Scars Above announces Serbia's nascent game development scene to the world

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The Scars Above protagonist fights a giant enemy with bulbous growths on its arms.

I didn't really know what to expect before booting up Scars Above. Watching trailers and hearing more and more about the game, it was easy to be unconvinced. Mad Head Games has mostly created mobile games in a mix of genres in the past, from action and mystery to hidden object and puzzle games. The studio hasn't made anything close to the scale and size of what they're trying to do with Scars Above.

The Serbian game development scene as a whole seems to be similar. Social Game Director Emil Esov told me as much. There are some firms that make great games such as Nordeus, creators of Top Eleven, a casual football management simulator, but the grass-roots industry is a much smaller prospect. Outside of subsidiaries of major studios like Ubisoft opening in Belgrade, Mad Head Games is one of few pioneers of the country's industry.

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It looks like Scars Above could be the catalyst for change, though, and I was pleasantly surprised with Mad Head's first attempt at a mass-market game.

The Scars Above protagonist Kate in a storm surrounded by ghostly figures.

What's it about?

According to Emil, the first line in the design document to this day is: "Alice in Wonderland meets Alien". If that doesn't appeal to you, fair enough. I could see this philosophy in place as I went through the first chapter of the game, though. Kate Ward is a scientist and astronaut, investigating an alien structure. Crucially, she isn't a soldier.

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Her 'gun' is made from a welding tool fused with some elemental bits, initially built to boost the spaceship's power. It's a handy piece of space gear rather than a weapon designed to do what it ends up doing - blowing up aliens through different forms of elemental damage.

You'll need to get used to the elemental system too - at the end of chapter one, I had a pretty solid grasp of how things worked thanks to the early levels' design. Wet enemies are weak to electricity, ice can freeze them and set them up for a weak-point hit, and so on. The game makes sure you understand this, too, with the final boss of the chapter requiring the use of three elemental abilities in their different forms. Playing on the normal difficulty, I found myself really needing to focus, not just on aiming and movement, but on my surroundings and how I interact with them.

The story opens with a huge number of questions, which I liked. It didn't take long to leap into the action, and for a game with no giant IP behind it, it's so important to grab the player's attention as quickly as possible. Stuff goes wrong, leaving Kate in an unknown location, seemingly due to the alien object she was investigating. She finds clues dotted around and some remains of her ship and crew, but since little time has passed, things don't quite add up. It's a compelling mystery setup and I hope the rest of the game is able to deliver satisfactory answers and conclusions.

Scars Above protagonist shooting an enemy
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Plain graphics mask good ideas

Something that was clear to me at first was the aesthetic quality of the game. You aren't playing a ludicrously expensive game with a team of thousands all heaving in the same direction for ten years. If I'm being honest, it looked like a pretty plain, standard sci-fi environment. Inspiration was taken from classic science fiction, sure, but there wasn't really anything unique or special about Scars Above's design.

Playing the game made me not mind this nearly as much, though. If the team is able to get the game released, tells a compelling story, and offers an enjoyable gameplay experience while they're at it, I'm more than willing to overlook what may well be an unrealistic graphical expectation from me.

The upgrade system of the weapons and how you find them, the elemental damage, and the mystery you're trying to uncover are the main pulls of Scars Above, and are clearly where the focus should lie.

The Scars Above protagonist fires at a slug-like enemy
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Pressure to perform

Still, Scars Above is a game that's going to be going up against some real big hitters. The early months of 2023 have a whole lot of huge, fancy games launching, and Scars Above will be competing to open players' wallets with them. It's a new endeavour for Mad Head Games too.

"This is our first game in this genre and only our second in Unreal Engine. But the types of problems you solve during game development are the same, just on a bigger scale."

Scars Above is clearly a huge next step for Mad Head Games, but this sort of growth is baked into their culture. "I learned game development by doing it. I started as a 3D artist and am now directing, so that's my path. Ten years ago we had ten people, and now we have over 160, so we're always growing."

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Still, does the idea of competing with Hogwarts Legacy, Like a Dragon: Ishin, and Fire Emblem Engage pile on the pressure for the team at Mad Head Games?

"It doesn't really. When you look at the background of Serbia's culture, we are used to being under pressure. From the civil wars to our upbringing, everything. We know how to deal with that stuff, so this is just another thing we need to handle.

"For us, it's always a good thing to be competing with the best too, it's what you want."

I certainly hope the game ends up living up to these expectations - it's important for more of the world's game development industries to start being involved in larger projects, lest we become inundated with constant stories from the same regions throughout the world. If nothing else, Scars Above is a fascinating opportunity for the world to see just what game development in the Balkans is all about, and hopefully, open up more potential investment into the area in the future.