Initially revealed at Gamescom last year, Scars Above is a challenging action game set in a science fiction-inspired world full of places to explore and creatures to survive. In truth it’s a little bit Souls, a little bit Metroid, and a lot of fun, elemental combat. It’s a lot smaller in scope than any of the games it seems inspired by, but Scars Above is a decently exciting romp through an alien planet, acquiring knowledge and burning things on your quest for truth and the scientific method.
Scars Above put you in the shoes of scientist Dr Kate Ward, one of a team sent to investigate a strange object in space. Soon enough though, things go awry and Kate finds herself stranded and alone on an alien planet searching for her colleagues and struggling to survive. You’ll encounter a strange, ghostly being that seems to be encouraging you to explore this strange planet, beckoning you to discover how it came to be as it is.
The game gives you three main ways to engage with its world – explore, do science, and fight. Exploration is fairly enjoyable, but don’t expect something as complex or rewarding as Metroid or Dark Souls on that front. Areas are structured around big alien objects called pillars. Think of these like checkpoints – you’ll start at the last pillar you checked in at if you die, and all the creatures you’ve defeated will return, but you’ll also reload your ammo reserves and restore your health.
Between pillars there is usually a path forward, and side paths that you can explore for collectibles and occasionally to open shortcut paths. Both are worthwhile. Finding a shortcut can help you get to areas more easily after dying and returning to a pillar, and collectibles are useful for upgrading your character and weapons for combat. Environments are varied enough to remain interesting, and you generally don’t spend long enough in any one place for things to feel stale. Exploring in Scars never really gets more cerebral than making sure you go down each fork in the road to find the goodies at the end, but it helps keep the pace brisk.
Science and the pursuit of knowledge as a theme is something that sets Scars apart, even if it is mostly set dressing. A few times during the game you’ll encounter situations or mechanisms you need to visually analyse to find important elements and then come to a conclusion about what happened or how a device functions. You don’t earn experience by defeating enemies like in most games, but by gaining knowledge about the world around you. This can be done by scanning the bodies of defeated creatures (only once per creature though, so there’s no grinding) and in a way that ironically engaged my ‘brain off’ mechanism – by finding ‘Knowledge Cubes’ littered around the environment.
The science theme is an interesting one and it’s used mostly to good effect. Your character becomes stronger through knowledge rather than strictly through violence and training. Just try not to think too hard about cubes that make you smarter.
Combat, then, is the other major piece of Scars Above’s gameplay, and it’s where the game shines brightest. Your main weapon is initially not a weapon at all, more a general science tool, but it unsurprisingly finds usefulness in combat. You can use different elemental projectiles which all have some effect on enemies and the environment around them. A lot of enemies have glowing weak points and some have moments of weakness you can exploit if you pay attention to their animations. Your initial weapon fires bolts of electricity and you’ll soon see the effect this can have on enemies that are wet or standing in water.
Later elemental upgrades like fire are used to set enemies or areas alight, and ice can slow quick enemies down to give you a chance to collect yourself. Throw in the gadgets you unlock throughout the game that give you even more options (highlights to me were capsules of flammable liquid that can set groups of creatures alight and a gravity well that can hold enemies in place for a short while) and you get a combat system that is easy enough to grasp but rewarding to experiment with.
Visually, Scars Above has it’s ups and downs. Cutscenes in particular bring things down quite a bit. The animation is quite wooden in both general movement as well as faces – it reminded me of scenes in the first Mass Effect and it feels a generation or two behind compared to its contemporaries. Once you’re through the cutscenes though, actual gameplay looks quite decent. There are some definite standout creature designs that I really enjoyed and some varied, well-realised alien environments to admire and move around in.
Sound design has some highlights as well. Music generally is pretty sparse during the experience, but some particularly cool moments are accented by fantastic sci-fi synth music that bring scenes to life.
I had a pretty fun time with Scars Above. Its themes of science and the pursuit of knowledge are a neat idea and the story goes to some interesting places that I found fairly compelling and even timely given recent advances in AI technology. The elementally-infused combat is engaging enough to feel fresh throughout and environments are varied enough that the exploration doesn’t get stale until a section in the late game that I found killed the pace a bit right as things were getting interesting.
Scars Above's exploration gameplay is rewarding, if a little trite and it's characters mostly forgettable – but some inventive combat saves it mediocrity. A decently fun, if not overly groundbreaking, sci-fi action adventure.