The first thing you’ll notice when playing Scars Above is that this isn’t your standard Soulslike. Sure, it has all the staples of a game inspired by FromSoftware’s celebrated series; it’s a challenging third-person action role playing game with prominent risk vs reward elements, as you might expect. But in a genre where storytelling is predominantly told via the environment and lore dumps hidden away in item descriptions, Scars Above puts its narrative at the forefront of its experience and delivers it directly. It does this to such a degree that you can draw as many parallels between the Tomb Raider reboot trilogy with Scars Above as you can with Dark Souls.
To Be Alive At All Is To Have S.C.A.R’S
This is achieved by placing the protagonist at the centre of the experience. In the game you play as Dr Kate Ward, an inquisitive and capable scientist. She’s part of a small team called S.C.A.R.s that has been sent to investigate a giant structure that has entered into orbit above Earth. As they approach and start to scan from their space craft, the structure suddenly activates, emitting a blinding light. When Kate regains consciousness, she finds herself alone on an unfamiliar alien world. It doesn’t take long to find out that almost everything on the planet is hostile and there’s something very peculiar going on.
The story of Scars Above is primarily delivered through cut scenes, book ending chapters of the game. In between these cutscenes, Kate will often talk to herself to give context to the objective, and additional details are given via notes/narrative pick ups and during investigation sections. These sections move you into a first person view so that you can closely examine objects and even scan them to see their inner workings.
I won’t go into the actual story any more deeply so as not to spoil it. What I will say is that the narrative is mostly well paced, if a little predictable. If you’re paying attention, you’ll have worked out where the story is headed long before you actually reach the reveal. The only other note here is that Dr Ward can suffer from a severe case of Lara-Croft-Itis, where she talks to herself a little too often. The game goes out of its way to explain this at times, like Kate is making a log of her journey. Occasionally though, it feels absurd to have her talking to herself when she’s struggling for survival, surrounded by things that may want to kill her.
Kate Ward – PHD In Kicking Ass
Continuing the trend of putting the protagonist at the centre of the Scars Above experience, the combat in this game reflects the characteristics of who Kate Ward is. Combat in this game is tough, but not insurmountably so. Kate’s not a trained fighter or a hardened bad ass. She’s a scientist, so the combat is a little more cerebral than your typical soulslike.
Kate’s primary means of offense is the VERA, an engineering tool that she has rigged into a weapon a la Isaac Clarke. At the start of the game, it shoots bolts of electricity. As Kate explores more of the world, making discoveries and recovering equipment, she can craft new modules for the weapon. This enables new projectile types like fire and ice.
It’s a given that these weapons effect enemies (more on those in a second) in different ways, dealing damage but also adding a shocking, freezing or burn effect. What makes Scars Above stand out from the pack however is the way these weapons interact with the environment. For example, if one of the aliens is standing in water, a bolt of electricity will spread out across the surface like an area of effect attack, damaging any nearby foes. When it’s raining, the hostiles will take bonus damage when shot with electricity, or will freeze quicker when hit with an ice projectile. Later in the game, you can use the fire module to break the ice beneath your enemy’s feet, plunging them into the water below. There’s a plethora of hazards you can trigger to damage nearby enemies when they pass.
As you progress through the game, you’ll also collect a variety of gadgets. These do everything from giving you a shield of temporary invulnerability, to creating a gravity field which slows down anything that passes through it. These are controlled by a battery which limits use, but can be refilled with pick-ups.
When enemies invariably get up close and personal with Kate (and they’ll do this often), she has a laser cutting sword to slice them down. Dodge rolling, swinging the sword and sprinting are all tied to a stamina bar which decreases with each action and slowly refills when not in use. Managing this stamina, not sprinting into fights so you can fight back, can mean the difference between life and respawning at your last save.
Risk vs Re(Kate)Ward
Stamina, health, abilities and almost every other aspect of Kate’s combat arsenal can be improved with ability points spent in a skill tree. Scars Above again offers a unique spin on this RPG element. Rather than using experience or other metrics that you could potentially farm, this game uses ‘knowledge’. This offers a lovely symmetry between the lead character being an inquisitive and smart doctor rather than a beefed up killing machine.
