Scars Above review

This third-person sci-fi shooter has a ‘knowledge is power’ ethos, putting the fate of astronaut Kate Ward and her crewmates in our hands. Kate isn’t a battle-hardened grunt, an elusive bounty hunter, or a grizzled merc – she’s a scientist and an engineer, preferring to use brain over brawn. Rest assured that she won’t be breaking boulders with her bare fists or bashing an enemy’s brains out using the butt of a rifle. Instead, Kate harnesses the power of the elements – much like a Pokémon trainer.

After an expedition to a resource-rich planet goes awry, Kate finds herself jettisoned into the wilderness and separated from the rest of the crew. While following beacons leading to the crash site, she’s soon confronted by an apparition of an advanced alien lifeform that details the unfortunate fate of their race. Appreciative of her guidance, Kate eventually becomes wrapped up in the plight of the planet’s forbearers – a task that takes her through harsh terrane, battling savage beasts while unravelling the planet’s mysteries.

It essentially plays like a third-person shooter with a dodge mechanic, albeit one more methodical than most. Kate is initially armed with just a tool capable of firing electrical bolts. By scanning corpses and examining the rugged environments, she gradually learns more about what she’s up against and harnesses this knowledge to her advantage. Enemy weak points are learned and exposed, elemental compounds are crafted from plant life, alien tech is re-engineered into gadgets, and elemental attacks are used accordingly. Enemies dwelling within the water can be electrocuted or frozen, and chemical reactions triggered.

More tools – as opposed to weapons – are added to the inventory throughout its 8-10 hour duration, each of which can be upgraded by discovering discarded tech stashes. In lieu of grenades and explosives, a handful of sci-fi gizmos are added too. Proficient use can turn potentially fatal instances – such as being confronted by multiple enemies – into an easy victory. Indeed, over time you’ll learn and discover the best ways of dispatching certain enemy types with minimal fuss.

Kate starts the adventure relatively weak, which definitely makes for a surprisingly challenging experience initially. Some confrontations must be approached carefully, and most of the earlier boss battles require a few retries. At times I felt discouraged from venturing too far off course, in fear of facing enemies I wasn’t ready for. During the opening hours, it’s also worth mulling over which perks to invest in, choosing rapid reloading over increased stamina for instance.

Controls are responsive and Kate herself is nimble, able to swiftly dodge out of harm’s way and raise her weapons (read: tools) quickly during any unexpected enemy encounters. A radial wheel is used to select gadgets and gizmos, with the ‘Y’ button assigned for health injectors. Even so, some fumbling can occur – clearly defined icons or the ability to assign a gadget or two to the d-pad may of helped.

The first few boss battles are both creative and large-scale, calling for experimentation (one boss can’t be harmed directly) while later examples are little more than super-sized regular foes, suggesting time constraints or budgetary concerns. Also as the adventure neared its conclusion, a lot of the trepidation surrounding exploration had vanished – Kate’s tools become so heavily modified it eventually ends up becoming a gung-ho experience, taking on multiple enemies at once and entering impromptu battle arenas without fear.

Even though tension eases over time, Scars Above remains enjoyable throughout. This is partly thanks to its creative level design, which owes a lot to Dark Souls. With their various shortcuts, environments eventually loop back around to respawn monoliths – which is where health injectors are restored, at the cost of repopulating all previously vanquished enemies. The ability to respawn enemies is a slightly odd design choice, as XP is gained by finding tokens as opposed to through combat. By the game’s second half, or as soon as unlocking 3-4 health injectors, travelling from one monolith to the next in a single run isn’t much of an arduous or impossible task either.

The adventure takes Kate to murky depths, mountainous peaks, rolling green hills, and glacial caverns – with a surprise or two along the way. Aside from some unnatural-looking facial expressions during cut-scenes, this is a surprisingly good looking game, with subtle environmental effects and clever use of lighting to create a rich atmosphere. It quite regularly recalls the days when Mass Effect was still in its prime. The story, too, is intriguing enough to carry the experience to its end.

Scars Above is very much a pleasant surprise and a brave step forward, showcasing elements and ideas not always associated with the genre. If you enjoyed the space shooter Chorus, also from Deep Silver, it’s an easy recommendation due to it featuring similar sci-fi lore and thrills.

The majority of its flaws are related to its brevity and lack of replay value, which aren’t detrimental to the experience overall. This is an excellent example of an experience centered around the strengths and weaknesses of its protag, refusing to turn its hero into a walking Swiss Army Knife.

Published by Prime Matter and developed by Mad Head Games, Scars Above is out now on PS5, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series, and PC.

SCORE
7