Sci-fi is a tricky genre to nail. Sometimes, it can truly immerse you in its world, narrative, and characters. However, on other occasions, it can come across as rather shallow and unimaginative. Mad House Games have given fans of the genre a game that promises a “mysterious alien world”, “challenging” gameplay, and an “intricate” story. This game is Scars Above, and I was lucky enough to play this game prior to its February 28th, 2023 release, in order to really sink my teeth into what it claims to offer.
As a fan of difficult, yet rewarding games, Scars Above already sells itself to my sentiments well. That said, as someone who loves sci-fi and adores a third-person shooter that’s well executed, I was wholeheartedly looking forward to launching this title.
I was not expecting things to turn out quite how they did though…
The Scars Above
Scars Above sets up its narrative in a very generic way. You play as Kate, who is part of a team of scientists tasked with exploring a distant planet that could potentially contain alien life; the human desire to colonize and learn motivates the team of intrepid explorers. You quickly come to realize that Kate is an engineer, able to 3D print devices that will aid in repairs and maintenance.
Our team crash lands, with no knowledge of what caused the malfunction in their craft. Kate wakes up completely separated from her team and desperate for a route back to them. Something is awry though. Communications are down. Plus, flora and fauna on this world are entirely hostile. Kate is guided by a vision of an alien — an apparent native of this world. Whilst the initial goal is to find your fellow humans, you’re pulled further into an extra-terrestrial mystery that seems to run deeper and deeper.
The plot here is a driving force and whilst it starts off fairly tame, it gradually unravels into a mystery you can’t but help to be drawn into.
As you may have surmised from the unexpected arrival on this alien world, Kate is, for the most part, under-equipped to deal with the challenges ahead. Armed with a makeshift, 3D-printed gun, the denizens of the environment pose a massive challenge — the challenge becomes more surmountable via clutch upgrades to your firearm. You begin Scars Above with a toy gun that shoots sparks. You end with the ability to switch between an offensive option for fire, ice, and poison. In essence, your firearm becomes your sole source of elemental damage.
Different enemies have different, color-coded weak spots that take elevated amounts of damage from the corresponding element. What do I mean? Orange weak spots imply weakness to fire. Therefore, pumping those weak spots full of incendiary rounds cripples the opponent, leaving it open to lethal amounts of damage. Later in the game, using said incendiary rounds to melt ice sheets beneath the enemies’ paws plunges them into the deadly temperatures of the planet, freezing them and leaving them wide open to fire damage. If there’s rain, enemies freeze quicker, utilizing the moisture on their bodies to generate a freezing surface. In other words, the environment is everything in Scars Above. It dictates what elements are appropriate and the manner in which you ought to make use of them. It’s simple, sure, but extremely well executed here and makes for some devastating combos.
Rather than having a cover mechanic, which is what a great deal of third-person shooters resort to, you have a Dark Souls style dodge. As a Souls vet though, I learned the hard way that dodging is a last resort. Rather, you want to examine your environment and the enemies’ weak spots to surmise an appropriate strategy. You have a minutiae of ammo types at your disposal, but making these work with the environment you’re shooting in is absolutely crucial to victory.
Upgrades are fairly standard. As you collect “knowledge”, the things you learn translate into points. You can then spend these points on varying passive skills. The skills are divided into tiers and unlike other games of this ilk, you’ll want a clever spread of skill investment. You see, your consumables are dictated by the amount of “fibre” you have. You can collect fibre from the environment, but only a certain amount. Investing in your fibre capacity, along with how much it costs to craft consumables, will allow you to have extra heals, refills, and other useful items to use during battle.
The Gameplay loop of Scars Above is entirely narrative-driven. However, the combinations you utilize during exploration and combat is down to you as a player. I was delighted that I had invested in ammo and crafting because there’s a point in the game whereby your incendiary rounds are not merely for defeating baddies but also, are critical for survival.
