Scars Above Review – Lite on Soul

Scars Above Review

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a woman space traveler is shipwrecked on a mysterious, hostile planet. There’s evidence of her fellow crewmates having been there for some time, and ghostly figures and creatures beckon her forward. No, it’s not Returnal. We’re talking about Scars Above, a third-person Soulslike action game that pries some ideas out of FromSoftware’s hands and walks in Housemarque’s shadow.

When Basic is Not a Compliment

Astronaut Kate Ward is a member of the Sentient Contact Assessment and Response (or SCARS) team. After a brief prologue in which she learns about stuff she should already be aware of, the game decides we know enough to get started, and crash lands Kate on an Earth-like planet. The crew had been studying a floating object in space called The Metahedron. After the Metahedron sucks them in, all the lights go out and Kate wakes up in a new world.

The narrative questions of where she is, what happened to the crew, and who the gauzy figures are that lead her out of the crash site move the story forward. Oh, and why the planet is overrun by monsters, that’s always good to figure out, too. Like most Soulslikes, Scars Above’s story plays second fiddle to action and exploration. However, the story does serve to move things along.

There are games with superlative, movie-quality writing and dialogue. Scars Above has competent — if bland — voice work, but the writing relies on a lot of Kate’s interior monologues. They’re heavy on obvious observations and just not very interesting. The game takes some stabs at environmental storytelling via audio logs, notes, and gear descriptions. I know the developers wanted it to play out like a deep, existential mystery. It doesn’t quite get there. That said, Kate’s exploration pays off in some interesting moments of discovery.

One Gun to Rule them All

If its story resembles Returnal, Scars Above’s action is definitely Souls-inspired. Kate has to attend to the balance between draining either stamina or ammo. Floating obelisks serve as bonfire checkpoints. Dying means respawning enemies. Although the game is relatively linear, there are side areas and shortcuts, some of them critical to progress.

Kate’s primary weapon is a multitool called VERA. Over the course of the game’s seven hours — give or take — Kate upgrades VERA with a variety of attachments. VERA’s power comes from elemental ammo. It can shoot fire, ice, acid, and electricity. Of course, there are enemies and environmental puzzles weak to one element or another. VERA’s ammo and consumables come via natural resources like plants, minerals, and alien body parts. It’s rarely in short supply, depending on the difficulty setting. I liked using the weapon to both solve puzzles and ventilate monsters.

Although there’s a lack of weapon variety, VERA’s upgrades and evolving power make it an interesting weapon and tool in exploration and combat. Kate also has a melee weapon that’s effective up close, but using it drains stamina. Altogether, Scars Above’s combat is probably its main selling point.

Combat Fatigue

Good ideas aside, where Scars Above stumbles most is in mechanics and presentation. Movement and character animations never quite escape from budget game prison. The variety of alien critters feels limited. Kate’s dodges, rolls, and climbing animations are rough, and lip-syncing is even worse. A dull color palette and some primitive textures aren’t entirely balanced by the game’s generous accessibility and graphics options. It’s great, however, that Scars Above includes difficulty options for those more interested in story than combat.

Some weird or frustrating choices in gameplay mechanics hide in the margins. Opening crates requires Kate to flip each latch. The roll button is the same as the climb, often resulting in a rolling animation against a ledge instead of a graceful jump. None of these torpedo the fun, but they give Scars Above the feel of a game in need of refinement.

Not What You Think

At first blush, you might think Scars Above is a Returnal knockoff. It isn’t. The roguelike, bullet hell mechanics are entirely absent. Instead, Scars Above is closer to a Soulslike in a sci-fi world. For those tired of dark fantasy action games, this is good news. While the acting and writing are bland, the story arc itself isn’t bad. Combat and exploration are pretty good.

Overall, Scars Above just can’t rise above its AA roots. This translates to some cut-rate animations, character models, and environments. The game’s primary weapon is good enough, as is the story and combat. But just being adequate is a tough sell. It’s hard to imagine Scars Above moving to the front of the Soulslike line.

***PC code provided by the publisher for review***

The Good

  • Decent sci-fi premise
  • Some engaging combat
  • Adjustable difficulty

The Bad

  • Some awkward mechanics
  • Not very original
  • Feels unpolished
  • Repetitive enemy design