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Scars Above review: A cut below

Scars Above is a sci-fi action game that plays around with interesting themes which the gameplay can't carry

In a world where Callisto Protocol was a disappointment, I was ready for a smaller studio to give the sci-fi genre a go. Scars Above leans more into action than horror, but the overall themes of oppressive environments, mutated horrors, and imminent death at all times still prevail.

The game’s intro is extremely promising. A strange spacecraft appears in the sky called “the metahedron” – an exceptionally cool name – and our small team of scientists is set to investigate it before everything goes horribly wrong and they crash-land. Our protagonist wakes up in a hostile environment and has to find her friends.

Scars Above Hologram alien

That’s a great intro, and it got me in the mood to face off against horrible monsters and slowly uncover the mysteries of the metahedron – less than an hour later I was bored beyond belief.

Combat simply isn’t fun. You get given three different guns pretty quickly – with a fourth and some variations coming along later – and none of them are enjoyable to use. You have the electric gun that fires a basic shot, and there’s absolutely no weight or impact to it whatsoever. You can shoot weak points for extra damage, but even that isn’t satisfying with this gun.

Then there’s the fire gun which does basically the same thing, except it takes a while to charge up. This is a little more enjoyable, if only because it occasionally causes things to explode, but it doesn’t make much of a difference. Third is the freeze gun, which is only useful in the most narrow of circumstances, to the point that I’d often forget I even had it.

Scars Above Boss monster

You need these different guns because enemies will resist certain elements, with glowing weak spots that only respond to one type. This is fine on paper, but the weak points of each enemy are almost too effective. The first time you defeat an enemy, it stops being a threat entirely for the rest of the game. Once you know a creature’s weak point, you can take it out with ease, and the game doesn’t combine enemies effectively to cover their weaknesses.

Combine this with the weak-feeling gunplay and there’s no joy to be had out of combat. Even the boss fights stop being a challenge once you’ve worked out the one or two things you need to do to open up their weak spots.

Unfortunately, combat makes up the bulk of the gameplay, and there isn’t enough going on elsewhere to cover for it. Puzzles are few and far between. In fact, there was more than one instance where I’d solved a puzzle before realizing it was even a puzzle. Even when I do have to stop and think about something, it isn’t for long.

They’re so easy to solve that you can see the solution almost immediately, so trudging around to carry it out is just tedious. Even the few times a puzzle does use a clever mechanic, it throws the idea out immediately and is never seen again.

Scars Above puzzle

Still, the story was what drew me in, and things are a bit stronger in this department. It’s not the most complex writing ever, but it knows how to string you along in just the right way. There’s always something more to uncover and one more question to answer. That said, the reveals aren’t as satisfying as I was hoping.

They make sense, but they don’t come with much emotive weight, and it doesn’t help that the characters look pretty lifeless while they talk, this being a lower-budget AA game and all. Some scenes have decent animations, but far too often my protagonist would stare off into the middle distance while her mouth robotically flapped open and shut.

That said, the animation quality was considerably higher on the monsters, and if resources were limited, that was definitely the better place to focus on. There’s a disappointing lack of variety, but each monster’s design is twisted and horrifying in just the right way. Whether it’s a hulking armor-plated beast or a mutated snake monster, they looked a whole lot more dangerous than they actually are.

Scars Above big circle thing

It contributes to Scars Above’s greatest strength – its atmosphere. From the infested bog you start in, to the frozen mountains, and the disgusting alien nests in the late-game, the environments do a lot of heavy lifting in terms of making you feel oppressed and out of your depth. Although the gameplay ultimately lets it down, I still found myself taking stock of the world around me every time I entered a new area, with the sound design doing just enough to immerse me in this strange world.

It’s disappointing because if the gameplay had any substance or intrigue to it, all that great atmosphere and design work would’ve lifted it up into something worthwhile, but it’s so relentlessly boring that I just don’t care about all the nice bells and whistles it's packaged in.

Score: 4/10

Version tested: PC (Steam)