In Scars Above you play the role of Dr. Kate Ward, a member of the SCAR (Sentient Contact Assessment and Response) team sent in their ship, the Hermes, to observe and analyse a huge alien structure that has appeared in Earth orbit. The multifaceted object has been dubbed 'The Metahedron' because of its weird shape.
Naturally things go tits-up and the Metahedron zaps Kate, the crew and the wrecked Hermes through time and space to a mysterious extrasolar planet...
Initially a simple exploration, Kate's adventure soon becomes a challenging sci-fi third-person action-adventure/shooter as you fight for survival against alien creatures and harsh conditions. Locations range from exterior settings to caves and claustrophobic interiors. The game always rewards the player for overcoming its tricky battles with an upgrade of some description, and a compelling story is padded out with information found along the way.
Kate is initially unarmed but soon finds weaponry in the form a handy laser cutter and VERA, the modular weapon you construct early in the game while still aboard the Hermes. Both of these can be upgraded substantially, and VERA gets a fire (Thermic Charger) and ice (Cryo Launcher) elemental ability added to its default electric shock rounds, and later a Chemical Atomizer shotgun-type round–all produced on the best 3D printer in the Galaxy. She also has a range of extras than can be unlocked during the game, used by pressing 'RB'' (healing, shield, various throwables including flammable liquid and a hologram decoy) and passive abilities (more ammo, health, faster reloads etc) that can be enhanced with ability points earned by exploring, and allocated via an abilities tree. The trouble is, while I don't think surviving on an alien planet should be easy, no matter how much you upgrade, the weapons always feel underpowered and you never have enough ammo, which makes the entire game a grind.
Scars Above has a very polished look and is beautifully presented–even the static loading screens are cool. The game's movement feels a bit aged though, and while Kate's movement is smoothly animated it's quite limited. Also, although the levels look expansive, exploration is confined by invisible walls all over the place–we couldn't even jump off a cliff if we wanted to! Exploration is a key part of the game and every time you come across a new object it should be scanned, as examining objects and creatures extrapolates data which gives you more ability points.
Tough boss battles pop up regularly with some imaginative creatures. As usual with old-school boss battles they confine you to an area. Each creature has an elemental weakness or weak spots, and it's up to you to find them and prompt them into revealing them, or manoeuvring yourself into position so you can get a shot at them, while making sure you have Kate's weapon switched to the correct element, or have the correct gadget selected.
Some of the boss fights were so tough that I dropped the difficulty to 'Rookie'. Like most reviewers I like a challenge, but some of these fights go beyond reasonable limits. They always require you to switch weapon modes, switch gadgets, dodge, heal, pick up ammo and reload–and seemingly have eyes in the back of your head too. The regular showdowns with some monster or another are made worse by the game designer's "no-no" of making you travel a good distance back to a fight (a 'boss run') rather than just being able to retry right at the start of the boss fight. This is bad design in my book, and doesn't exactly engender a desire to return to a game.
Scars Above's designers also unwisely decided that the same gorilla-type alien would get reused over and over again, becoming larger (MUCH larger) and better armoured–it seems lazy and lacking in imagination in a game that promised so much. I always wonder why developers err on the 'hard' side when setting a game's difficulty. Are they masking their game's brevity? Is it poorly tested? Do they think their game should be the only one we play this year? I'm not sure whether it's naivety, inexperience or vanity.
Bugs that shouldn't be in the game include Kate clipping into far too much scenery and dead bodies that pop in and out of existence Scan prompts (A) don't always disappear after you've scanned an object or creature, which just means you'll go and try to scan an item you've already seen.
As if the constant battles with the alien wildlife weren't enough, an added element to the difficulty is that as you ascend the landscape the weather gets colder, and hypothermia becomes an issue. You can warm up by finding shelter or setting bushes–which are rare–alight.
Kate is a bit pernickety about your position for pickups, and you get tiresome enemies that render your scanner practically useless as they just pop up out of the ground without warning. These annoying fu…creatures will often kill you as you're carefully inching your way onward as you have no healing injections because the resource that seemingly makes everything in the game (fiber!) is just SO FLIPPING SCARCE - WHY? If I’d known I’d have taken a box of Bran Flakes with me! Gravity fails are common as well, and dead bodies rarely "flop" and conform to the ground they fell on as I'd expect them to in a 2023 release. Oh, and then there's the fact that as the end of the game nears the checkpoints that were, at best, sparse become practically non-existent. If this sounds like fun and "your cup of tea" then good luck, and maybe I'll come visit you next Christmas when you're a gibbering wreck in a padded cell, and we'll chat about Scars Above's boss fights!
Given the flaws I've mentioned, Scars Above may not be a "AAA'' title but given the size of the developer and the price tag (a reasonable £34.99) it's definitely "AA." Further beta testing may well have revealed to the designers that it's just too darn tough for today's market, and had they dropped the difficulty a bit I think it could have been a big hit. As it stands I see a lot of gamers giving up on it before they get to its best bits, of which there are more than a few.