Knowledge is gained via a few different methods. Primarily, it’s by actually learning something. When Kate first defeats a new enemy type, she gets the chance to scan them. This, of course, adds to the knowledge and has the added benefit of highlighting weak spots on subsequent versions of the same enemy you come across should you scan them. Also dotted around the game world are purple prisms. Collect these and they’ll add a chunk to the knowledge bar.
These purple prisms are one of the primary risk vs reward elements of Scars Above. Off the reasonably linear beaten track of the game are a myriad of dead ends and branches to explore. The vast majority of these prisms can be found in these offshoots – but often it’ll mean taking on additional enemies. It’s a constant balancing act. Do I have enough health and/or gadgets to head down that dangerous looking passageway? Do I risk it to get an ability point earlier? It’s a major boon of the way that Scars Above has been developed which rewards those that explore, but maybe punishes those who’re unprepared.
Death From Above
The rogue’s gallery of hostile beasties you’ll come across in Scars Above is varied and impressive. Each one is lethal in their own way. Little crab things make way for fanged worm aliens that pop out of bodies of water. Big, tanking ape-like foes that come in various elemental forms are joined by toothy dogs that sprint across the battlefield. The enemies evoke the vibes of Alien and The Thing at times, blending high sci-fi with fantasy.
That’s most true of the boss battles. There’s some spine tingling creations to battle against, each more challenging than the last. As is par for the course for Scars Above, these bosses are a bit more thought provoking than a straight fight. For example, in one boss battle, your standard weaponry is essentially useless against the enemy itself. You’ve got to think outside the box to find a vulnerability. Visually, the enemies look the part. They’re inventive and threatening without being too garish as to tip into the horror genre.
The same can be said about the environment you’ll be exploring. Foggy swamps lead to caverns in the mountains. Flesh filled tunnels spiral out to snow filled passages. Alien architecture is balanced against natural features in an aesthetic which is as enticing as it is menacing and mysterious. For the most part, Scars Above is a gorgeous looking game.
Wounds Turn To Scars
There are moments of jank here and there – invisible walls for you to run in to, the textures of broken ice spreading up walls, some corners of the world that don’t match up to the quality elsewhere – but these moments are few and far between.
There was one example during my time with this title where a puzzle broke down without an easy fix. The aim of this section was to freeze some turning rings to form a bridge. Unfortunately, I got a little too exuberant with my frost gun and couldn’t get the rings to start turning again. After killing myself, the puzzle was reset and I could clear it without issue on the second time of asking.
Scars Above, So Below
There’s one irritation with the general gameplay too. Some of the enemy types leave a cloud of toxic gas in their wake after being killed. This will slowly eat away at your health unless you have the necessary consumable. When you’re in tight corridors or slim passageways, you might find yourself simply waiting for this cloud to disperse before moving on, slowing down the game play without really adding anything to the experience.
Despite its few niggles, I feel confident in recommending Scars Above to those who’ve been looking for a way into this genre. This game should be commended for being such an approachable and accessible soulslike. This genre can be unforgiving for newcomers but it feels like effort has been put into making sure this game is playable by a wide audience. The story is clear in its presentation, requiring little from the player beyond the cutscenes. The controls and UI are intuitive. Pillars replicate the bonfire formula of Dark Souls but when you die, all you lose is progress, rather than any experience or souls. Despite its challenge, Scars Above is an ‘easy’ game to play and lose an afternoon with.
By building the experience around its main protagonist, Scars Above creates impressive symmetry between its story, combat and systems. This results in a standout sci-fi soulslike that’ll accommodate genre aficionados and newcomers alike. It has a few blemishes but they do little to sour the experience.
Scars Above is launching on PS5 (review platform), PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series and PC on Feb 28th, 2023.
Developers: Mad Head Games
Publishers: Prime Matter
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.
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