Primarily focusing on mobile games, Scars Above is Mad Head Games’ first console release. The Serbian development team is bringing a new roguelike to the table, and for $40 USD, it’s a damn good deal. Initially announced at Gamescom 2022, Scars Above promises satisfying challenges, enticing boss fights, and immersive environments.
Taking a little bit of inspiration from both Returnal and Dead Space, Scars Above was a good experience, especially when you consider this is the studio’s first console release. While a few minor mechanical issues took away from some of the immersive experience, the game is still worth playing and will provide a great challenge for anyone seeking one.
As usual, this review will be as spoiler free as possible and broken down into four categories: Story, graphics, music and sound, and controls and mechanics.
The story opens with the main protagonist, Kate Ward, aboard a spaceship with three other crew members. Her best friend and physician Tamara, a physicist named Mike, and their commander, Richard Robinson. The four of them make up a newly-formed team called the SCARs – the Sentient Contact Assessment and Reconnaissance team.
The SCARs are tasked with investigating an alien entity closing in on Earth, referenced to as the tetrahedron. This spinning upside-down pyramid in the sky is a mystery, and it’s up to the SCARs to investigate it and figure out what’s going on. After crafting your first weapon, the story quickly takes a turn and your ship, the Hermes, crashes on an unknown alien planet.
I’m not sure I’ve ever said this before, but something I really appreciated about the story was that it wasn’t overly complicated. It wasn’t necessarily simple, but it wasn’t filled with an overwhelming amount of lore and things to keep track of and keep up with. Given that the game is about 10-15 hours long, it works out really well. Another cool factor is that the roguelike mechanic is actually a part of the lore. We kind of saw Returnal touch on this, but I actually prefer the way Scars Above did it.
The game has six chapters, with the first two almost serving as an extended tutorial. Each chapter is a different area/biome of the planet and provides a very different experience from the last. Without spoiling anything, I will say that the fifth chapter is my favorite. While its combat and boss fight was a bit easier than the other chapters, the environment did such a good job of disgusting me, that it didn’t matter. I personally feel that this was intentional to further envelope you in this gross atmosphere. That mixed with screwing with your head really made for a wild experience.
Because the game is on the shorter end, I don’t want to dive into additional story details. Scars Above has a very open ending, perfectly setting it up for either DLC or a sequel. I do hope that this game brings the studio enough success to continue the story because I definitely want to see how it plays out.
Graphically, the game is not perfect, but the positives most definitely outweigh the negatives. Some of the enemies look a lot alike and can be difficult to differentiate. Facial capture in the game and cutscenes seemed inconsistent, and at times completely missing (typically during gameplay, where Kate would be talking, and her mouth wouldn’t move). Kate’s clothes and body don’t appear wet when you traverse through deep waters, and the menu and log text was a tad small for my taste.
Now that we have my graphical complaints out of the way, I want to talk about the overall environment. Each area has a vastly different climate from the last, which introduces new mechanics with your weapons, new enemies, and different ways of getting around. Interactive portions of the environment blend in without feeling out of place. Ammunition comes from plants and critters, so while they are easy to spot, they don’t feel like they don’t belong.
Each zone is one big loaded area, so if you’re climbing up a mountain, you can look down and see where you came from. Depending on where in the game you are, you can actually backtrack relatively far. This would especially come in handy when you ran out of ammunition you didn’t pick up earlier in your journey.
We were told there are some graphical issues that would be addressed with a release day patch. If the issues mentioned earlier are addressed in the said patch, we will update this review to reflect those changes.
Music & Sound
The game’s music is very ambient-like and atmospheric, which I really enjoyed. It reminds me of a cross between the Mass Effect and No Man’s Sky soundtracks. It’s not overpowering and adds to the immersive elements. The credits list the music done by two people on the dev team – Miloš Nikolić, and Selena Bogdanović, with additional guitar provided by The Dooo, who you may have seen on YouTube with his videos playing a double guitar on Omegle. I personally feel they did a fantastic job, and I assume The Dooo contributed to the final boss track – which is a total banger, by the way.
At times, the game left you in an eerie silence, with just the sound of Kate’s breathing and footsteps. Other times, you’d hear just the slightest bit of ambient noise, with the wind and screeches from creatures far away. This really made a lot of the game tense, as you don’t always see what enemies lie ahead. I definitely had a fair share of jump scares myself.
Parts with music and those with no music at all felt properly allocated, for a lack of better terms. When there wasn’t music playing in the background, I felt honed in and consumed by Kate’s surroundings. Especially – and I know I said this earlier – in the game’s fifth chapter.
Controls & Mechanics
This portion of the game is where I’m really split 50/50. On one hand, there are a ton of things I really liked about the way the game played, and felt. On the other hand, there were things that made playing this game incredibly frustrating. Even though the good parts of this felt really good, half a star had to come off for these flaws.
