Recently, it feels as if more studios than ever before are looking up to the stars for inspiration, as 2023 will see sci-fi extravaganzas like Starfield, The Invincible, and Deliver Us Mars send players into the unknown of space. Developer Mad Head Games is steering its voyage to notably darker depths with Scars Above. I’ve become a fully-fledged member of the Sentient Contact Assessment and Response team (SCAR), but is my fealty to discovering mankind’s mysterious secrets worth the price of admission? I wish I could fill my chest confidently with galactic air and give a wholehearted yes, but Scars Above doesn’t initially inspire a strong vote of confidence.
To paint Scars Above as a simple space-antics-gone-wrong adventure would be a disservice. There’s an ambition to its storytelling that wants to soar past its indie trapping, even if its execution doesn’t always completely latch onto the stars. Scars Above sees players step into the moonboots of Dr Kate Ward, a member of SCAR – a team comprised of the world’s leading researchers and scientists. After a concerning structure enters Earth’s orbit, the Metahedron, it is down to SCAR to determine its purpose in our infinite galaxy. Naturally, SCAR’s plans go awry and Kate is split up from her crew on a desolate planet. However, its civilisation displays intelligence beyond Kate’s initial calculations.
I’d had Scars Above on my radar for some time – despite all of those other space games vying for peoples attention at the moment. Captured by its distinctly H.R Giger-flavoured production design and preternatural beauty, the third-person bombast of Scars Above’s initial glances were promising. For a while, this engrossing nature weaves itself well into the game’s opening chapter. Scars Above plays its narrative beats close to its chest over the course of four chapters. Each of these segments attempts to carry an urgency to Kate’s mission, but there isn’t much to gain from the game’s rudimentary method of information gathering.
Sadly, all the familiar tricks of modern-day worldbuilding start to appear. You’ll be holding down one button to scan and inspect objects, either on your travels or in full-blown augmented reality moments. You’ll be listening to endless voice recordings that detail unseen scenarios. It isn’t exactly innovative storytelling, and while these aforementioned recordings are treats for lore hunters, it isn’t enough to compliment the rather captivating environments Scars Above has created.
This world is an enigmatic tapestry of scattered swamps, ruin-laden passages, and striking vistas. Scars Above is one of the best-looking titles on the PlayStation 5, and its environment often pops with an eldritch atmosphere. Airy pads of keys and synths float along the background, and its spectral visual design prompts exploration; though it’s here where the game’s direction begins to crack.
Once you’ve landed on this uncharted plane, it can often feel like Scars Above is ripping itself apart with two design methodologies. One side of the game wants to champion its third-person shooter action, favouring boss fights and unearthly weapons to reduce them to ashes. The other side sees Souls-like checkpoints appear within your journey, though you can’t use them to fast travel or revisit areas in a meaningful way. Scars Above is conflicted with its internal struggle to offer exploration while encouraging the player to dig up Kate’s secrets. Each biome feels ripe for going off the beaten track, but each non-objective path more often than not leads to a dead-end containing your only chance to level up Kate’s abilities.
Kate’s abilities make exploration feel like a chore, rather than an inquisitor’s endeavour. Abilities are upgraded by collecting purple orbs of ‘knowledge’. You’ll find them strewn across random areas or obtained by scanning previously unencountered enemies after you’ve vaporised them. Levelling up shouldn’t feel like a laborious feature here, especially when XP can’t be gained by defeating foes in a traditional manner. Yet, you’ll be punished for not scouring each and every pocket of Scars Above, as endgame bosses require certain elements of your skill tree to be enhanced. The same discordant approach is felt when it comes to weaponry too.
As I made my way through cavernous chambers pursued by gangly creatures, it feels counterproductive that the game’s crafting mechanics are limited to specific engagements. Crafting fire-based ammo or gravity grenades have their jollification, but the room for experimentation is greatly desired. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Scars Above lacks in the combat department, though. If you can set aside Kate’s oddly light-feeling movement, then there is a satisfaction to be found in grounding aliens down to puddles of sludge. Mad Head Games aims to ensnare players with subtle adaptive trigger usage on the PS5, making each blast of Kate’s limited resources feel vital. Enemies won’t hesitate to infect Kate with toxins or hurl acidic blasts at her, making every bullet a matter of life and death.
It is especially true when it comes to the game’s boss fights. While there aren’t particularly many of them over Scars Above brief runtime, encounters with the likes of MGS-tinged The Construct give the game more memorability. I found myself becoming consumed by Scars Above once its lacklustre first act ended and it shifted gears into its icy structures and gloriously Matrix-esque endgame arenas. The influence of Owen Paterson’s god-tier production design in the Wachowski Sisters’ trilogy runs deep near the end, as metallic-soaked interiors and technological wonders set the scene for Kate’s revelations. Boss battles here are efficiently deployed, testing Kate’s arsenal to absolute breaking point.
When the credits roll on Scars Above, its biggest flaw isn’t its lack of innovation in the sci-fi genre. Scars Above suffers more from its inability to commit to one idea at its multi-biome core. Despite the game’s false sense of exploration and some rough edges, there is an enjoyable and visually-impressive third-person action experience here. For now though, Mad Head Games seems to have only scratched the surface.
Scars Above – PS5
While Scars Above’s exploration and progression leave a lot to be desired, third-person action fans will still enjoy their time blasting bosses within some visually-striking biomes.