When the mysterious sci-fi action shooter Scars Above was first introduced during Geoffcom’s Opening Night Live in late August, I thought there was great energy return. Based on the reveal trailer, it certainly seemed to be talking about a lot of the same themes as Housemarque’s challenging PlayStation exclusive, with its lone scientist stranded on an alien planet, third-person shooting, and big creepy alien monsters behind her, etc. . .- So when I saw it was part of this month’s Steam Next Fest demo bonanza, I knew I had to try it out. And while it certainly captures the same kind of atmosphere as Returnal, I’m sorry to say that’s about as far as the comparison goes, as the rest of Scars Above is a much slower, more traditional type of space shooter.
the Demonstration of the next festival covers most of the first chapter of the game, placing you right at the beginning of Dr. Kate Ward’s adventure. It skips the preamble of how she actually ends up on this ashen alien planet, but I’m guessing the weird ‘Metahedron’ structure we saw in that first reveal trailer trapped her there. You know which one: the great ominous pyramid that hangs in the sky above Earth. She also appears to have been separated from the rest of her science team, the eponymous SCARS, or Contact Conscious Assessment and Response team, if she wants the full acronym, and most of the demo is spent looking for clues about her whereabouts.
Only it’s abundantly clear that some shenanigans have occurred since she was last in contact with the rest of her SCAR team, as Kate stumbles across various wires and makeshift camps set up by other members of her team who have clearly been there for some time. . However, the entire planet appears to be abandoned, and I imagine most of the game will be spent figuring out what happened to them.
It’s not completely empty though, as there are plenty of grumpy monsters waiting to crawl out of the watery pools and yucky-looking pods and sacks to kill you. At first, Kate only has a large slashing knife to her name, but she quickly obtains a weapon that can fire electrical, fire, and eventually cryogenic bullets to exploit enemy weaknesses. Firing an electric bullet at an enemy in the water, for example, will deal additional ‘wet combo’ damage (since water conducts electricity and all), while cryogenic grenades can be used to freeze surfaces to form bridges. and new paths. They can also be used to scab over large monsters to slow them down a bit, giving you a little more time to hit their big, glowing weak spots.
All of this would be fine and dandy if Kate herself weren’t so awkward to control. She certainly isn’t quite as agile as Returnal’s Selene Vassos, and at times she felt more like a stiff tank lady from Capcom’s old Resident Evil games. As a result, she makes combat feel quite frustrating, as even simple things like dodging and getting out of the way of enemy attacks feel forced and labored, like your timing is constantly out of sync with everything else. You don’t see any of Returnal’s “keep moving or die” fast-paced energy here, and most encounters boil down to dodging by rolling back and forth while trying to shoot one or two enemies at once.
Weirdly, there’s also a slight touch of Souls in the way Scars Above is structured, as Kate can rest on these weird glowing pillars that restore her health and a little ammo, and nearby enemies respawn. Much like FromSoft’s handiwork, you’ll only want to use these pillars sparingly, as running backwards to heal them will simply force you to do the same fights over and over again. However, unlike said FromSoft games, Kate doesn’t gain any EXP from defeating enemies, so you can’t use them to grind or rack up extra skill points. It’s really just fighting to have a fight.
Instead, the main way to improve your stats is by gaining ‘Knowledge’, either by scanning downed enemies or finding small purple knowledge cubes in the environment. These will fill a bar that gradually grants you skill points once it reaches 100%, but Scars Above commits that deadly sin of never remembering what cubes you’ve found since your last save when you inevitably pin it. Thankfully, the abilities you unlock are permanent, but if there’s one thing I hate, hate, hate in gaming, it’s doing multiple vacuum pick-up cycles every time I die in a fight. I guess this allows you to grind to some extent, though in my opinion the 3% lore you get from cubes isn’t big enough to be worth it.
It’s a shame as the general vibe of this alien planet is something I really like. I love the look of her and the strange structures Kate sees on her travels, and the puzzle nature of her various weapon attachments gives the exploration sections of the demo a nice sense of contrast to the fighting. . I just wish the fighting was a bit more fluid and satisfying under the thumbs. So yeah, I’ve grown a little cold on this third-person linear space shooter since its initial reveal, but you never know. There’s still time for some additional polish, as the release date for him is still listed as ‘Coming Soon’ on Vapor, rather than a specific date, but at this point I’m afraid the developers at Mad Head Games have confused ‘challenging’ in their Steam description with ‘actually just a bit silly’. I await its full publication with cautious optimism.
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