Scathe leaves me conflicted. Coming from a tiny indie team (Damage State Ltd/Kwalee), there’s potential here for an entertaining, classically-styled FPS. At times, the gameplay loop had me hooked for up to an hour, yet every session inevitably ended with the growing sensation Scathe was too unguided, too repetitive, and failed to meaningfully evolve the combat encounters.
The narrative premise is simple and told mostly by the in-game wiki. The titular Scathe – yet another armour-clad beefcake – is an “Enforcer of the Legions of Hell”, tasked by the “Divine Creator” to raid his brother’s realm, destroy his staff, and allow him to “shine his light on the chaos” or something similarly melodramatic that I’ve long since forgotten.
The barebones, unskippable opening cutscene and boss introductions are as flashy as the storytelling gets before you’re left with brief text entries and incessant commentary – think Unreal Tournament or Quake III-style announcements – from either the Divine Creator or his brother. Both sound similar and both seem to relish violence – one righteous, one gratuitous, I guess?
Entering certain regions, picking up new weapons, or encountering bosses can result in some unique dialogue but, for 95% of your playtime, you’re just listening to repetitive and generic lines either encouraging you to kill, praising your ability to kill, or mocking your demise. If Scathe had anything resembling narrative pacing, the uncanny similarity between the leaders of heaven and hell could have been used to great effect.
Of course, Scathe sells itself as a “bullet hell shooter” with guns, spells, demons, explosions, and attitude. I’ll accept narrative is secondary and potentially inessential – but only if the shooting is fun and there’s a satisfying flow to progression. Unfortunately, Scathe only hits that rhythm in short bursts, as its structure and a lack of restraint work against it.
Rat-tat tat tat tat tat tat tat!
The DOOM-inspired gunplay (the modern ones), although not as punchy as some shooters, feels good – especially when you consider the starting weapon is an infinite-ammo machine gun with a multi-rocket launcher on a cool-down. The “Hell-Hammer” immediately feels powerful and – a rarity in the genre – I never begrudged falling back on it. It tears through most basic demons in a few seconds, is great for tracking fast-moving targets, and the secondary serves as both an AoE attack for smaller demons and a high-damage single-target attack if you can land them all on larger demons or bosses.
To Scathe’s credit, the rest of the arsenal feels equally powerful, even if they’re more situational and ammunition feels woefully limited in contrast. The shotgun tears apart everything at close range but also launches proximity mines to cover your rear or chokepoints. The crossbow is a precision one-shot-one-kill weapon for basic demons, while the secondary fire is a bolt that ricochets between clustered targets. Even the flamethrower, which just fires flaming rounds, has a horizontal line of fire as the secondary – great for clearing corridors. Magic – which requires killing foes to recharge a “soul” meter – ranges from a perfunctory healing spell to an overpowered ability that simply explodes all non-boss creatures in a gloriously gory radius.
With so many ways to kill, Scathe has no shortage of demons to punish; maybe too many. Most are variants of the genre staples: think melee rushers, gunners, grenadiers, nimble flyers, powerful but stationary turrets, bosses that function as demonic weapon platforms, and, infuriatingly, far too many variants of suicidal exploders. These range from tiny toxic spiders to shambling reanimated corpses, and exploding balls that hurtle around erratically. I honestly died to these more than any other basic demon – instantaneously on several occasions when they spawned on top of me – and the game would be better off without them (or at least reducing their numbers).
On the upside, most enemies and bosses keep their distance and use ranged attacks. With no hit-scan enemies, this means the screen is often filled with projectiles all converging on your position. Circle-strafing, jumping over horizontal waves of bullets, avoiding predictable turret attack patterns, and dashing through unavoidable walls of fire are all skills vital to staying alive. This is the aforementioned “bullet hell” element and, at least during the opening hour or two, it makes for entertaining combat where you rarely stop moving or take your finger off the trigger.
Hand-crafted levels, generic arena battles, repetition…
Scathe’s pseudo-rogue-lite structure lets you pick a path through a maze of interconnected zones, many of which are combat encounters but a few are chambers with new weapons and also serve as a restart point should you die without lives in reserve. You’ll want to familiarize yourself with the map screen and distinctive runes above level transitions, as Scathe forces you to collect enough “runes” to enter boss doors – which you must defeat to collect the four “hellstones” needed to escape.
At first, I enjoyed exploring the hand-crafted levels, tearing through demons and hunting for several runes tucked away off the beaten path – a process often requiring some light platforming or switch hunting. The problem is level quality is variable, there are so many of them rune-hunting gets tiresome, insta-kill pits are always annoying, and the combat grows increasingly stale once you realise there’s little encounter diversity and the AI is simplistic.
Although several levels feel satisfyingly complex and visually diverse – with many offering multiple paths and exits – the combat relies too much on locking you into an arena and throwing enemies at you haphazardly until you’ve killed enough. Hell, some levels are nothing BUT glorified squares with the exits locked until you kill X-number of demons. I can’t help but feel this was to offset the limited AI, as backing into the starting corridor and holding down the trigger was often enough to deal with the conga line of demons that followed.
As a result, Scathe’s arena battles never feel as deliberate or thoughtful as its peers. Enemies simply pop into existence in front of you as you thin their ranks, until you finally exhaust the encounter limit. It never feels like Scathe is deliberately spawning in a powerful ranged attacker during a melee rush to complicate matters, or introducing a powerful demon with a knock-back attack during fights on catwalks above lava. It feels like Scathe is just throwing everything at you, all the time, and this is likely a consequence of the developers no knowing which weapons or magic spells players picked up on their route.
Worst of all is that backtracking through a level on the hunt for runes often respawns enemies and transitioning back to a location resets all objectives, scripted arena battles, and mini-boss encounters. When you add in the incessant, repetitive commentary – which can include continuously nagging you to find a relic you’ve already picked up – it begins to grate. Mercifully, some levels can just be run through and – though I’m not sure if this was deliberate – I could dash through many energy barriers blocking doorways.
Relentless but without restraint
I honestly wish Scathe gelled with me. The more complex levels, the creative and powerful weapons, the gruesome yet attractive visuals, and the thumping soundtrack – all these elements deserve praise. However, the variable level quality, over-reliance on boring arena battles, tedious backtracking, repetitive commentary, and lack of guided progression began to wear me down after half-dozen hours. The drop-in/drop-out coop – which I had no luck with during this pre-launch window – will no doubt improve the experience but won’t change the fundamental issues.
In such a crowded genre, with such a high bar, Scathe needed to nail the quality of each combat encounter before creating dozens of levels, a massive roster of hit-and-miss demons, and endless wave-based roadblocks. As a result, what should be the core of the experience often feels like the least thoughtful and polished element. Combat is suitably relentless but lacks restraint, throwing everything at you with little sense of variation or evolution over time.
Of course, patches and tweaks could make for a very different experience in a few months but, at launch, Scathe only offers short-lived fun with many better competitors out there.
A preview/review code for Scathe was provided to gameblur by the publisher.
Scathe (PC) ReviewScathe (PC) Review
- Powerful and satisfying weapons and spells
- Several visually distinct and complex levels
- Impressive visuals and soundtrack for an indie title
- Combat becomes stale quickly
- An over-reliance on haphazard arena battles
- Backtracking for runes is tedious
- Incessant, repetitive commentary