Scars Above Review
Derivative does not always mean bad. In fact, the gaming industry thrives on iteration. Take the best parts of one game and improve on them, by adding, blending, or removing as necessary. Copying other games is not something developers should avoid. They just need to ensure it is effective and makes sense, not merely done to follow a trend. Scars Above is a low-budget third-person shooter that plays like a bunch of different games, including Mass Effect, Dark Souls, and Lost Planet. Some might be interested in its lower price, although this comes with presentation trade-offs. Scars Above is rough around the edges and fairly generic, but the action is fine once all the pieces are put in place.
Kate Ward is a member of the four-person SCAR (Sentient Contact Assessment and Response) team who are about to scan an enormous inverted pyramid that has descended into Earth’s orbit. This glowing pyramid, called Metahedron, was clearly made by a sentient species, but is it a weapon, an alien spaceship, or a piece of technology? Upon scanning it, the object reacts with a huge burst of energy that knocks Kate unconscious. She wakes up on the surface of an alien world, with the Metahedron visible in the sky. Neither her fellow crew members nor her spaceship are nearby. But an alien ghost says hello and compels Kate to activate a nearby pillar, one of many on this strange and hostile world.
The pillars are save points with a Dark Souls twist. Kate will resurrect at a pillar after she perishes, and all of the alien wildlife she killed will return too, but she retains any experience. Rather than earning experience from killing the weird arachnids, saber-toothed gorillas, yetis, and serpents, players gain it by scanning any unknown creatures and finding knowledge cubes. Experience buys abilities that enhance survivability, by increasing health, consumables, or ammo reserves. This offers a nice blend of improving naturally (via skill), exploiting the spawns (hostiles emerge in the exact same place), and statistic increases (from bought abilities). Players do not always need to make it to the next pillar, as there are shortcuts to open, although rarely useful. Slowly and surely, Kate will probe the alien landscape to seek out her crewmates, and discover why the alien ghost is providing assistance.
Besting the tough alien wildlife requires a capable arsenal. Players start off with a bland melee attack and soon acquire a basic gun that shoots electrical projectiles. Eventually you can swap between weapons that deal fire, frost, and toxic damage. These generic elemental types are important, as some of the creatures are more susceptible to one or another. A few of them (like the decent bosses) have glowing weak spots that correlate to a damage type, so exploding them is satisfying as it dispatches them rapidly. And there are combos, like freezing a creature and receiving an electrical damage boost. Even the environment plays a role; frozen lakes can be melted to trap creatures in the frigid water. At first the game is difficult and slow, comparable to a mediocre shooter from a decade ago, with a terrible save system. But it becomes progressively better when you gain all the weapons, their upgrades, and abilities.
Gadgets also make the combat fun and easier. There is a shield which blocks damage, a holographic projector which creates a faux Kate to distract, and a grenade that spreads flammable gas. One of the best gadgets makes a gravity bubble, slowing all the creatures inside. Another lets Kate move around as though time were paused. Both of these are ideal for getting behind enemies to hit those colorful weak spots. Using gadgets consumes battery charges, and these can be refilled by using fiber (a rare resource) or activating another pillar. With many hostiles between pillars, liberal use of gadgets will see best results.
As Kate continues to explore, she will come across her fellow crew members at a steady pace to keep the narrative grounded. There is even an opportunity to explore her spaceship. She will regularly talk to the ghostly alien about the world and the so-called Custodian that now rules it, and discover why the pillars resurrect. Apparently, this is another case of science gone wrong, but how it goes wrong is interesting, if not deep or surprising. The alien buildings and themes are like those found in the Mass Effect series. When all is revealed, it is a shame that more of the story was not interwoven into the gameplay as it could have elevated it to another level.
One interesting aspect of Scars Above is its atypical interaction, which is sadly underused. Kate will interact with objects to solve puzzles or unlock new gadgets. This interaction changes the camera so you can pan over a small area and maybe extrapolate a conclusion like in a detective mode. Interactions might be accompanied with x-ray vision to understand the inner workings of objects, be they biological or inorganic. One such interaction involved matching symbols, from collected artifacts, on a pedestal by following twisted conduits in x-ray view. This was only used once. Other games would have made it a core mechanic. Perhaps it is a good thing that these interactions are unique, but a few more of depth would have improved the moments away from action.
As expected from a lower priced game, the visuals of Scars Above are not great. The level design is a bit dated, although it has some appealing vistas. The alien biomes are predictable but satisfactory, with grungy swamps, biological tunnels, and frozen caves making up the bulk of the adventure. The interiors of the alien buildings look okay, but more variety would not have gone astray. Aside from some grassy fields, most areas are enclosed and linear, with side routes containing knowledge cubes and weapon upgrades. The music fits with the space theme and the alien creatures all look weird and varied. There is a good beastiary to browse through and audio logs to hear. Voice work from the small cast is fine, and Erin Yvette does all she can as Kate, despite some humdrum dialogue. The pre-rendered cutscenes are a disappointment, due to their wooden animations and low resolution. Like its gameplay and story, Scars Above needed to be a bit more creative with its presentation.
Scars Above does not raise the bar for shooters, but that does not make it a bad experience. It offers a relatively brisk seven-hour adventure that does not get too repetitive. Its shooting is competent, with elemental damage quirks and decent gadgetry. The various alien creatures and their weak spots keep the combat fresh, with a few respectable boss fights. Although the beginning is tedious, with sparsely placed pillars acting like Dark Souls respawn points, it gets much easier (and fun) as it transitions into a more traditional third-person shooter. Scars Above certainly needed more creativity to break away from its generic attributes, but at least the pieces it borrows from other games are stitched together well.