Thanks in large part to games like Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and The Surge, soulslike video games are becoming ever-more popular amongst mainstream gamers. The thrill of punishing, yet fair, combat and metroidvania-esque level design, coupled with what should be serviceable world building, are quite a unique combination. This genre mix is what Scars Above has tried its hardest to get right. Sadly, its overall experience feels average-at-best to soulslike veterans, while newbies may be left wondering what sets it apart from any other generic third person shooter video game.
Initial impressions would lead the average gamer to misconstrue Scars Above with the likes of Mass Effect: Andromeda. Players take on the role of Kate Ward, a stoic, impressionable and reluctant hero who exudes the persona of Sarah Ryder from BioWare’s failed space opera. The similarities go above and beyond face model as well, with gear mimicking the default pathfinder armour, through to combat feeling suspiciously familiar. After just a few minutes in, however, Scars Above begins to establish itself as a wholly different kind of interactive tale.
Kate Ward is a member of the titular “SCARS”, an elite team of explorers, scientists, and military-trained personnel tasked with the exciting premise of exploring and making contact with whatever is inside the “metahedron”, a tetrahedron-like alien structure or ship parked right above Earth. As video games go, events quickly spiral out of control as Kate and co learn how their mission may not go as smoothly as they first thought. One thing leads to another, and Kate finds herself stranded, defenceless, and blind to whatever awaits in the dark of a foreign planet.
While Scars Above will not be winning any rewards for its writing, the plot is serviceable for a soulslike. Kate’s internal monologuing keeps players intrigued and engaged, but ultimately struggles to hold a candle to any of the epic soulslike greats currently available. While the constant little explanations and basic lore drops are a breath of fresh air, they actually lead to the detriment of the game: there is simply not enough substance to keep veterans intrigued (theorycrafting is the backbone of the genre), while leaving fans of more generic shooters squarely in the dark due to how chronologically scattered the discoveries seemingly are. Learning about a new world along with the protagonist is a normal video game trope. Yet Scars Above double downs on skirting the line between how Kate either knows everything about what she finds, or nothing at all. There is no in-between; no piecing together of clues, or finding familiar objects to tell parts of a grander story; and worst of all, no real sense of urgency or exploration to keep the level design and world building together.
Thankfully, Scars Above is very much a third person shooter. So much so, players looking for a more generic, and less metroidvania experience, may feel right at home with the weapon loadouts and movement mechanics. Regarding weapons, Kate finds an electric-based weapon in the opening hours of the game, and quickly adds more elemental weapon types to her arsenal. The weapons themselves are not really worth spending a lot of time on, but the elemental abilities are quite a bit of fun. Players can freeze enemies, set them ablaze, and even shatter them with the touch of a button thanks to the additional effects most weapons carry. However, just like most other soulslike titles, players will find themselves switching back to ye ol’ faithful fisticufs much more often than expected.
Movement is typical for this style of game, whereby players can help Kate dodge, duck, and dive through mobs of enemies, while mowing them down just as quickly and efficiently. The elements and effects of weapons all have some sort of parity as well, which makes learning the most effective combinations of fire and ice, ice and poison, or even electricity and ice; an easy enough task. Moreover, these effects also combine with environmental cues, such as puddles of water, or broken glass. If anything, this system alone is what sets Scars Above apart from its counterparts. Alas, it is about the only aspect that does, since learning the best combinations may not even be as rewarding as one might think — the game is simply just not punishing enough.
Gadgets in the game are also much more menial than the game makes them out to be. Players can collect shield power ups, make use of flammable liquid or even bubbles of time dilation — all of which sound much more exciting than they truthfully are. The ability to stop time, for instance, ends up feeling like an afterthought more so than something players will actually use. This is especially true given how enemies instantly snap back to face Kate the moment the ability runs out, regardless of whether the player moves to ready for a surprise attack beforehand. The crafting system, on the other hand, does not get a lot of screentime at all, whether during its respective tutorial phase, or thereafter. It is simply reduces to a menu where players can apply, tweak, or remove upgrades found and looted in-game. Both of these systems are fundamentally flawed, with no real easy solution in sight to make them better.
It is safe to say Scars Above has grabbed a few hard-hitting pages out of the soulslike genre. From checkpoints taking a hot minute to unlock via exploration, through to mysterious poles healing and refreshing player inventories, there are many clues of what the developers wanted the game to be. Unfortunately, thanks in part to awkward dialogue and gameplay mechanics that do not feel fleshed out, it ultimately ends up feeling more like someone tried very hard to capitalise on the genre itself, more so than pour some heart and soul into it the way games of the genre demand.
Due to the way levels tend to interweave and bend around each other, Scars Above could serve to be a performance nightmare (like most other souls like titles). Thankfully the Xbox Series X handles most scenarios with aplomb; although framerate stutters and long loading still persist throughout much of the user experience. In the event where layers combine acid and/or poison with fire and explosions, and they all start start raining down on enemy mobs (a common experience in the later game), the game tends to slow down significantly. Unfortunately, another must-have trait soulslike games require is a smooth experience — whether it be a framerate that is locked at 30, or one that stays above 60, having it chug the way Scars Above does is absolutely detrimental to the overall gameplay experience. A single dropped frame can mean life or death in certain boss fights, for instance [and that is hardly “fair” to the player].
It should also be mentioned how the environment is far more detailed than it rightfully needs to be. So much so, players can easily get stuck on random bits of debris or foliage. During more frustrating boss runs (segments of the game where checkpoints are further away from their respective bosses than normal), getting stuck on a random rock or in a corner that seemingly does not exist, can lead to high levels of frustration and pain every time players need to redo a boss. Enemies also overwhelm players very quickly, so there is simply no way of circumventing many annoying segments where getting stuck happens more often. Thankfully, the solution here is as easy as softening the clipping on some objects (and completely removing clipping from things like shrubbery).
Despite some unfortunate flaws, Scars Above does manage to bring some new ideas to the ever-growing table of soulslike video games – enough to make it stand slightly apart from all the others. While it features a rather predictable story, it can be engaging at the surface level for soulslike veterans who want a small fix of their favourite genre without digging too deep and getting lost in it. The game would definitely have benefited from swinging either in a much more shooter direction, or doubling down much more on soulslike mechanics, but perhaps that it not what the developers wanted? Science-fiction is a challenging genre to flip, after all, and many players would much rather get “something new” out of their sci-fi, than nothing at all. The question of whether Scars Above is ultimately worth enjoying over its many flaws remains in the hands of the gamer, but for this reviewer the game serves to be quite a disappointment.
|Elemental combinations are great||Performance issues, even on Xbox Series X|
|Digestible story||Gadgets and abilities feel redundant|
|Too much frustration surrounding exploration and combat|
Title reviewed on Xbox Series X with code supplied by Plaion.
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Junior Editor at Vamers. From Superman to Ironman; Bill Rizer to Sam Fisher and everything in-between, Edward loves it all. He is a Bachelor of Arts student and English Major specialising in Language and Literature. He is an avid writer and casual social networker with a flare for all things tech related.