Scars Above review: fun sci-fi shooter is challenging yet accessible
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Featured Image Credit: Prime Matter
Scars Above was an unexpectedly joyous surprise which is ironic because scientist Dr. Kate Ward finds herself on what might just be the bleakest and most joyless planet I’ve ever seen. In the coming days, the comparisons will be made. You cannot deny that Scars Above shares several similarities with PlayStation 5 exclusive Returnal. Both titles feature a sole female protagonist situated on an alien planet in search of a mysterious signal - plus there’s the fact that each offers self-proclaimed ‘challenging’ combat. That being said, Scars Above holds its own and is an immensely fun sci-fi shooter if you choose to accept it for what it is.
Scars Above centres around Kate Ward - a scientist for the Sentient Contact Assessment and Response team which, yes, is SCAR as an acronym. Alongside her team, Kate is studying an unknown alien object in space known as the Metahedron. During an inspection, the team’s ship is pulled inside the Metahedron. The next thing we know, Kate wakes up on a mysterious planet alone. It’s clear that something has devastated and ravaged this planet, and perhaps even Kate’s team along with it.
Take a look at the trailer for Scars Above below.
I want to address that ‘challenging’ combat which left me feeling a bit nervous when I entered the game. Thankfully though, I found Scars Above to be much more accessible than similar titles like Returnal. In fact, I think Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order works as a more apt comparison in terms of combat. Throughout your journey, you’ll encounter pillars. Activate the pillar and your health will be replenished but so too will enemies respawn. Don’t be daunted by that thought though as Scars Above has several difficulty options.
There are three to choose from, the ‘easiest’ being Rookie. I say ‘easiest,’ because it’s definitely not easy. You’ll have to have quick reflexes and a half-decent aim if you want to survive the game’s boss fights - even on Rookie - but it’s not so hard that you’re going to be stuck facing the same boss umpteen times. In fact, it took me exactly five attempts to best my first sub-boss on Rookie so I then experimented with upping the ante. It was a short lived experiment seeing as, I’ll admit, I don’t have the patience for extremely gruelling combat but from this experiment, I can attest, Scars Above offers difficulty if that’s what you’re after.
You’ll have several weapons at your disposal. Your electric cutter serves as your melee weapon although I didn’t find myself using this too often. If I’ve let the enemy get that close, something has gone horribly wrong. You then obtain four elemental guns. To begin with, you’ll gain a gun called Vera which can shoot electric currents. You’ll then move onto the incendiary Thermic Charger, with two more beyond that. I don’t want to ruin the fun of discovering the later weapons. To keep your weapons stocked up with ammo, you’ll acquire natural resources. There’s no crafting involved. Simply reload your weapon and you’re good to go - which made for a seamless gameplay experience.
It’s quick and easy to switch weapons. On PlayStation, each gun is mapped to a directional arrow so you can rapidly switch between them and chain elemental attacks. For example, you can freeze an enemy using your Cryo Launcher before zapping them with Vera while they’re stuck in place. Your environment also comes into play. Using Vera’s electrical charge on an enemy submerged in water will offer higher damage, plus the water can conduct the charge to other enemies in the vicinity as just one example. This kind of elemental system reminded me of Horizon Forbidden West’s combat and was easily one of my favourite parts about the game.
That’s not even all you have to play with. You’ll also be able to operate devices including a hit protection barrier and the holo-lure (a distraction hologram), for example. These are battery powered and you will get so many uses before the battery needs recharging. On your travels, Kate will also collect fibres from her fallen enemies. These fibres basically act as a currency towards other combat tools like healing injections - at a cost of 20 fibres - that can either replenish your health or remedy any environmental elements affecting your health bar like toxicity. What I appreciated is that while there are so many tools at your disposal, making Scars Above’s combat more varied and engaging, they’re introduced to you throughout the game so it’s never information overload.
I think the variety of what you’re offered is what makes Scars Above so accessible despite the challenge it offers. If you’re more of an attacking player, I’m sure you’ll use the incendiary bombs and holo-lure to your advantage. Personally, I clung on to the shield and healing stimulants but that’s okay too. They allowed me to get through the game’s gruelling battles - and mixed with a good focus on chaining my elemental attacks, it proved to be an effective way to deal with the challenging combat. It’s worth nothing that some enemies will have areas that are more easily weakened by certain elements. Similarly to Horizon Forbidden West again, you’ll be able to run a quick scan on your surroundings to identify such target areas.
