Scars Above Review – Not the AA Soulslike You Thought It’d Be
Title: Scars Above
Developer: Mad Head
Release Date: February 28, 2023
Reviewed On: PS5
Publisher: Prime Matter
Over the years, I’ve found myself defining games as AA less and less. Truth be told, I feel developers have found ways to take advantage of the tools and skills they have without the need to create shovelware products or overly ambitious experiences outside of their means. However, that all changed after I played Scars Above. This game has all the makings of an experience that tries to do and be too much, and although it can be endearing in some moments, the bizarre gameplay systems will quickly remind you why you stopped playing after the first few hours.
Scars Above has an amazing narrative. In fact, it is probably my favorite thing about it. The sci-fi writing and detailed world-building highlight the experience, which is shown in a few of the in-game systems. The story follows Kate, who we’re told is NOT a soldier but a scientist and a member of a group known as SCAR. This elite crew was put together to make contact with an alien ship found in Earth’s orbit.
However, as soon as they make contact, their ship is blasted across space to a faraway planet. Here, Kate meets an alien apparition who feeds her information about the world and what she will face moving forward. Not only does her quest involve finding her lost crew mates, but she also must unlock the secrets of the hostile creatures that plague this planet.
While the story evolves across its four chapters, everything this world offers is given in-depth details and analysis thanks to Kate’s keen brain. This is a significant feature and one that I enjoyed the most. It bleeds into puzzle-solving and weapon crafting, which just makes sense due to how much of a nerd Kate truly is.
Puzzles aren’t explicitly tricky to figure out, but they do require some thought. Further, there were rarely repeat puzzles to progress, which kept them from becoming dull. Finally, although there is a scan feature, I never used it, as the game makes it pretty clear what you can and can’t interact with. What is lacking is a map to show where you haven’t explored, which is disappointing because skill points are highly dependent on exploring.
Although the game is rather linear, multiple branching paths lead to knowledge points. These act as experience points to gain skill-ups for upgrades. No, this game isn’t as simple as farming enemies for experience. To be clear, enemies don’t provide any experience but often drop ammo. So, not having a map leads to passing up experience points and you may find yourself at a place of no return sooner or later.
The skills acquired are beneficial and quite clever. Things like extra ammo found after you’ve emptied a clip to quicker reload times to additional ways to heal make the dangerous terrain a little more manageable. However, everything comes down to gameplay, and that’s where Scars Above goes below.
Let’s just get this out of the way; although challenging with interactable pillars that act as checkpoints and an unnecessary stamina bar (trust me, by chapter 3, you’ll forget it’s there), I don’t see Scars Above as a Souls-like game. This is ultimately a third-person shooter adventure, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. However, the gunplay here is rough. Kate has elemental weapons that are all needed to fight against any of the tougher enemies. This is actually a relatively cool system because it works exceptionally well.
Players can utilize an ice shot to freeze enemies and then electrocute them for added damage or knock out their weak points. There’s a significant lack of enemy designs, though, and you’ll start to see just a room of enemies with several of the same types to slow you down. Even if they’re an alternate design, they seem to have the same attack patterns and weak points, which I found strange.
The runtime of this adventure isn’t that long, but these encounters definitely pad the experience. There are moments when you’ll need to watch out for hypothermia while attempting to take down several large enemies and knock them into the ice. This is more annoying than challenging because you use the same tactics repeatedly. In one room, I faced three giant ice gorilla things and took them all down the same way by leading them to a pool of ice and freezing them. I just thought it was overkill.
Aiming is also a problem, and I don’t recommend using the aim asset feature as it really throws off your shots at times. Luckily, there are throwable items, which do make late-game encounters a bit easier to manage if used properly. At this point, you’ll likely be forcing yourself to have fun in this world, but you can easily cheese your way through most tough encounters. Unfortunately, nothing about this makes the environments feel cohesive or connected. I know I’m moving forward, but the gameplay feels directionless, which waned on the experience.
There seems to be too much tacked onto this experience. Soon, you’ll realize that you don’t actually have to fight the enemies, and most of them you can pass up if you’re fast enough. So there’s honestly no real need to fight them, especially since the only consequence of dying is that you get sent back, but opened paths and doors remain open.
Boss encounters are decent, but I even found ways to cheese my way through those. This can be seen as player freedom, but these extravagant bosses deserved better than me taking advantage of the numerous in-game systems. I failed to mention that there’s also a melee attack, but outside of cutting down a few vines, you’ll never use this once you get your gun.
Graphically, I found Scars Above to be a gloomy time. It’s great if you enjoy rocks, swamps, or snow-covered rocks, but outside of those, it’s a rather plain environment. The best parts are when you’re running through an open field, but that doesn’t last too long. Still, the character models are pretty good, along with the voice acting.
Scars Above feature a few accessibility options for players, one of which is an easy mode, which still carries a challenge. This can be changed at any time during gameplay, but I feel that an easier mode should be available for those who wish to simply enjoy the story.
Scars Above is a messy experience with some excellent sci-fi writing. I became lost several times due to the lack of direction and found the enemy placement haphazard and frustrating. The game fails in too many ways as a third-person shooter but does pass as an adventure with light puzzle-solving. Ultimately, it feels like a mixing pot of systems that don’t work together, but that challenge may be enough for some players to see through to the end.
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