Scars Above, a new third-person action-adventure from Mad Head Games, has a lot going for it on paper. It’s a linear game that doesn’t require crafting resources or going on side missions. While there are thematic links to roguelike games (especially Returnal), the gameplay loop more accurately recalls the type of theme park-esque experience that we don’t see in games all too often anymore. Add on a handful of interesting elemental weapons and creative monster designs, and I should be over the moon, even with the reigned-in expectations that come with Scars Above‘s budget aspirations. Instead, my excitement failed to break the atmosphere, and I was stranded on an alien world full of tedium and mediocrity.
Scars Above follows Kate Ward, an astronaut scientist stranded on a hostile alien planet full of mystery and danger. After learning that she can’t die, she sets out across the landscape to find her missing crewmates and discover the origins of the mutated monsters that lurk around every corner. Kate has access to guns and gadgets useful for fighting enemies and bosses with different weaknesses. That suggested complexity falls apart not too soon after you begin playing, bringing the worst of soulslike inspirations onto an otherwise bland trek through the stars.
Loading into the game on normal difficulty, the combat in Scars Above certainly feels appropriate for a game that has been advertised as “difficult.” Surviving as Kate requires deft dodge rolling and precise aiming to crush the bevy of acid-spewing beasts attacking her at every turn. However, I found this difficulty less of a fun challenge and more of a burden to overcome.
Enemies are bullet sponges for far too long into the campaign, and managing ammo comes alongside a small stamina meter, a battery for your gadgets, and several environmental hazards that can take you out without much warning. Mad Head Games try to emulate the difficulty and exploration of Dark Souls with a dash of sci-fi shooting, but Scars Above has a hard time capturing that magic.
Unlike the originators of the souls name, Scars Above has multiple difficulties, and I found that the time I spent on the easier option made for a much more enjoyable experience. Instead of facing a gauntlet of trial and error, Kate could scrape by most encounters and keep the forward momentum going. It felt like a PlayStation 2 adventure rather than a bad imitation of more recent fare, even if taking the easier road might lead to a less-than-thrilling experience for some.
Between the two difficulties, I found some fun in zapping worms to death and blasting away at glowing weak spots for massive damage. I did have to bump things back up permanently by the end, thanks to a few overpowered offensive options, but I was more than equipped to handle everything Scars Above threw at me by that point. I even felt slightly sad that no New Game + option awaited me after the credits rolled.
While I eventually found a good medium with the running and gunning, storytelling in Scars Above never really comes together. Kate’s journey as a genetically chosen hero taking down a malicious AI’s machinations is painfully generic. The voice acting is sparse and tepid, the audio diaries treat obvious conclusions as big reveals, and there are more than a few moments of technobabble pasted in place of sensical plot developments. It was difficult to keep my focus on what was going on.
I did enjoy recognizing the visual cues drawn to classics like Halo: Combat Evolved, especially as you dive into the facilities of the forerunner race who created the universe-destroying force you’re contending with. However, if I weren’t dedicated to playing to the end for work, these same similarities may have drawn me down a nostalgic rabbit hole, and I’m not sure that Scars Above has anything in its arsenal to regain my attention.
Beyond inspiration issues, Scars Above presents ample evidence that it was once much grander than the experience now hitting store shelves. Kate’s upgrade tree feeds off experience points you get from researching aspects of the world, including a huge boost for each new type of fallen foe. You also get points from collectible cubes that initially exist off the beaten path.
A few hours in, these collectibles read the landscape and suddenly paid out much more generously than they were before. The pace goes from slowly gaining new abilities to picking everything off the tree because you’re flooding in upgrade points. This, plus an unwelcome reminder of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker towards the end, made me feel like I wasn’t getting the whole story.
I came into Scars Above with very few expectations and was still disappointed. While the gameplay and its variable difficulty strike a nice balance that could please both masochistic and more casual players, few will find the game’s narrative and world something they wish to keep exploring beyond their initial exploratory journey. There’s not a lot here that’s exceptional, and there’s not a lot here that noteworthy in its failure. Scars Above is about as middle of the road as it gets, a direct-to-video adventure in an age of cinematic, expansive blockbusters.
TechRaptor reviewed Scars Above on Xbox Series X with a copy provided by the publisher. The game is also available on Xbox One, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, and PC.