Scars Above doesn’t offer a hugely varied set of enemies, but that’s not too much of a problem because even if you’re familiar with them, it doesn’t make beating the creatures any easier. The easiest enemy you’ll tackle is a form of alien spider called an Arachnid Jumper which can be easily taken out with a couple of hits. What you won’t want to do is let an entire swarm get too close. If a couple of those bad boys land a successful jump attack, it’s back to a pillar for you. There are Arachnid Scorpiods which spew a toxic acid (and reminded me of Stranger Things’ demogorgons), and there’s Exo-Alluvials. These enormous rock-coated tusked beasts will have you shouting ‘AH, GET AWAY’ at the screen. I can vouch - and that’s just to name a couple of foes. There’s the Omnivorous Colossus, plus Feliform Rippers - this planet isn’t going to score great reviews on Tripadvisor.
Perhaps the trickiest combat skill to master is managing your stamina. Kate can only run for so long before her stamina falls. Scars Above does include a classic roll mechanic to dodge but if you’ve found yourself in the proximity of one of the game’s larger beasts, a roll or walk may not be enough to escape the reach of their incoming hit. You’ll want to conserve your energy and save your sprints for when they matter most. Watch your enemies' attacks. If The Alpha - your first sub-boss - is charging towards you, that’s when running away is going to be crucial.
The appearance and animations of the enemies are fairly generic but I didn’t find that overly bothersome. As a warning, enemies will spawn out of nowhere and if I had a penny for every time an Arachnid Scorpiod jumped out of the water and scared me, I’d have a whole damn pile of ‘em. Scars Above offers up a generic storyline too. The mysterious planet Kate finds herself on has seemingly been corrupted by some kind of foreign alien technology. It’s also clear when Kate wakes up that she’s been unconscious for quite some time, as her team have long since moved on. Scars Above’s story may rely on familiar sci-fi tropes but it drew me in nonetheless. Don’t get me wrong, I can’t see this narrative getting the big prestige adaptation treatment à la The Last of Us, but it offers enough intrigue to draw you further and further into the game.
It helps that Scars Above doesn’t offer a particularly long playtime, coming in at between nine and 12 hours. It’s sufficient. I never felt bored and was actually intrigued enough to marathon a lot of the title. That being said, when I did reach the end, I felt that I’d seen all that Scars Above could offer. Its scope is suited to its playtime and I’m glad it ended at a suitable point. I have to praise the utilisation of the DualSense controller’s features, as I reviewed the PlayStation 5 version. The use of the controller’s haptic feedback and speakers was on par with any AAA title I’ve played - if not better - and massively boosted the immersion. The various gadgets will sound aloud through the device’s speaker, plus you’ll feel the tension of each pull of a trigger.
You shouldn’t expect to see AAA graphics in Scars Above seeing as it’s not a AAA game - and it’s not priced like one either. Kate is sort of permanently stuck with a rather nonchalant expression which is a shame as voice actress Erin Yvette - who you may recognise as Alex from Oxenfree - does a great job bringing Kate to life verbally. You do spend most of the game looking at the back of Kate’s head though so again, it’s not a major issue. Likewise, Scars Above lacks fluidity in its cinematics. Shown in a different aspect ratio, it’s blatantly obvious when you’re watching a cinematic scene but they told the story effectively enough. Not every game can commit to God of War’s one-shot style of storytelling.
Scars Above is exactly what you’d hope it would be - a reasonably priced and hugely entertaining third-person sci-fi action-adventure shooter. The team at Mad Head Games have crafted an exceptional game that I’m certain will delight those who pick it up. The developers were clever in their approach - very much aware of what Scars Above could and couldn’t achieve. It isn’t a game that’s dragged down by having ideas beyond its station. It perfectly mixes enjoyable combat with an intriguing world and a compelling story. Add in the immersion of the DualSense controller if you choose to pick the game up on PlayStation 5 and you’re in for a real treat. Scars Above isn’t revolutionary, but it executes what it does very well. When I hit the credits, I was sad that the game had drawn to an end - and that’s all you can really ask for.
Pros: enjoyable elemental weapons system, accessible variety of difficulties, intriguing narrative
Cons: relies on generic sci-fi tropes, basic animations
For fans of: Returnal, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, Mass Effect, Control
Scars Above releases for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 (version tested), Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, and PC on 28 February. A review code was provided by the publisher, Prime Matter. Read a guide to our review scores here.