There's a boss about halfway through Scars Above that really illuminates how the game feels. Having just spent the last twenty minutes learning how to use a flame weapon, you find an arena covered in plants that warm you up. Hopping in, you may expect to micromanage your temperature while taking them down. The boss dies within a minute.
There are two versions of Scars Above: The cool scientific exploration game with organic puzzles and smart solutions its aesthetic wants it to be and the middle-of-the-road third-person shooter it becomes.
As I finish the five-hour campaign, I couldn't help but wonder what was cut out in pursuit of a more linear vision. Scars Above promises a scar but delivers a scrape.
A scientist, not a soldier
Kate, our main character, is a researcher and a scientist who has been sent, alongside her team, to investigate a huge vessel called the Metahedron that has arrived in Earth's orbit. On the way there, Kate passes out and wakes up in a forest filled with nasty spiders and entities looking to kill her. Whilst here, she discovers the ability to talk to a strange figure. Your goal is to piece together what happened and what it has to do with the Metahedron.
Scars Above is a game that borrows heavily from others. There are elements of Lovecraft here - the acknowledgement that our own search for wisdom can be our undoing and the fear that someone much bigger and uncaring has the ability to control us at any moment. It also takes from Returnal in both its aesthetic and storytelling.
Kate can die over and over again, an ability explained through the story itself. It's a journey made up of perilous actions and our ability to overcome even the worst parts of the universe. In pursuit of this, you may die frequently at the start. Enemies can infect you with a poison that, if left untreated, will deplete your entire life force. This teaches the player both the value of preparing and how the crafting system works.
We'll make do
As a scientist, Kate is tasked with using their brain to get around hard obstacles. They are given a resource throughout the game that can be used for consumables like a health boost or poison treatment. You are also given a limited amount of standard heals that can be replenished by going to pillars. These work similarly to bonfires from Dark Souls.
This being said, Scars Above isn't a souls-like, in the traditional sense. It certainly has elements of the genre like respawning enemies and a steep initial challenge but it doesn't use death as a central mechanic, doesn't have a traditional levelling mechanic associated with killing enemies, and it gets easy within an hour or so, foregoing having to learn enemies.
It feels fairer to call it a third-person action-adventure and it also throws in a little Metroidvania. Kate has an ensemble of guns that she uses throughout the game and these focus on elements like electricity and ice. They are not only a good way of signposting what enemies do but a new way of traversing the environment.
A puzzling affair
Scars Above uses these elements decently but doesn't bother to explore them much beyond a surface level. You use ice to clear a path above water and fire to sink enemies into that water but there's so much room here for good puzzles that it ignores.
This is a shame as there are definitely intriguing parts to Scars Above. It delves into H.R. Giger-style body horror and infuses this with a Transhumanist lens to delve into sights and stories that are really quite shocking. It often looks at humans and ponders "what's next?". Unfortunately, it never quite justifies our character's actions.
Kate herself is looking to find the other members of her crew and figure out what is controlling the Metahedron. This is a decent justification for actions but we're never really given a reason to care. Scars Above is a game focused on relationships it never quite understands.
One thing that drew me in initially was how Scars Above handles levelling up. You don't get experience from killing the wildlife of the planet and are, instead, rewarded for knowledge earned. You get this from scanning the first of each animal species, checking every nook and cranny, and progressing the story.
You can then spend that to upgrade Kate's health and energy, become more efficient at reloading, or figure out ways to use all that equipment. It won't majorly affect play but does give you a bit of a skill ceiling to hit - slowly drip-feeding mechanics. Though Scars Above is only a few hours long, you will likely have every skill unlocked by the finale.
Gunplaying with fire
For the most part, combat in Scars Above is solid. You have to manage your stamina as you move which controls your dodge mechanic and you have a handful of guns to swap to on the fly. These can be synthesised for extra damage or you can brute force your way through enemies. You initially start out with a blade but it is dull, predictable and slow. You will rarely use this.
The guns, on the other hand, all fill different roles and, if you use them just right, everything clicks. Kate's roll grants you invulnerability, encouraging you to move around the arena as much as possible. Most bosses amount to picking away at the side until they crumble. The game keeps bosses relatively fresh by adding environmental hazards to think about but the last boss is by far the worst boss out of them all.
This analogises my time with Scars Above well. It has ideas I like and manages to throw just enough to keep me entertained through its short runtime but it amounts to very little well when I still feel like much of the game's potential has been left unexplored. Instead of doing something new as we progress, I am left fighting the final boss, both underwhelmed and glad it can't disappoint me any longer.
A copy of Scars Above was provided by the publisher