It looks like a bunch o’ flesh-eating worms may have ripped my captain to shreds, and the only way forward on this dangerous alien planet is to freeze an entire lake. Too bad my 3D-printed rifle only shoots Fire or Electricity.
Oh, look! The drool of a giant, droopy booger monster hanging off a nearby cliff is freezing the water. Because this is the near future of Scars Above from developer Mad Head Games, our inquisitive hero Kate uses X-ray vision to investigate further: After analyzing the creature's brain, a secretion sack, and the rest of its innards, Kate deduces that its physiology manufactures an enzyme to break down local fauna and convert it into a cryogenic liquid. By analyzing the chemical compounds, she can 3D-print a new attachment for her sidearm that weaponizes the same reaction to shotgun-blast snowballs capable of freezing maggot-infested water — and even huge gorillas made of rocks.
Scars Above puts the science back in science fiction, relying on Kate’s engineering and scientific expertise to craft gadgets rather than rely on combat experience. This third-person action-adventure evokes everything from Mass Effect and Returnal to Jedi: Fallen Order and Resident Evil. While it falls short of every game it emulates and some of its bold experiments wind up half-baked, Scars Above is still a breath of fresh air that knows exactly how much it is worth.
Can you say the same for the last game you played?
Scars Above launched at the end of February with a $39.99 price tag for its roughly 10-hour runtime. Anybody going into the experience expecting pristine AAA quality will be sorrowfully disappointed by Returnal’s B-movie equivalent. But if you’re the type of person that bursts out laughing with delight at every jump scare and feels for everybody on the Island of Misfit Toys, then you’ll probably appreciate Scars Above.
Like Housemarque’s PlayStation 5 masterpiece, Scars Above follows a female lead in a challenging third-person action-adventure that strands her on a dangerous alien planet. Specters of a presumably extinct alien civilization haunt every step of the journey. The similarities mostly stop there, mainly because everything from combat to narrative in Scars Above is uneven — and an experimental collision of different games. Moments even feel brilliant, like the first time a serpent monster bursts out of the swamp to hiss at you. But you can’t trudge through the swamp without stepping in mud … or worse.
It all starts with the Metahedron, a bizarre alien structure that looks like an inverted, glowing pyramid that arrives in orbit around Earth. Kate’s part of the grew sent out to investigate, but as soon as they do anything of significance, the Metahedron powers up, and she wakes up some time later on the hostile alien planet. Unraveling the mystery of what happened while struggling to survive serves as a compelling enough plot hook, especially when Kate nerds out over the specific physiological details of the wildlife she discovers.
Giant Leaps and All That
Despite an eye-roll-worthy monologue from the captain about this being a huge step for mankind, the opening hour or so is a stunning and stylish intro. But it’s all bogged down in a myriad of caveats and design contradictions.
Enemy and environmental designs are stunning, yet they wind up being far too repetitive. Character models similarly boast impressive graphics accented by some excellent voice-acting performances — yet character animations are so wooden it’s distracting. The world and lore are a bit predictable but still compelling, but then the dialogue and writing oscillate between cringe and fringe. Gunplay is sharp and snappy. The elemental interactions and overall approach to combat strategy are a highlight, yet once you master it, the game goes from Souslike levels of difficulty to an absolute breeze.
Freeze an enemy in the water, melt them with fire, and then electrocute them. If they somehow survive, blast them with your poison shot. In this case, the uneven design makes it feel like a fun power trip as you hurdle toward the game’s final act.
Many of the game’s systems need a touch more depth. Monolithic alien pillars are strewn throughout the overgrown landscapes, functioning just like a Dark Souls Bonfire or Elden Ring Site of Grace. You’ll heal up and replenish your consumables, and all of the enemy spawns reset. But defeating an enemy awards you with literally nothing; The only real experience comes from picking up nerdy little purple data cubes. So you have to explore and fight more monsters to find these and then unlock augments on the game’s modest skill tree.
Progression winds up feeling unsatisfying as a result, but at least the Metroidvania approach to level design works well enough. You’ll unlock new abilities and backtrack through the mud to unlock some door you couldn’t before — and feel like quite the scientist doing so considering you extracted an alien blob’s secretions to make it happen.
All things considered, Scars Above works because its pain points are, for the most part, forgivable when the runtime is this short. For me at least, the opening was thrilling enough to trigger fond memories of Mass Effect’s heyday. And the final product is admirable when you remember that this is a fledgling studio with a lot of ambition that merely fell just slightly short in a few areas.
Scars Above is now available on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC. Inverse reviewed the Xbox Series X version.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.