Scars Above is being described as a challenging sci-fi third-person action-adventure shooter. Translated from marketing speak, that means it is essentially a sci-fi Soulslike. This isn’t the first game to use FromSoft’s Souls formula in a different genre, and it likely won’t even be the last. However, in my time with Scars Above, it is clear that it has something special that sets it apart from its contemporaries.
Other games that use Soulslike mechanics as the basis of their gameplay tend to lack some kind of spark or personality. They are functionally fine, but often feel uninspired, lacking any kind of identity outside of their mechanics and setting. Scars Above manages to avoid these pitfalls and separate itself from similar games in a number of ways. Specifically, it doesn’t rely on its Soulslike mechanics to keep players engaged, and it expands on those expected gameplay elements with some unexpected mechanics that give it a unique personality.
These surprises can likely be attributed to the game’s developer, Mad Head Games. The Serbian studio was founded in 2011, and its legacy prior to its acquisition by Saber Interactive in 2020 consisted of primarily hidden object/point-and-click narrative games. Scars Above is Mad Head’s first big third-person action game, but their legacy shines through in a few interesting ways. Most notably is the sense of tactility present in almost every interaction.
"Scars Above is Mad Head’s first big third-person action game, but their legacy shines through in a few interesting ways. Most notably is the sense of tactility present in almost every interaction."
In the game’s intro, you are tasked with retrieving a laser welder from a case in order to craft an important tool. Instead of walking up to the case and pressing a button to add the welder to your inventory, you need to click on each latch to unlock it, then the lid to open the case, and finally the welder itself to pick it up. Then, you use a 3D printer to print another part, take everything to another desk, and complete a series of mini-games to put the pieces together and calibrate them into a tool that becomes essential to your survival a few minutes later. This process of putting things together, opening containers, and being engaged with processes that most other games would gloss over was a standout feature for me.
I wasn’t expecting this level of interactivity from a third-person shooter right off the bat, but it makes sense coming from a game studio that created point-and-click games for a decade. The many sequences like this one serve to establish the sense of tactile science that carries the entire game. It also thankfully makes Scars Above feel unique, which is an important thing to demonstrate when everything leading up to its launch has looked so familiar.
A female scientist protagonist, roguelike elements, third-person shooting mechanics, and a sci-fi setting with a healthy dose of cosmic horror. There’s no getting around it, Scars Above looked like it was going to be a Returnal knockoff from the jump. Thankfully, it feels less like a knockoff and more like it was heavily inspired by Housemarque’s sci-fi shooter in action. There are still a few things that made me squint my eyes in suspicion a little bit, including some eerily similar environmental design and the intro sequence right before the title card. That short part plays exactly like a Returnal restart cutscene, complete with a zoom-in to the protagonist’s eyes intercut with distressing visions.
"There’s no getting around it, Scars Above looked like it was going to be a Returnal knockoff from the jump. Thankfully, it feels less like a knockoff and more like it was heavily inspired by Housemarque’s sci-fi shooter in action."
What Scars Above unfortunately didn’t inherit from Returnal is its stellar production value. The environments and enemies are impressively detailed, but the human character models are pretty lifeless and uncanny looking, with terrible facial animations and lip-syncing. In fact, just about every animation in the game used by both the human characters and the alien creatures you encounter feel off, with a level of jank that feels like a game from the early 2010s. It’s a little unfortunate, but this is Mad Head’s first game in this style. It’s a big jump for an indie studio to go from hidden object games to a game of this scale, and the jank eventually becomes part of its charm. The rest of the game also makes up for its presentation shortcomings quite a bit.
Once players gain control of protagonist Dr. Kate Ward following the crash of her team’s spaceship, the action picks up pretty quickly. You regain the “tool” you built in the intro, now a powerful gun that can fire rounds imbued with different elements to take advantage of enemy weaknesses and to solve puzzles, and your bag of tricks is expanded in short order. Instead of scrounging for supply items scattered around the surface of the planet, you pick up recipes for useful items that can then be crafted on the fly with a resource called fiber, and you gain abilities from fallen boss characters like a temporary shield that runs off of your suit’s battery.
Within the first hour, Kate feels exponentially more powerful and equipped to handle the dangers of this alien planet, but not solely because of the new gadgets and craftables that get picked up. A big focus of Scars Above is taking the time to scan and learn about the various processes of the strange planet, and harnessing them for yourself. In this game, knowledge is power.
Some of these scanning sequences are similar to Returnal where you just hold a button and the scanning is done for you, but there are many instances where you are presented with something in a more traditional point-and-click manner, and need to manually poke and prod around to scan important parts and see how they work. Kate will sometimes use the information gained from these scans to craft a new upgrade or element for her weapon. These slower sequences are implemented very well, they make it clear that Kate is first and foremost a scientist, and they stop Scars Above from feeling too one-note or generic. But you won’t spend the entire game scanning and crafting.
"What Scars Above unfortunately didn’t inherit from Returnal is its stellar production value. The environments and enemies are impressively detailed, but the human character models are pretty lifeless and uncanny looking, with terrible facial animations and lip-syncing."
The game outlines early on that Dr. Kate Ward has some shooting experience in her past, but she is not a soldier. Because of this, combat in Scars Above is just as much about smart use of gadgets and supplies as it is about careful aiming and strategic dodging, which creates a pretty engaging experience. The various alien enemies and monstrosities you face hit hard, and more often than not I only barely survived combat encounters. For me, Scars Above really nails the feeling of desperation as a regular person forced to fight for their life, but it isn’t gruelingly difficult. Even extra difficult combat sections were much easier on the second try after learning the enemy layout and planning your approach better.
In terms of performance, I only had a single issue with Scars Above. This review covers the PS5 version of the game, and the frame rate seems to hold pretty steady even when things get hectic. I didn’t notice any serious frame drops or stutters. I did, however, have the game completely crash in the intro sequence. It gave me a bad feeling so I was braced for more lost progress due to semi-frequent crashes, but I only ever saw that one.
There is a lot to like in Scars Above. If you can get past the issues with the character models and animations, there is a really fun, unique sci-fi shooter with an interesting story to experience.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 5.
Interesting, tactile gameplay mechanics; Thoughtful combat that requires strategy; Solid environmental design and art direction.
Lifeless human character models; Poor lip-syncing; Lots of janky animations.
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