The melee does not feel great. There is sadly no target lock-on, and the aim assist (even when set on the highest setting) doesn’t really do much. Mix that with the lack of a quick turn function, and you’re thrown into a dizzying mess.
As an example, you encounter spiders in most areas. These spiders never failed to scare the crap out of me by popping out of the ground and running at full speed. But sometimes you’d have five or six spiders charging you, and to save ammunition, it made the most sense to melee them instead of using your weapon. Due to the lack of a lock-on function, you have to move the camera around to aim precisely at a singular mob, and if you’re surrounded, you may not even realize there are some behind you.
It is quite possible that these functions were left out intentionally to add to the game’s challenge, which also brings up the lack of accessibility functions. The only things you have control over are the overall difficulty (rookie, specialist, commander), and aim assist (off, weak, strong). I will be completely honest, I did play most of the game on the rookie difficulty, and felt that the first half of the game was disproportionately more difficult than the latter half, which brings me to the second story boss.
Without spoiling anything, the second story boss has a very large arena and seemed to offer the potential of taking it down in multiple ways. However, this was not the case. After several attempts, I did reach out to the PR team to ask about the mechanics. Once they explained, it still took me several more tries to get remotely close to defeating the boss. It felt like the first time you successfully did the mechanic, it worked as intended, but when you went for the second and third attempts, they didn’t function properly. Certain consumables didn’t work the way they should have, and environmental elements felt unnaturally sped up.
This boss’ second phase was most definitely a lot smoother. It mixed the mechanics from the first phase with a new one, and I had no issues with it. I obviously continued to encounter challenges throughout the game, but I never again had issues as I did with this boss. But enough with the bad, and onto the good.
In the end, you have four base weapons, with two of them having upgrades and secondary modes that function differently (it is possible there are four upgrades, and I missed two of them). At the very beginning of the game, you get a gun that utilizes lightning, and then one that utilizes fire. Scars Above does a fantastic job of having the player perform a balancing act of what weapons to use and when. Even with the addition of two other weapons, and then the major upgrades, it still feels great to play.
In some areas, one weapon would be used as an assist tool, and in others, that same weapon would be your primary way of killing enemies. They are all easily accessible by different directional buttons on the d-pad, with the secondary modes swapped by holding down the appropriate button. I absolutely loved this, it felt great. Were there times when I’d panic and forget which is which, and work my way into a difficult corner to get out of? Yes, but it felt like a well-designed challenge.
No one weapon felt overpowered over the other, either, which is a big thumbs up from me. In Returnal, I saw a lot of this but with that game, I felt like I needed an overpowered weapon to progress. That if the RNG gods didn’t bless me with the good stuff, that run was as good as done. Having the weapons balanced in Scars Above really enhanced the gameplay, and it’s something that will stick with me for a long time.
The game has a tiered skill tree that is accessed whenever you want in the main menu. It’s split into two sides – engineering and xenotechnology. Engineering focused on your weapons and consumables, while xenotechnology focused on Kate’s body and perks to combat. There are tiers 1 – 4, which require one to four points to unlock, depending on which tier the ability is on. To access the next tier, you need to learn at least three abilities from the previous tier.
To gain ability points, Kate must collect “knowledge cubes,” which are little black and purple cubes found all over the map. These, just like the roguelike mechanic, are also explained in the lore, which I found pretty cool. That being said, this game does reward you for looking around and taking all the paths. I was able to unlock every ability by the last chapter; I am unsure if changing to a higher difficulty decreases the number of knowledge cubes, but either way, it can also be very easy to miss them.
It is also worth noting that one knowledge cube does not equate to one ability point. Each cube seems to fill a different amount of your ability point progress bar. A small UI thing I also appreciated was a purple diamond (the skill tree is also purple) on the left side of the screen telling me if I had any ability points to spend, and how many I had. This came in handy when I was saving up for abilities on higher tiers, and got distracted.
Another big plus for me was the fact you can reset your ability points whenever you want. There’s no need to be at a pillar (the save points), talk to an NPC, or any of that nonsense. When I was having difficulties with that second story boss, I had allocated points to an ability I hadn’t previously unlocked before, as it benefited me more for that fight. I personally don’t think being able to reset your ability/skill tree at any time takes away from the challenge. It feels like you have more control over how you want the character to feel, and your playstyle.
All in all, I had a great time with Scars Above, and do hope to see DLC or a sequel. Throughout the game, the story would give me just enough to be invested and motivated to move forward, and the open-ended conclusion didn’t leave me feeling empty. It wasn’t like Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, which left me filled with rage at the abrupt ending, but it also wasn’t like Mass Effect, which kept my mind racing about the possibilities.
Scars Above’s story is in a perfect place for expansion, but it isn’t keeping me up at night wondering what could happen, or why the game went in a specific direction (like a lot of other games do). They gave enough detail to leave you satisfied, and enough mystery to keep you wanting more. A perfect balance, if you will.