Against a backdrop of exclusives and AAA offerings, it can be challenging for a new game to stand out in this day and age. Going retro is often a clever way of breaking through the noise, and Plaion and Mad Head Games’ Scars Above certainly feels that way. While it may boast Souls-like elements as a shooter, it is more reminiscent of games in the early 2000s with its lack of polish and okay gameplay.
Players step into the boots of scientist Kate Ward, a member of the SCAR team that unfortunately crashes onto an alien planet. By exploring and surviving the various dangers that await, players will discover that things are not what they seem, and there are plenty of secrets to uncover on this planet.
It is a tantalising premise, especially with its balance of exploration and combat that has players moving along to the next exciting thing. Throw in the aforementioned Souls-like design of intimidating enemies that require more precise approaches and replacing ancient weaponry with sci-fi guns, and Scars Above feels ready to step onto the big stage.
The reality is that there are simply too many mishaps that stop the game’s momentum every once in a while. Shooting, for one, is not the best, even if players try their hardest to aim accurately. Considering the many different enemies that can come your way, and bosses who can only be brought down a peg by destroying their weak points, it can be frustrating to see the game get in the way of itself.
Another obstacle standing in the way of players is the signposting, or lack thereof, in Scars Above, forcing players to go around in circles or repeating encounters without a clear direction forward. While some may argue that such a design is a crucial aspect of a Souls-like, the level design in the game does little to have players pay attention to a possible solution, which is a shame.
Scars Above’s narrative is also largely forgettable, feeling like a story that was put together on a whim without the necessary character or plot development to truly string players along. It is not often a dealbreaker if a game has something else making up for it in terms of gameplay, but that is not the case here.
At the very least, you would hope making headway against the alien enemies will see some form of reward for your hard work, but levelling up in Scars Above is not about killing enemies. Instead, only by finding knowledge cubes hidden around levels or scanning unknown enemies and flora can you get stronger.
This would have been a fresh way of pushing players further and forcing them to take risks, but when you rest at Monoliths that serve as checkpoints and every enemy respawns, it becomes an unnecessarily punishing path towards your next objective. The upside is that players will learn enemy patterns and become masterful at dealing with encounters, but it feels more like busywork instead of true mastery.
Ward can also be upgraded with her skill trees of engineering and xenobiology, but they never go beyond just stat increases. There is nothing that fundamentally changes how players approach situations save for being better at killing stuff or reloading your weapon, and that is Scars Above remaining consistent as ever.
Thankfully, the game does offer up some interesting weaponry to inflict pain with, with all sorts of fun variations to keep things fun. There is the lightning-spewing VERA gun, a shotgun that utilises ice to great effect, or even a cannon that is all about the fire. By using the right weapons against enemies that can be affected by such elements, it helps to make combat more engaging than before.
This also comes into play against some of the bosses that stand in your way throughout the game, who can require switching from one weapon to the next in order to take advantage of their weaknesses. It is definitely more compelling than being a bullet sponge, and things can get hectic pretty fast, which ratchets up the excitement levels on occasion.
It is hard to say that Scars Above is a bad game, but rather, it feels like something that was not made for the modern gaming audience. There is some merit to how it approaches some of its systems, but they never ever go far enough to make a significant difference as a whole. Interesting ideas are only half the battle, and with its mixed visuals and wonky controls, it turns a potentially complex alien journey into a road of forgettable crashes.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
A story full of holes and gameplay that delivers a mixed bag, Scars Above has the potential but, sadly, none of the polish.
Gameplay - 6/10
Story - 5/10
Presentation - 6.5/10
Value - 4/10