Scars Above Review
Everyone loves a good backronym for a fictional government organisation, and when a mysterious alien structure appears in Earth’s orbit, mankind is fortunate to have the SCARS – that’s the Sentient Contact Assessment and Response team – ready and waiting to investigate. What follows in Scars Above is a sci-fi adventure filled with twists and turns and moments of genuine emotional impact.
The storyline of Scars Above is a slow burner. To begin with, Dr Kate Ward has no idea where she is and how she got there. The alien structure seemingly transported the four members of SCARS to an alien planet, and thankfully it’s one with a breathable atmosphere. In searching for her companions, Kate starts to unravel the mystery of the planet itself and also the way that she is seemingly unable to be killed – instead respawning at strange obelisks when defeated in battle. I particularly liked the way that the game takes such a common place feature in video games and integrated it into the storyline.
On the surface level, this would seemingly make Scars Above a blend of Returnal’s sci-fi and Souls-like mechanics, something furthered by pre-release images showing melee combat and a clear stamina bar. In practice, the focus is far more centred on ranged combat and environmental puzzles, with many of the most atmospheric parts of the game being more about quiet contemplation than action packed fights. This is appropriate since Dr Kate Ward is a scientist not a warrior and must use her wits to survive. I found that I only really used the melee combat in the very early parts of the game and quickly came to rely on the surprisingly deep range of guns and elemental attacks.
Kate is able to scan both the wider environment and individual items, with the former providing hints to interactable aspects whilst the latter builds up a comprehensive glossary that feels entirely in character for a scientist exploring a new environment. Levelling up the scan ability also enables you to detect items and ammunition to collect but these are mostly fairly easy to spot. As with games like Horizon, ammo is made from the plants and creatures that populate the planet, with a great focus on elemental attacks.
You’ll start off with just a fairly weak melee weapon, but it isn’t long before you find a multi-function laser rifle that can be fitted with different elemental attachments. These are introduced to you at regular intervals, with more powerful variations becoming available towards the end of the game. Working out the best ways of using electric, fire, ice, and corrosive attacks is the key to successful combat encounters and also necessary to negotiate some dangerous environmental hazards.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the combat in Scars Above is how well it rewards you for exploiting elemental weaknesses, whether innate to the enemy or manufactured by your attacks and the environment – enemies standing in water or during rainfall are more susceptible to electric attacks and freeze more quickly. Some creatures are especially weak to being set on fire, whilst even the most powerful enemies can be slowed down by ice and poisoned by a corrosive shotgun blast. Switching between the different weapon modes isn’t instantaneous, but is quick enough that it never becomes an obstacle.
Whilst normal enemies are generally dispatched at a distance with the electric rifle, there are a number of boss battles in Scars Above that can only be successfully completed through combining your weapons. Some even have environmental hazards that you have to guard against, alongside worrying about the giant monster that is trying to tear your head off. These battles are a real highlight, and make up for the lack of variety in normal enemies. They are also the place where you will most likely use the various gadgets and tools you unlock too. Shields, decoys, antidotes etc can also be quickly switched between on the fly, giving you a enough options to develop different strategies.
Performance was solid on PS5, with only very occasional moments of slowdown present. Graphically, Scars Above is a decent looking game that makes the most of its more limited budget. As the game progresses it does begin to forego the more open areas and become a little too corridor heavy, but this is generally accompanied by the game’s narrative funnelling you towards objectives so is characteristic of a more linear experience. In this respect, Scars Above is a welcome addition to the ranks of the single player focused adventure and offers a respectable challenge without outstaying its welcome or becoming too frustrating.
That said, Kate Ward’s adventure is somewhat front-loaded. The early parts of the game excel in establishing the world and making you feel constantly threatened. New enemies and environments are introduced whilst also giving you a chance to learn how your new abilities can best be used to combat them. About two thirds through the game – roughly 8-10 hours in – the game massively ramps up the exposition and it feels like you spend almost as long waiting for huge swathes of dialogue as you do exploring and fighting. This is probably a symptom of a relatively smaller studio (critics of games like God of War: Ragnarok may argue otherwise) and it never quite gets bad enough to spoil the experience, but it is a shame that the atmosphere suffers a little as a result.