Scars Above offers an intense sci-fi Soulslike experience with more fieldwork than fighting
It’s Tomb Raider but in space
Feb 28, 2023
Scars Above is an indie video game title that does its best to emulate some of the 1960s’ most memorable alien invasion literature, unashamedly incorporating various themes from extraterrestrial stories to craft its adventure-based storyline. It works, for the most part. Developed by studio Mad Head Games and published by Prime Matter, Scars Above follows the story of scientist Kate Ward of the Sentient Contact Assessment and Response (SCAR) team as they interact with an alien structure known as the “Metahedron.” It’s a very 2001: A Space Odyssey-esque story, but I’d be lying if I said the game didn’t deliver with its extraterrestrial terror.
From the get-go, Scars Above flaunts its strengths as a tried-and-true sci-fi narrative, opening with a surprisingly well-developed — though technically unpolished — cinematic onboard the SCAR team’s starship as they prepare to conduct fieldwork to understand the Metahedron’s mysterious appearance and origins. Their attempts to probe into the impenetrable construction goes awry, and the team is transported à la 2001 to a hostile extraterrestrial planet. Kate comes across plinths that echo the monoliths of the Space Odyssey series, meets an imposing alien that looks suspiciously like Dragon Ball’s Frieza, and the game takes off from there.
Throughout the game, the player is treated to Kate’s miscellaneous ramblings while she records log entries of the flora and fauna she encounters — both peacefully and violently — as she explores the planet, putting her academic background in xenobiology to the test. Scars Above is outstanding in this sense, and the game’s science and faux-research mechanics are quite developed. Kate scans each enemy she kills, taking note of the downed creatures’ physiological and often societal characteristics on-the-fly; she stops to understand the nature of the planet’s complex ecosystems and even scrutinizes the rocks and minerals scattered around the different regions she explores. Kate’s log entries, covering everything from blue sky fresias’ lack of chloroplasts and arachnid jumpers’ physiologies to ancient ruins’ internal conduction systems, are weirdly substantive.
The planet’s visually defeatist wilderness is a touch too Death Stranding, though I appreciate the attention to detail with the admittedly derivative (yet nonetheless immersive) Xenomorph-esque monster fauna and the forgettably exotic flora.
With regards to its eeriness, the game was surprisingly scary, but in a good way. Actual jumpscares with the Cronenberg-ey monsters were a particular source of grief for me, and on more than one occasion I jumped back in moments of true terror (with yelps that were much too loud) during inopportune quiet hours in my dorm.
Despite all its immersion, Scars Above has more than its fair share of technical blips and design snags. Textures overall just feel off: liquid and landscape textures are awkward and don’t fully mesh with the environment, lighting and shadowing often feel wrong, and there is a frustrating level of uncanny valley with the characters’ seemingly uninterested faces. (It’s not a good look when the most viscerally emotional moments come from when Kate’s back is turned to the player.) Awesome and excessively flamboyant sci-fi visual effects only just barely make up for the rough textures.
Still, there was a fair amount of graphical and gameplay control awarded to the player, with the standard set of user-adjustable settings that more and more games seem to do away with. Controller support is sufficient — the player doesn’t suffer any more or less using a controller versus MKB — and the ability to hot-change difficulty in-game was a welcome addition (though any actual change was minimal as death approached from every corner anyways).
Mechanically, the game is pretty middling, though not in a bad way. Scars Above features some tame RPG mechanics with its ability tree’s xenobiology and engineering branches (representing Kate’s two Yale PhDs), and the player unlocks four elemental weapons throughout the course of gameplay. This is quite sufficient for getting through the various simple puzzle obstacles presented in the main path, but not quite enough to make it past the sheer difficulty curve of each area’s countless enemies.
I loathe to call it a Soulslike just because of its science theme and shooter-based fighting, but it nonetheless has those mechanics (most notably, repeated death at the hands of the same non-boss enemies) to justify its place in the ranks of the faux-Soulsbornes. It’s not a AAA title, so a certain level of jank and iffy design is to be expected — but for an AA-level studio, Scars Above is worth checking out for those action-adventurers looking for that unique Death Stranding/Dark Souls/Mass Effect amalgamation that this game offers.
Scars Above is available on PC, PlayStation, and Xbox for $39.99. Notice: this review was written using PC game codes provided to The Tech by the game’s publisher.