Inevitably, Scars Above will be compared to the Dark Souls games and Returnal. It’s neither of these. Scars Above carves its own path. It does this by forcing the player to utilize all the mechanics available in conjunction with the elemental firearms. One boss in particular had me stumped. Upon thinking, I realized I could use the gadget that produces a hologram to lure the boss into one spot. Then, I covered that ice in flammable liquid and ignited the surface with my gun. What’s fantastic about Scars Above is that all of your options, from gun to gadgets, consumables to sheer conscience, are available for you. Bosses are a puzzles and a skill check. This “mysterious” alien world makes itself familiar to you by acting as a resource for victory. Scars Above isn’t merely a world, it is, in no uncertain terms, an environment.
Scars Above has a vision. It knows from the outset the story it wants to tell and the manner in which it wants the player to unravel that story. It’s phenomenal! The world is stunning and can be utilized in combat. The story itself pulls you in and as the mystery unravels, you’re beckoned to learn more.
If any of you have read my reviews prior, you’ll know I place a large emphasis on sound design and score. Scars Above delivers here too; the developers knowing when to rely on sound and silence/ambiance alike.
Visually, Scars Above looks amazing! It’s not just the world either. The inhabitants and wildlife are entirely original, yet also biologically unique. Everything comes together to provide a visually immersive alien biome.
The gameplay itself is also enthralling. Sure, the third-person shooter mechanics at first seem rather generic, but eventually become original. Mixing together the elements at your disposal to expose the weakness of an enemy is really satisfying. Something that instilled me with glee was making it to the snowy section and being introduced to the hypothermia mechanic. The more time you spend in the cold, the more the hypothermia meter fills. If said meter fills, you take excessive damage. Along the way though, you’ll see bushes that can be ignited with your incendiary rounds. Set them alight to create a radius of warmth that will heal your hypothermia. It’s fantastic! If that wasn’t enough, there’s an entire boss battle that makes use of this mechanic.
In essence, what I’m getting at is that this “mysterious alien world” isn’t just for show — it has a massive bearing on one’s progression through the game. Everything you unlock, from guns to gadgets, has a tangible impact on your strategy. This has been executed wonderfully and credit to the developers for understanding how “unlocked simplicity” ought to function.
The Scars Below
That said, having received this title two weeks in advance, I ought to review the product in the state I received it. The early section of Scars Above is buggy! Crashes happened at regular intervals. In one instance, the game showed me the title chapter screen but didn’t load the game. What do I mean?
It said “Chapter One” on-screen. When I pressed buttons I could hear Kate moving and doing stuff, but the image on screen did not correspond – it stayed stuck on the chapter screen. I encountered around four crashes in total within the first hour or two. I can only hope that a future patch fixes this.
This leads me to my summary of the early portion of Scars Above. It sucks! It doesn’t suck badly enough to stop one playing, though it took me around two hours to begin to feel as though I was no longer playing Scars Above out of pure spite. The first boss reveals its weak spot to you, but you don’t have the necessary options to take it out — it’s a battle of luck. Perhaps this issue wouldn’t be as prevalent on PC, but playing on a controller made those early encounters such a chore.
The story doesn’t really drive you to proceed for quite some time. In fact, the tutorial and first chapter are markedly the worst parts of Scars Above. The issue is, once you push past these early portions, the game opens up into something wonderful.
First impressions are everything and unfortunately, first impressions of Scars Above were genuinely awful. That said, the game does become brilliant. It’s just a shame it takes such a while to get there.
Scars Above is one of the most immersive and enjoyable titles I’ve played in some time. The world, characters, gameplay loop, and challenge make Scars Above a game worth revisiting and re-experiencing. The problem is one would need to get through a truly abysmal opening to feel the investment Mad House Games aimed for here.
Overall, an authentically fun game, held back by a poor opening.
SCARS ABOVE IS RECOMMENDED
Many thanks goes to Plaion for a PlayStation 5 review code for this title.
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Damien (dkpriory) has grown up gaming, from the humble days of the Atari all the way through to modern PC gaming. Unafraid to let a game steal his life for a few months, he is passionate about playing something immersive but also yearns for something to take him back to his childhood. Sadly no longer a member of the NookGaming team or creating content, but check out his archives on Youtube here.