While Scorn doesn’t begin in the best possible way, it does commence the right way. After introducing our hapless protagonist – a gaunt, frail, humanoid – we’re taken to a sprawling multi-floored chamber to solve a complex puzzle involving switches, moveable tracks, and glorified tile sliding. Depending on your intellect, it takes around an hour to overcome this puzzle and reach the second area. There’s no combat, a lot of backtracking, and little in the way of action outside of a disgustingly grotesque cut scene. Not the most heart-racing of introductions, then, but it does set the tone for what’s to come. No false pretences.
Scorn has first-person shooting, but it isn’t a grisly FPS. It also has deeply unsettling imagery, but it isn’t a horror game. Jump scares are mercifully absent, and areas are well-lit. This is more of a slow-paced puzzle adventure that’s more unnerving than terrifying; one that uses sporadic combat sequences to induce variety whenever needed.
An abandoned large-scale alien installation provides the setting, borrowing heavily from H.R. Giger’s “biomechanical” artwork. Walls and floors resemble ribcages, pulsating veins smother decaying structures, while weapons appear forged from bone. Some tools are even grafted directly onto skin, rendered in disgusting detail. Textures are rich throughout, and environmental effects used sparingly, creating one of the most striking and memorable game worlds in quite some time.
The UI is also kept minimalistic; just two gauges to indicate health and ammo that only appear on-screen while aiming. There’s no in-game text or dialogue either; nothing here is made explicit – the events that have taken place before your awakening are open to your own interpretation. The absence of text even extends to the lack of a hint system, with the only guidance provided being that some interactive objects have a light nearby. If you overlook a switch or similar, or don’t quite understand the gist of a puzzle, you’re in for a lot of wandering.
When combat is finally introduced, you’re likely going to wish Scorn was entirely puzzle-focused or had more indirect/non-confrontational means of dispatching its parasitic foes, a la the much-maligned Alien 3. The developers clearly intended for gunplay to be tense and skill-based – make every shot count by aiming with precision, while using the appropriate weapons for each encounter. While it does achieve this, more or less, the methods of doing so are largely unconventional.
Healing, switching weapons, and reloading during combat will either leave you dead or on death’s door due to their lengthy animations. As such, it’s nigh essential to confront enemies with a full clip, plenty of health, and a steady hand. This emerges to be a tall order; a huge ask. And, ultimately, running past enemies is the only way to survive some instances. You may take a hit, but chances are you would have left an encounter worse for wear – even the smallest of creatures cause significant damage.
The woes of the combat system are amplified greatly by the checkpoint/save system. Or the lack thereof. Simply put, Scorn auto-saves progress seemingly at random. There is no manual saving. Death can come quickly and suddenly – ammo and health are predictably scarce – and it’s impossible to tell where you’ll restart. You may have to replay five minutes of progress, a slightly more inconvenient ten minutes, or even restart an act. It will happily save your progress when you’re low on health or have no ammo – and either of these situations can have dire consequences. Adding to this, locations are purposely confusing – mostly comprising of identical-looking corridors – so most restarts leave you initially lost.
The combat and checkpoint system are a huge blow to the entire experience, as the puzzles themselves are well implemented. Every act has a large, multifaceted, obstacle to overcome – a central set-piece, usually spread over different floors. This makes each act stand out, and it’s clear that the levels are designed around each puzzle, rather than being intrusions in a linear path.
A few lighter puzzles also feature, including some glorified lock picking and circuit making. This helps greatly in keeping you focused, even if you aren’t particularly invested in the protagonist’s quest for survival; a gruesome and painful slog, spurred on by basic survival instincts alone.
The final act hints at what could have been, ditching winding corridors and combat for something more condensed and set-piece orientated. By this point, though, the damage is done and it’s likely you won’t want to return for a second playthrough – not that there’s any reason to outside one or two missable achievements.
Scorn can be filled alongside games such as The Ascent and The Witness – an entry in a popular genre that sets a new bar for visuals but has flaws so glaring that you have to wonder if the developers actually sat down and spoke to one another. Like those two games, it is likely to find a cult following based on its visual clout and intrigue surrounding its setting alone. This isn’t something void of all merit.
Scorn is unique, but not in a way that benefits the experience – the fundamentals are uniquely unconventional. Two years into the Xbox Series’ lifecycle, we hoped that Microsoft would be bringing out the big guns, not third-party games where the guns only just work.
Scorn is out now on Xbox Series and PC. Developed by Ebb and published by Kepler.