Scars Above

Scars Above is a competent third-person shooter with a mostly interesting science-fiction plot and a handful of otherworldly creatures to shoot at. It’s also a bit of a mixed bag; it’s incredibly linear, a bit monotonous, and often (during some of the boss encounters specifically) a downright tedious affair.

There are some genuinely cool design choices: far-off vistas and moons hanging in beautiful alien skies behind towering monoliths. Scars Above has its own version of Dark Souls bonfires, and these hovering, morphing geometric pillars serve as save regen points (while, of course, also resetting defeated enemies), reminding me of something straight out of the Oldest House from Control.

I quite like the soundtrack for Scars Above; it’s a pleasant, low-key mix of cool electronic background tunes that really improve the game’s overall presentation. The music ramps up when battle breaks out, especially during boss fights, after being a mostly subdued backdrop during exploration. Sure, that’s a well-worn formula, but it never feels generic or perfunctory here. Kudos to the composer and the sound designer, as the the sci-fi sound effects are spot-on too.

Scars Above

The skill-tree system is well-implemented instead of just being a requisite Far Cry-esque excuse to justify spending skill points on something. There are several upgrades that feel like they actively increase your chances of survival, and in my playtime, I was forced to make somewhat tough choices between upgrades that seemed like they could even the odds in the immediate moment. You can’t just save up points and buy the better stuff while skipping out on the early-game options, but being required to unlock a certain number of lower-tiered upgrades before getting access to the beefier stuff makes the climb up that mountain feel rewarding.

But there are a number of design issues that hold Scars Above back from being anything more than an alright, average game, in my opinion.

The enemy types are pretty generic, recycled far too often throughout the entire campaign. It doesn’t make a lot of sense that you’ll find the same creatures in various biomes, and they’re still utilizing the same movesets and are pretty much weak to the same attack types as before. When you first encounter acid-spitting worm-like dudes in the opening levels, they feel like introductory enemy types. When you’re still running into them in the frozen areas of the third chapter, and they’re still spitting ooze and taking the same number of bullets to kill, they become a chore to fight. There are some new creatures introduced along the way, or elemental variances of the rock guys, but it would’ve been nice to see some alterations, or just some different enemy groupings per biome or segment.

Scars Above

You do get some gadgets in addition to your elemental blaster, with more added as your progress through the campaign. For example, there are grenades that create a fiery area-of-attack once ignited by a blast from your heat ray, or a shield-type device that effectively gives you a limited number of parries if used while blocking at just the right moment. I question the efficacy of some of these, and I rarely used most of them since the blaster pretty much gets the job done. This just leads to the feeling that you’re amassing useless trinkets instead of unlocking more cool things. I will say, though, that the stasis grenade and extra health injector are nice to have in a pinch.

There are also the requisite logs full of game lore and a bestiary — if that’s your thing, then you’re in luck. I personally have yet to play a game outside of the The Witcher 3 where these features are must-have. That’s not to knock whoever makes these compendiums, but it seems to me that they are a waste of time and resources that could’ve been better spent on polishing other aspects of the game.

By simply padding the experience with menu logs and lore sheets that I imagine will mostly go unread for most others as it did for me, you’re ignoring the parts of the game that actually matter. I think game developers need to rethink their priorities and not just check features off of generic checklists. No matter how interesting a game’s lore may be, it’s the gameplay that will make or break the experience. If you cut corners in that department to add more worthless features, that lore will be forgotten anyway.

On harder difficulties, Scars Above can be a bit of a bullet-sponge slog that lacks the precision or fluidity of a game like Control or Returnal. I acknowledge that Scars Above doesn’t have the budget or resources as those two games, but I don’t think it lives up to its potential as a budget-friendly sci-fi shooter.

Scars Above

Scars Above is no slouch in the lack-of-polish department. Ramps and inclines have to be accessed specifically at the lip, because the main character can’t clamber up a foot-high bit of dirt. They can climb up specific ledges with white edges (yep, more of that tired game trope), but considering the climb button is also the roll dodge, you might just end up rolling into the sides of rockfaces when you try to engage that mechanic.

There’s also a tendency for the game to abruptly jump into a cutscene irrespective of what the character is doing. Once you cross the invisible, magic threshold, you’re now in a combat arena or boss battle, or you’re witnessing some sort of story revelation. Again, this apparent lack of polish undermines the overall experience.

There are also several instances where the main character speaks to themselves after discovering and analyzing something new. In some instances, their mouth moves, and in others it doesn’t. I couldn’t tell if this was to signal an internal thought or monologue, or if the developer just forgot to animate the lips properly. It never seems like there’s a reason for them to think a rambling observation internally as opposed to speaking it aloud, but who’s to say?

The protagonist also sports a bit of the old deadeye stareface. It made them seem nonplussed by every fantastical occurrence happening all around them, as if, to quote M. Bison, “For me, this was just Tuesday.”

Scars Above

Spending a little time varying the character’s movement in reaction to different terrains or environments, or just adding in subtle changes to their animations to make it appear like they’re reacting to a situation, would have really helped to sell the illusion. I mean, here they are, waking up on an alien world that is incredibly hostile, wearing pretty much nothing but some space pants and a tank top, yet their body language never communicates that this is anything more than a walk in the park (on a Tuesday, obviously). I mean, I would have liked to have seen them avoiding contact with surfaces, walking a bit more cautiously, or stumbling from time to time, maybe flinching before wading into waste-deep murky swamp water filled with alien bacteria. I would have liked something — anything — to suggest that all of this really is alien and possibly dangerous, and that although the protagonist is even-keeled and capable, they are also way out of their element and struggling for survival.

I’m not one much for the grisly murder animations in the Tomb Raider series, but having Lara get banged up through the course of the game — getting dirty and bruised and scuffed — helped sell the adventure. The most we get in Scars Above happens in chapter 3, when you enter the cold region and the character puts on a coat. This isn’t even delivered in a cool cutscene where they gird themselves for the challenges ahead; instead, it cuts in and out of a black screen and the jacket awkwardly snaps onto their torso.

Overall, I will say that I did at least enjoy the story, which was my main motivator for slogging on. The narrative is perhaps par for the course, and the actual dialogue is nothing to write home about, but this is the element that I found the most engaging and rewarding — I wanted to see where this was all leading. It’s barely enough to overlook all of the shortcomings of Scars Above, but at least it’s something.

So yeah, I’ve got a laundry list of gripes, and if I had paid out-of-pocket for Scars instead of receiving a review code, I probably would’ve been a little bummed out. That being said, there is some mindless fun to be had here — Scars Above is a competent B-tier shooter that is better than a lot of other games I’ve played, so its got that going for it. It’s pretty short and doesn’t ask much. It gets pretty repetitive (especially in the enemy department), but if you’re looking for a decent way to kill a weekend or have some time between titles you are more interested in, you could do worse. If Scars Above lands on Game Pass or PlayStation Plus, I think that could do wonders for giving it exposure without the aftertaste of perhaps having wasted a few duckets, because it’s definitely worth checking out if you can get it as part of a service or on a deep-discount sale.

Scars Above

Assuming Scars Above manages a sequel — as this entry all but suggests one is in the cards — I could see the next installment really nailing what SCARS Above is attempting but ultimately doesn’t quite deliver. Of course, it would need a little more attention to detail and overall polish, but I think there’s definitely some potential here.

Disclaimer: I was given a review copy of Scars Above for PS5, but the opinions expressed in this article are my own.

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