Since the dawn of humanity, well at least since we’ve been capable of cognitive thought, we’ve wondered whether or not we’re alone in this universe. Is there life out there somewhere, also looking up at the stars and wondering the same thing? These questions have plagued us for millennia with nary an answer in sight. But sometime, in the future, this question will be answered. And chances are, if Scars Above proves prophetic, we won’t like that answer one bit.
In Scars Above‘s vision of the future, mankind has searched the stars and found no answers until, one day, a massive alien structure appears above the planet. While the world debates what that structure is, where it’s from, and who sent it, a special group of astronauts trained for mankind‘s first encounter, the “SCARS”, are on their way to scan the alien structure for answers.
Before you can power up your quantum defibrillator, the structure sends out its answer, and disaster strikes.
First impressions are important
Developed by Mad Head Game, Scars Above is an ambitious third-person, level-based, action-sci-fi-horror hybrid with a very firm focus on its story. Unfortunately, it’s a game that does not put its best foot forward.
Taking on the role of Kate Ward, you awaken to find yourself alone on an alien planet. What happened to you, where you are, and, most importantly, what happened to your crew become the answers she sets out to discover. And so you set out across a hostile alien world in search of your teammates and, perhaps, answers to what happened to you and this world.
You see, Scars Above has a prologue meant to introduce the characters and reveal the narrative stakes. That opening, however, has a very last, last-gen feel to it – almost as though it may have been added very early and left untouched, or inserted very late in production without enough refinement. It’s the least polished section of Scars Above and immediately made me wary of the game to come. The visuals in this section look like they were designed for much older systems, while the writing and interactions with the rest of the crew are far too brief to provide a good sense of who they are or Kate’s relationship with them.
I said hey, what’s going on?
Thankfully, those fears proved (mostly) unfounded once the game began in earnest. Scars Above has some beautiful alien vistas – from distant, towering monoliths, to fields of grass hiding vicious beasts. Complementing the world design are the great creature designs, specifically the bosses that are nicely animated and detailed. Character animation is also great, though facial animations for the human characters, specifically for Kate, are lacking indeed. Thankfully, Kate’s voice actress does a far better job of selling her untenable position than the game’s facial animation.
Scars Above’s overall story proves more engaging than that rough opening section led me to believe. I was intrigued from the moment I arrived on the planet, always pushing forward to figure out what had happened here – perhaps more so than the need to find out what had happened to the rest of the team. The story revelations occur at a good pace, though there’s enough information and foreshadowing to let you figure it out well before the end.
One nice aspect is that the game uses Kate’s expertise to provide a scientific view of her observations. Scanning enemies or objects will usually trigger an internal monologue from Kate as she details and ponders over her findings. It’s the perfect addition to a game that has a nice balance between exploration and combat, with quiet moments exploring the environment before a combat sequence (or series of them).
And I thought they were there to document alien life…
Scars Above shines when it comes to the combat, playing out like a typical action-focused third-person shooter. In addition to aiming and shooting, you can dodge-roll, swing a melee weapon for a basic attack, and are stuffed to the gills with gadgets to help you survive. You have one weapon that can be equipped with different types of elemental attacks – think electricity, fire, ice, and acid. Each of these attacks corresponds to the fastest way to take down the game’s many critters, with some being more susceptible to others and sporting weak spots that glow the same colour as the right element.
What I found most intriguing and satisfying is how the developers have worked the environment into both puzzles and combat. While the puzzles may be simple and rarely require much thought, it’s the combat additions that work. Electricity can be chained between multiple enemies, dealing extra damage if the enemies are wet or in water. Wet enemies can also be frozen faster or, if you break a frozen surface beneath them, be sent plunging into the water where they instantly freeze for a one-hit kill.
Bosses are also designed around these mechanics, requiring you to figure out attack patterns, what element they’re weak to, and how you can use the environment in the fight either to defeat them (or just to stay alive longer).
Kate has a variety of gadgets, such as enemy-luring holograms and gravity grenades to help you on your way. Gadgets are powered either by a battery or “Fibre”, a resource that can be harvested in the world or collected from fallen enemies. Ammo can also be harvested from enemies and the flora around you and the game is quite generous, albeit less so with Fibre. Your projectile weapons can also be upgraded to carry more ammo or chain-link damage between enemies, but you’ll have to explore the environment to find them.
The last combat mechanic to consider is Kate’s skill tree, providing the ability to purchase upgrades such as extra health, or using fewer resources to power gadgets. You gain ability points by finding data cubes scattered across the environment, which fill up an XP bar. Kate may be weak at first, but once you start to gain more gadgets, more abilities, and upgrade your gun, you swiftly become a force to be reckoned with.
Why must everything have ‘Souls-like elements?
This brings me to a major issue one issue some players may love or hate. Initially, Scars Above has a high difficulty curve, but once you’ve started improving Kate and her weapons, and learned how to fight efficiently and use the environment, that difficulty drops off significantly. Personally, I’m not complaining as it just means I could play the game and enjoy it, instead of gearing up for another Souls-like experience with its requisite difficulty and frustrating repetition.
Unfortunately, some of the ‘Souls-like designs are just irritating and I have grown particularly tired of save points that respawn everything. Sure, they also refill your health and ammo, but it can be tiresome to have to refight a bunch of enemies again on your way to the end, especially when they don’t drop anything you can use to upgrade your skills or gear. Consider that Scars Above, apart from minor shortcuts in the level that you can open and those save point pillars, isn’t ‘Souls-like in any other sense. It’s a more straightforward, level-based action game with an emphasis on storytelling. What do these elements add to the experience?
Rough start, solid finish
Despite the cross-gen visuals, Scars Above can look pretty good on the Xbox Series X, runs well, and has the now requisite fast loading times. For those using last-gen hardware, there are no visual modes to consider but it definitely felt more responsive on the Xbox Series consoles than my old Xbox One X, and that console had a slight drop in visual fidelity, namely textures and environment/enemy details. A launch day patch cleared up some minor stuttering and audio issues.
So, after a rough start that really undersells the experience, Scars Above evolved into a narratively intriguing, mechanically entertaining, and enjoyable action game. As a budget-priced game, it may not offer the most “next-gen” audiovisual experience, but the story and fun combat kept me hooked to the end of its brisk runtime.
A review code for Scars Above was provided to gameblur by the publisher.
Scars Above (Xbox Series) ReviewScars Above (Xbox Series) Review
Story8/10 Very Good
Gameplay8/10 Very Good
Visuals8/10 Very Good
- Great combat
- Good use of the environment and plenty of puzzles
- Entertaining, if predictable, story
- Rough opening hours
- Some 'Souls-like mechanics that didn’t need to be here