Scars Above, a sci-fi third person shooter from Mad Head Games, knows exactly what it wants to be. It’s a shooter from the golden age of PS2-exclusives, flecked with game design inspired by Dark Souls. It’s full of occasionally obtuse puzzles and aliens of varying sizes to blast, and different elemental damage types to blast them with.
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You play as scientist Kate Ward, a member of the SCAR team, after she crashes on an alien planet. An unknown amount of time seems to have passed.hile Kate remembers the fateful crash as recent, her memories don’t match up with what she’s discovering. As a result, Kate has to blast her way through the game’s story to survive the planet’s hostile fauna and a dangerous invasive species, in addition to uncovering the mystery of what happened to her crew, and also what happened to the planet itself.
If reading the above paragraphs has you nodding your head enthusiastically, you’ll love Scars Above, which manages to blend exploration and combat in just the right quantities to keep both interesting, with a core combat conceit that takes the Soulslike formula of dodging nervously around a boss and transports it into a sci-fi setting where your character is toting huge scientifically developed guns.
This isn’t the only way that Scars Above takes inspiration from Soulslikes. Monoliths serve as checkpoints when you die but also offer you a chance to refill your health and ammo in exchange for respawning every enemy in the nearby location. Barriers and items you’re holding aren’t changed, meaning like Bloodborne – the Soulslike I remember getting shortcuts in the most because of how bloody difficult it was – you’re pushing to try and open doors, find alien artifacts or clear pathways before you return to the monolith for a heal. You fight for progress or you go back and try to brawl through the encounters again.
This sort of risk and reward makes play interesting because you can go back and recharge your resources at any time, at the expense of going through each fight again. This encouraged me to push myself, but also meant I was replaying some engagements so many times that I learned them inside and out so that I could wipe the enemies out with minimum ammo, maintaining the maximum health.
This is kept interesting with several different weapons you have at your disposal: there’s a lightning blasting gun called VERA that is your mainstay, but you also get fun toys like a cryogun that fires a shotgun-like blast of ice at enemies, or a fire cannon that requires charging up to fire its projectile. Each of these guns will impact enemies in different ways: a wet enemy will freeze faster, while dousing enemies with a flammable liquid and setting it on fire will have expected, but no less spectacular, results.
You can also see the inspiration in some of the giant towering bosses. The one I struggled with the most during my time with the game was The Alluvial King, who has several points you need to shoot with your fire blasting gun before switching to your electrical gun to blast the glowing blue mouth-scrotum that has just tumbled from The Alluvial King’s mouth and is now swinging freely. Do this enough times and he vomits killer worms into the water around your ankles, meaning you’ll have to blast the floor with cryo shots to keep a bit of ice between you and the worms trying bite off your ankles. There’s such a lot going on at any given moment, and it requires real effort to stay calm and relaxed even while something is trying to chew off your entire face.
The shooting isn’t fantastic, and playing with a mouse and keyboard often felt clumsy, with shooting tiny critters often feeling imprecise. This plays into a more general feeling from the game where combat can occasionally feel monumentally unfair. Missing shots on an enemy weakspot because the aiming doesn’t feel right is an irritant, as is the fact enemies will appear from shallow water at your feet or burst from bulging eggsacs hanging overhead. It’s possible to kill enemies by torching the sacs, but when it’s hard to tell the difference between an enemy-spawning pod, items you can collect or just plain set dressing, you can easily feel a little miffed after you get cheesed to death by an enemy you didn’t see coming. So far, so soulslike, eh?
Scars Above is, however, very much its own game. The world is vibrant and interesting, even though you’ll spend most of your time venturing from barren swamp to barren fleshy swamp, with the game even treating you to a mountainside at one point, challenging you not to freeze to death in the colder climes.
Despite the grim circumstances you find yourself in, it’s a more optimistic world than the Soulslike games it draws inspiration from. One moment after a tense boss fight has you relaxing alongside some bovine-like aliens, quietly enjoying a moment with some calmer wildlife before getting back into the fight.
