Gamescom is a mammoth of an event. Across more than 10 halls packed with everything from hands-on gaming to merch to cosplay, business areas and everything in-between, it’s nigh-on impossible to see and do everything in the one week a year that it’s on. I know I personally saw at best a fraction of the things I’d have wanted to in my recent time there, which makes it all the more fortunate that I did spend just 30 minutes of that valuable time speaking to the team at Mad Head Games and getting hands-on with Scars Above.
If you’ve not heard that title before now, you’d definitely be forgiven. It certainly wasn’t on my radar before seeing the trailer presented at Geoff Keighley’s Opening Night Live event that kicked off Gamescom this year. Even then, though I was intrigued, I’ll admit I wasn’t entirely sold on what seemed to be something in the vein of Housemarque’s excellent AAA third-person sci-fi shooter, Returnal, only with a AA budget. Nevertheless the surrealistic, dark sci-fi setting was more than enough for me to be invested and eager to try the game for myself, especially to reconcile those comparisons I’d drawn to Returnal. The short answer? Scars Above is inarguably its own, distinct beast.
I almost feel bad for bringing the other game up when talking to the team at Mad Head during my demo, as it’s clearly a parallel that’s been drawn with them many a time since Returnal released. Of course anyone with a degree of sense of the lengthy and very secretive cycles of a game’s development would hopefully understand that Scars Above was conceived long before anybody knew Returnal was a thing. Immediately though the more interesting and apt comparison here is to the likes of Metroid Prime, which still tracks in the areas where Housemarque was also clearly inspired by the bonafide Gamecube classic, but more excitingly manifests in this game’s approach to exploration and discovery.
Scars Above is what I would call a “scan-em-up”, a game that drops you into incredible and surreal alien landscapes and tasks you with making sense of them piece by fangorious piece. The world you’re in and the ways in which you survive it are quite systemic, so information is key to understanding those systems, hence the need to scan anything new and interesting that you happen upon.
There’s also narrative context to it, I won’t spend too much time on the story here as I feel it’s one that’ll be best experienced fresh, but its protagonist, Kate, is an astronaut scientist whose research crew becomes stranded on the mysterious exoplanet in which the game takes place. Kate isn’t a soldier by any means, but she’s smart and resourceful and has just enough survival training that, armed with the right knowledge, she may just be able to recover her crewmates and find a way home. The Mad Head Games team tells me that, unlike some similar games, the core narrative in Scars Above will be told in a very direct and defined way, giving players actual answers to its mysteries rather than getting caught up in symbolism and open-ended interpretation.
Knowledge also lends itself to Kate’s survivability by way of unlocking new abilities and crafting potential thanks to her engineering and xenobiology background. That becomes important when squaring off against the various and violent fauna on this exoplanet, most of which require considered approaches to tackle effectively. Despite some Souls-like structure in the way things like save points work, Scars Above isn’t really a roguelike, but it’s clearly designed to offer a challenge for those that want it and opt for it. Your mechanical skill at moving and shooting will be useful, but not as important as smart use of the environment and appropriate equipment to meet the situation at hand.
A good, early example in my hands-on session was dealing with a particularly ugly and deadly beastie that was eating my bullets for breakfast by luring it into some nearby shallow water and pumping it full of electricity once the game registered it as having the “wet” status. These statuses are a commonality in Scars Above, a bit further down the track I was using fire ammunition to light alien cocoons before they had the chance to hatch, and the devs informing me that there are many more examples later in the game including things like ice and more mixing of different properties. Aside from the prevalence and importance of research across the game, I think the fun I had with its combat was another pleasant surprise from my time with it. It’s mechanically interesting, nicely contextual and also just feels really good to engage in.
It also helps that, from the designs of the different planetary biomes and the creatures residing in them, to the impressive technical aspects running on Unreal Engine 4, Scars Above is a mighty nice-looking game for its scope. It’s not next-gen blockbuster levels of eye candy, but it’s got a distinct look and a great attention to detail that manifests especially when you’re inspecting items, rummaging around in abandoned crates or 3D printing new gear. It seems to be drawing a lot of inspiration from a lot of sources across all media but it’s putting them together in a cohesive and unique way that makes me very keen to see more.
Whether you were entirely unfamiliar with it up to now, or saw the announcement trailer and filed it neatly into the “maybe” folder, I urge you to pay attention to Scars Above. It was easily the biggest surprise for me at this year’s Gamescom event and I’m genuinely anxious with anticipation to see more when it releases on PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One and PC early next year.
The author of this article attended Gamescom as a guest of PLAION.