The first thing you’d probably think of when seeing Scars Above is that it looks like Returnal or Remnant from the Ashes. Well I’m sorry to disappoint you because it plays and looks worse than both of those titles. Mad Head Games’ newest project Scars Above is a challenging yet unrewarding science fiction third person shooter. I'm not expecting this title to have the same budget or polish as a triple A title like Returnal, but it plays a lot jankier than the similarly priced and well received Remnant from Gunfire Games. In a sea of Soulslike titles, Scars Above does very little to stand out, even with its somewhat novel approach to combat.
Scars Above has you assume the role of doctor Kate Ward, who is part of the Sentient Contact Assessment and Response (SCAR) team, sent to investigate an enigmatic alien structure that has appeared within Earth’s orbit. Things never go as planned and your spaceship gets pulled into the mysterious object, known as the Metahedron, and you awaken on a hostile alien planet with all your crew members missing. The premise is unimaginative and serves as the sort of cliché science fiction narrative that you can expect to see anywhere today. What are the secrets of the planet? What happened to your team members? Uncover the mystery and overcome the cosmic horrors in this one-of-a-kind adventure! I haven’t heard this one before.
The science fiction genre is one that excites and interests me, but the entire world presented here in Scars Above is just uninteresting and bland. From the visuals alone, everything feels drab and grayed out, with dreary colors that do the game no service. It could have been a pretty game otherwise. Certain parts got so dark that I had to turn up the brightness in the settings menu just to see where I was going. This is not to mention all the janky animations from enemies and allies alike, such as clunky facial assets when speaking. Kate looks so much like a lifeless android with her default facial expression that it made me uncomfortable just to stare at her. Although I have to give credit to the voice acting as Erin Yvette does a fantastic job at voicing Kate. She puts a lot of love and heart into her performance as the main protagonist and I look forward to her future work.
Unlike the games that it draws inspiration from, Scars Above takes a more unconventional approach to progression, and it’s not a very good one. The only way to gain experience points, called knowledge in this game, is by picking up purple balls or scanning an enemy type for the first time. Think of the orbs as a collectible of sorts, scattered throughout the nooks and crannies of each map, forcing you to explore if you want to level up. Collect enough and you will earn an ability point, which you can then spend on one of two skill trees, engineering and xenobiology. None of the unlockable abilities, such as gaining more health or increasing ammo capacity, affected my approach to combat, and for the most part, felt very uninspired.
Outside of mandatory boss battles, there’s virtually no incentive to engage in combat with monsters, and I found myself avoiding confrontation when possible in order to get to the next possible checkpoint. There are times in which you can’t duck under a rock to get to the next area because there are still enemies around. The only items of interest that regular mobs might drop are ammo, but if you don’t bother to shoot them in the first place, you won’t need any ammo anyways. Credit where due, however, as boss encounters are quite epic, and feature grotesque Lovecraftian creatures that force you to use every trick up your sleeve in order to succeed. Since there is no concept of “souls” in this game due to how progression works, you don’t lose anything upon death other than some precious time. Alien pillars act as “bonfires” where you respawn and restore all your health and ammo at the cost of respawning all enemies too.
Fighting is a mixed bag to say the least, with many refreshing and interesting concepts muddled by janky and frustrating mechanics. While this game does market itself as a third person shooter and you are equipped with guns, it isn’t about mindless shooting at all. As a scientist, you have transformed a scientific tool named V.E.R.A. into four different modules of ammo types: electric, fire, water, and poison. Scars Above’s combat design forces you to scan for color-coded enemy weak points and strategically exploit them. For example, the limbs of a malformed beast might have red glowing bulbs, indicating you should be shooting those areas with your fire type module. It’s a well thought out mechanic that serves as a nice change of pace compared to traditional shooting.
As you journey across the drab land of the Metahedron, you acquire numerous gadgets to aid you in battle, such as a temporary shield or grenade. Some of these are quite novel and even allow for powerful follow up attacks if you chain them together with your gun. A simple fire grenade followed by a gunshot of the same type will set all enemies in front of you ablaze. The game also encourages you to take advantage of elements in the environment, such as freezing water to prevent man-eating leeches from attacking you, or melting water to drop monsters into the freezing cold. You can even get hypothermia yourself from being too cold. Pretty neat right? An included basic crafting mechanic adds more utility and versatility as well, in the form of gathering fiber throughout the environment to craft things such as a shield recharge.
What doesn’t work well in terms of combat is how inconsistent the invincibility frames and hit boxes are. Many times you will have dodged far enough only to still be hit by an enemy’s swing. Other times you’ll instantly die from being chain attacked without any moments of reprieve. You also can’t roll through enemies so it is possible to be cornered by a group of mobs and pummeled to death. Keep in mind that this is a third person over the shoulder shooter so close range combat isn’t well fleshed out. You are equipped with a short blade that does a basic two hit swing, but don’t expect it to save you. Scars Above is a game that, like many other Souls-likes, tries so hard to be difficult that combat becomes cheap. You have a meager health bar and your stamina runs out with two dodge rolls. Thankfully the game offers three difficulty levels, so you can choose an easier difficulty if need be.
There’s actually quite a lot of puzzle solving involved in this experience, which both serves as a worldbuilding tool and a change of pace from the hardcore shooting. Many objects can be picked up and examined, with some revealing a secret compartment of sorts if you examine them hard enough. Some puzzles are more intuitive than others, with less intuitive ones being another point of frustration. The game often shifts to a locked first person perspective where you need to rotate the camera to an area of interest to interact with. Sometimes there is absolutely nothing to interact with and you’ll find yourself zooming in circles guessing and checking where the point of interest might be or simply wondering if the game is just bugged.
It’s 2023 and I can’t believe some games nowadays still don’t have essential accessibility options. I wouldn’t consider myself old and my eyesight isn’t too bad yet but I can barely see the text on the screen while playing on a 65 inch television display. Scars Above has the option to increase subtitle text size, albeit by a meager amount, but nothing to tweak the size of the HUD or other miniscule texts on the screen. Performance on PlayStation 5 is serviceable at best, with reasonable load times that are nothing to write home about. Minor DualSense controller features are utilized such as adaptive triggers but the application crashed a handful of times during my playthrough. Don’t come into this game expecting a polished triple-A experience because you’ll surely be disappointed. I get that it’s an indie game but a hefty $40 price tag is also something to be wary of considering it can be completed in one to two sittings.
Nothing is inherently wrong with Scars Above, but there’s nothing that is appealing about it either. Mad Head Games has created a mediocre game that wears its inspirations perhaps a little too blatantly on its sleeves. For a double A price, I expected more out of this clunky and short experience.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.