Your level ups are also tied ostensibly to the pursuit of science. You level up with knowledge gained not through killing enemies but by finding knowledge cubes hidden in levels and from scanning enemies and plantlife you’ve never seen before. This means you can’t grind out levels on the enemies, and instead advance through genuine discovery which was pretty neat.
Kate levels with the twin trees of engineering and xenobiology, although in reality these upgrades are all standard shooter fare. It’s not clear what part of Kate’s xenobiology background would influence her getting 25 per cent of her health back on a killing blow with a melee weapon, or what about her engineering background would allow her to get the ability for a Gears of War style active reload on an energy weapon she made in a lab. You know what though? I don’t care. Scars Above commits the cardinal sin of offering up skills that merely offer percentage-based increases to stats, the most boring skill-up of all, but it’s got a clear vibe that it’s sticking to and it’s hard not to admire it.
These factors both play into what feels like an ecological message underpinning the world of Scars Above. Most of your ammo is harvested from plants or eggs in the world, while there’s a sense that something has corrupted the local wildlife to make them so hostile. Your presence is another contaminant, but one that somehow seems needed for the greater good.
This isn’t really examined in too much depth, with the game instead veering hard into body horror and B-movie scares. The paragraph of story above is about all that I managed to retain from my time with Scars Above, but I do remember several moments when the world managed to successfully creep me out.
When you return to your crashed ship, the Hermes, around the midway point of the game, it feels like you’ve arrived moments after the horror-movie finale. There are mutated bodies scattered around alongside the truly scariest piece of horror the game has, an uneaten meal of what looks like chicken katsu and mashed potato. This left me with a curiosity I couldn’t possibly answer, and perhaps didn’t want to.
I found myself more curious about this potentially cursed meal than I did the poorly sketched out characters and thin main plot.
Still, by this point you should be bought in enough that culinary crimes can’t put you off. By the midway point you’ve got a selection of different gadgets using two different types of energy and you’re juggling several different weapons and their environmental effects. When the combat flows together, you can forget the B-movie horror storyline – not a complaint as it’s just hammy enough to provide a reason for you to keep pushing forwards into fight after bloody fight – budget looking graphics and a game that feels just the right side of janky.
Sadly, the biggest complaint in the game for me is that the game is often confusing about where to go or what to do next. Some will applaud this lack of handholding, but with the labyrinthine latter levels, you’ll often stumble back into a fight you’ve already beaten, enemies renewed after you’ve visited a monolith. Some puzzles refuse to give you any clues, either, until you end up brute-forcing a solution after an hour spent squinting desperately waiting for inspiration. Your mileage may vary here, but for every brilliant hour of combat there was half an hour of stumbling around blankly.
I don’t think that Scars Above is an excellent game. However, I do think it’s a rather fun one, and has some exciting ideas. While the game is clearly low on budget, it’s clear to see it’s been put together by people with a great deal of passion and it takes some bold swings. Most of these wilder game choices combine to create something memorable that will sit with me for longer than a lot of games I have to play. Scars Above isn’t a must play, but it is an example of the type of game I wish was more common: a scrappy underdog with interesting ideas that punches way above its weight. Mad Head Games should be proud of the effort, while third-person shooter fans looking for something different will be well-served, here.
Scars Above is available on Xbox, PlayStation, and PC. This review was played on PC.
Scrappy, fun and with a meaningless sci-fi story, Scars Above is equal parts B-movie horror and sci-fi shooter. Adopting several parts of the Soulslike experience with heaps of its own ideas, Scars Above is low on polish but high on moxy, and could find cult status come sale season.
- Fantastic combat
- Gadgets and weapons combine for interesting toolkit
- Challenging game with fun boss design
- Can be confusing
- Characters and story aren’t well fleshed out