Scars Above Review – An experiment done right

Reviewed February 28, 2023 on PC

Platforms:

Xbox One, PS4, PC, PS5, Xbox Series X

Released:

February 28, 2023

Publisher:

Prime Matter

Developer:

Mad Head Games

Humans encountering an extraterrestrial object and being teleported to another planet isn’t a new premise. But even if Scars Above treads familiar ground, it experiments in other aspects to stand out from the crowd. These experiments pay off, giving you a solid adventure that doesn’t wear out its welcome too quickly.

A new sci-fi game from developer Mad Head Games, Scars Above intrigues with its combat mix of Dark Souls and Dead Space. Stay alert and react quickly or you will die often. The game’s weapons and gadgets aren’t fancy cosmetics; you need all of them to survive as the story plays out in an unadventurous yet coherent fashion with a few twists along the way. The atmosphere created by the area and sound design immerses you into the experience. It’s not perfect, but Scars Above gets enough things right to provide a great action-adventure shooter.

In Scars Above, you step into the shoes of Dr. Kate Ward, a member of the Sentient Contact Assessment and Response team (SCAR). Their goal is to investigate a strange structure that appeared near Earth’s Orbit: the Metahedron. Upon approaching the Metahedron, the team is teleported to an unknown planet and separated. Kate must do her best to reunite with her team while finding out the circumstances that brought them to the planet.

The story is rooted in science fiction, but there are also horror elements that fuel the narrative. Something’s not right with the planet you land on, which becomes clear early in the story. If you have played games such as Dead Space or The Callisto Protocol, what happens next won’t surprise you much. Scars Above takes the safe route and tells a predictable story, though it’s not without some interesting twists.

Despite not having the horror label, the story still has strong horror elements throughout. It never detracts from the overall science fiction story, instead motivating you to see things through to the end. The game also introduces its own unique concepts which result in story twists that differentiate the game from other science fiction releases. The twists help the story develop its own identity, and provide some nice surprises that you can appreciate. The story plays it safe, and the result is a coherent narrative that wraps up nicely without being too confusing.

“The story plays it safe, and the result is a coherent narrative that wraps up nicely without being too confusing.”

Playing it safe might sound bad, but it works in the game’s favour. Scars Above ensures that it tells a coherent story that addresses the important mysteries brought about by the narrative. Instead of trying to address certain themes and losing control of the plot, you always know what the story is about. There’s little (if any) confusion and mysteries are properly addressed, which all results in a satisfying story. Your immersion is properly maintained as a result, instead of getting disrupted by story threads that make little sense.

That immersion is especially helpful when you dive into the gameplay, which requires your full attention. The wildlife on the planet is trying to kill you, and will use any means available to get an advantage. From ambushes, camouflage, or attacking in large numbers, nothing is off the table. You must pay attention at all times while keeping your equipment ready for combat.

Combat isn’t just wildly shooting your gun at enemies. This would be a quick way to ensure failure. Instead you must pay attention to enemy types, weak points, and attack patterns. The environment also plays a role as you can hurt enemies with exploding pods or shocking them in water. You have four elemental weapons at your disposal: electric, fire, ice, and poison. They all have different functions, with fire acting like a cannonball while ice is a mortar spread. Kate also comes across a variety of gadgets that aren’t offensive, but provide great utility. They can make an area flammable or slow down time in an area.

Unlike other games, Scars Above encourages strategy and creativity, using your full arsenal in combat. You never know what’s around the corner, and you must be ready to adapt to a situation. Failing to take advantage of your arsenal, enemy vulnerabilities, or the environment will result in unwinnable battles or drawn out fights. There’s always a solution when fighting enemies, and it’s up to you to find it.

While you will gravitate towards your favorites, it’s hard to complete the game without using everything at least once. Every weapon or gadget gives you an edge over certain enemies, and nothing in your arsenal is useless. The emphasis on tactics and versatility reinforces the idea that you need to use everything you can to survive. Winning fights feels rewarding because you executed a strategy perfectly.

To ensure you can experiment in combat properly, there are pillars that act as checkpoints, just like Dark Souls. They will heal you and restore your ammunition, along with respawning every enemy. As frustrating as it is to see enemies return after defeating them, it helps you refine your tactics and improve your skills. The pillars also ensure you don’t lose much progress upon your defeat, preventing you from getting discouraged and motivating you to try again.

Kate is a scientist, and part of her work involves analysing her environment to make sense of her surroundings and solve puzzles. This is what allows her to discover plants that restore ammunition, or objects that help her gain experience. The more knowledge you gain, the more abilities Kate can access to boost her chances of survival.

Unfortunately, the goal of surviving against all odds does clash with the emphasis on combat. Kate isn’t a soldier and she only fights to survive. There are some encounters where it would make sense for Kate to disengage and run away from a survival perspective. But the game prevents you from proceeding in some areas until the enemies are defeated. Using your arsenal to defeat enemies is rewarding, but a tactical retreat can also be a strategic option. Not being able to run away or hide feels like the game forces you to battle, rather than keep up the theme of survival.

The environments you travel through in Scars Above are beautifully designed, and the enemies you fight are clearly dangerous. Great attention to detail was taken in building the 3D models and making the environment as realistic as possible. However, that attention to detail hasn’t perfectly carried over when characters are talking. While conversation is not a large part of the game, it’s obvious that the voices and mouth movements aren’t synced. The contrast veers into being uncanny, and it’s hard to ignore when characters speak to each other during scenes. It doesn’t fully distract you from the beautiful environments, but it’s prominent enough that you can’t ignore it.

Scars Above also runs on a single save file, autosaving at regular intervals. It’s helpful to avoid losing progress, but it also means backtracking is difficult to do. Some collectibles and items can be missed if you aren’t frequently searching, which you can forget about after an intense fight. There is a point in the story where you can return to previous locations, but it comes late in the game. It can be tough to miss out on a collectible and realise you likely have lost access to it for good.

Despite its minor flaws, Scars Above manages to stick to the basics and tell a solid story. The adventure can take you around 10 hours to complete, finishing the story without overstaying its welcome. If you’re looking for a good sci-fi adventure with combat that feels rewarding, it’s hard to go wrong with Scars Above.

8

Great

Positive:

  • Narrative that feels familiar and neatly coherent
  • Combat encourages strategy and tactics to win
  • Environments and enemies have great designs

Negative:

  • Lack of speech and mouth synchronization is hard to ignore
  • Only one save file

Scars Above sets out as a standard sci-fi action game and experiments to great success. The story intelligently weaves in some horror elements to keep you hooked with a level of narrative consistency and cohesion that keeps things simple yet enjoyable. Combat is fun and forces you to think on your feet, leaving you properly immersed in the gameplay. With only one save file and a lack of voice and mouth synchronization, the game certainly isn’t beyond criticism. Although despite the shortcomings, Scars Above is a great example of a game that isn’t afraid to push boundaries, and succeeds in delivering a fun experience that doesn’t overstay its welcome.