rifle for even more damage. Use the acid shotgun to shoot off an enemy’s armor, and then use the fire rifle to light the flesh on fire.
The turning point for me to see the potential of this game was during the first main boss fight. Until then it was using the weapon combinations as I described above, but the first boss is when it clicks. At this point of the game you will have your shock, fire, and ice, and you will need to use them all for the boss. During the fight the boss will unleash a flood of flesh eating parasites out of its stomach, so you will need to use your ice gun to freeze the pools to walk safely. Then you will need to use your fire to burst the blisters on its skin to make it spit out its weak point. You then have to switch the the shock rifle to shoot the weak point.
Having to frantically switch between guns while dodging attacks that wipe out the ice platforms, requiring you to refreeze the floor before attacking again, led to an intense fight. It was during this fight that I realized it wasn’t only a shooter, but a puzzle game in a way. Luckily, all the bosses have this same style of requiring you to use your arsenal in specific ways to take them down. It makes the fights fun and engaging.
Along with your guns, you will have a variety of gadgets to use in combat and in the puzzles. There is a shield, gas bomb, decoy, slow motion bubble, and time phasing. These all come in handy during puzzles, but also let you get creative with fights. You have a large mob of enemies coming at you on ice? Throw your decoy to group them up, throw a gas grenade, shoot the fire rifle at the gas to melt the ice, and freeze the entire group.
Kate does have an upgrade tree that uses points built up by gaining knowledge. This is done in two ways: scanning new enemies, alien data, flora, and finding knowledge cubes around the world. Admittedly, finding knowledge cubes is kind of a lazy way to scatter experience, since they aren’t attached to any lore or anything. Some can be hidden, but I unlocked all skills and still had five additional skill points by the end. There are some good perks to unlock like a quick reload, and then a upper tier of this where if you do the quick reload, it reloads all weapons. The rest of the perks are basic like additional health packs, larger battery for your gadgets, and so forth.
While I really like the gameplay ideas, puzzles, and the art design, Scars Above does have its issues. A lot of the issues stem from its smaller team and budget, it lacks the AAA polish in many ways. Animations and movement feel stiff, especially with the dodge roll and melee. The overall story and scene presentation is lacking a bit, and I feel like some gameplay ideas may not have been implemented exactly how the team wanted.
For example, the game makes a point for you to have to find a workbench to craft your first weapon, but then everything else after that doesn’t require a workbench. The checkpoints respawn enemies, but there isn’t any backtracking needed to make that an important mechanic. Now, if you have to backtrack to a workbench when you got an upgrade, then the checkpoints respawning enemies would create a risk vs reward decision.
Visually, Scars Above really nails its art design and aesthetic of huge amazing alien technology, and structures being overtaken by vegetation. There are some really great moments when it comes to the world art design. The only issue I have is that sometimes structures don’t quite feel blended in with the environment. At times it can look like an asset that was placed on a map, and not something that was naturally there. Of course this also comes with what I mentioned before of a smaller team and budget.
Enemy design is good, there are some really creepy enemies, and the bosses are great and unique. However, some enemies are reused just with different armor types. Where Scars Above fails the most visually are with its human characters. These looks pretty rough at times, and coupled with the stiff animations they can look bad. There are also some not so great environmental textures throughout, but ultimately the world art I think overshines those issues.
Unfortunately, sound design is where Scars Above fell short for me. It’s sort of a mixed bag all around due to nothing really impressing me soundtrack or sound design wise, but it didn’t exactly take away from the experience. None of the weapons really have any powering sound to them, and the soundtrack doesn’t get the juices flowing during bosses, nor did they set the tone for the mysterious world. Enemies have some decent sound effects that allow you to figure out the type of enemy and their attack for off screen ambush recognition. Ultimately, the sound design is there, but it just didn’t do anything for me.
Scars Above impressed me and it left me satisfied in the end. I’m glad it didn’t just try to be Returnal or a straight roguelite, and instead had its own unique ideas on how to take on bosses and puzzles. There are some flaws here, but I think that is due mostly to a smaller team and it being an AA game. The art direction and world have some great looking areas, and the bosses are really fun to fight. Stiff animations and some stumbles aside, for $40 this was a shooter I ended up really enjoying.
Character models and textures need work, but the overall aesthetic of the alien world is great.
General gameplay feels a bit stiff all around, but its focus on elemental combat and puzzles is engaging.
Sound design is a mixed bag with nothing that really stands out, but nothing that detracts.
Fun Factor: 7.5
Scars Above starts off slow and a bit derivative, but it does hit its stride and focuses on its gameplay mechanics that set it apart.
Final Verdict: 7.0
Scars Above is available now on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC.
Reviewed on Xbox Series X.
A copy of Scars Above was provided by the publisher.