Scars Above aims to strike a balance between Returnal and Dark Souls that makes it so much less – Hands-on impressions

A sci-fi adventure trapped beneath the murky waters of gunplay and boss runs.

Image via Mad Head Games

Scars Above from developer Mad Head Games is caught between two worlds. On one hand, the studio wants the game to be a challenging experience similar to Dark Souls, which forces you to learn runs from a checkpoint to a boss until you’ve mastered both. On the other, it wants you to have the fast-paced running and shooting of Returnal while blending in gadgets with the gunplay. While Scars Above doesn’t fall short on all fronts, it fails to give you anything you’d want from those two games; instead, it highlights its own flaws.

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The story of Scars Above sees the SCAR team of scientists approach a structure called The Metahedron in space. This colossal shape appeared out of nowhere and is seen as something that could propel humanity’s technology forward by a few decades. As soon the team approaches The Metahedron, everyone is lost, and protagonist Kate awakens on an alien world. From there, you must uncover the truth behind what happened, locate Kate’s crew, and understand why the world you’re now on, clearly touched by The Metahedron, is so bleak and desolate.

Screenshot by Gamepur

Each beat in the story makes it more intriguing. It’s evident developer Mad Head Games has poured its passion and energy into these moments because the best parts of Scars Above are the ones where you’re exploring, solving puzzles, and learning more about the world and what happened to the SCAR team. These sequences come between long bouts of exploring alien-infested locations and learning how to conquer larger enemies and bosses.

Outside of following the story, the core gameplay of Scars Above revolves around gunplay. You quickly pick up a few weapons, each with a different element. Enemies are more vulnerable to certain elements, and you’ll need to burst pustules on some with a specific weapon to have any chance of killing them at all. The game teaches this mechanic really well through visual cues and Kate’s own expertise as a biologist. You never kill an enemy and move on; Kate studies the corpse and brings that knowledge with her. This biological finding plays into the experience system, earning more for discovering knowledge capsules by exploring the world and studying each new enemy. It makes Kate feel like she’s organically growing stronger on this planet through learning, not with an arbitrary upgrade system.

Gunplay is terrible, with jittery aiming and clunky weapon or gadget swapping. Thankfully, the game relies more heavily on using gadgets to assist you in combat. There’s a shield, lure, and even a time-dilation grenade that lets you dance around enemies like The Flash. This weaponry feels awfully out of place with Kate, though, someone who is interested in learning about the world around her rather than killing it.

Screenshot by Gamepur

When you die, and you will a lot, you’ll get sent back to the last checkpoint, a golden obelisk. These function as bonfires do in Dark Souls, replenishing your health, ammo, and batteries while also respawning enemies. I never found the need to use these, though. The only times I utilized the golden obelisk were when I’d made a lot of progress and thought it prudent to create a new checkpoint instead of being thrown back two biomes upon death.

Related: Review: Returnal is a welcome slice of strange, and a testament to Housemarque’s talent

Scanning plays into the game’s puzzles, of which there are only one or two that will make you stop and really think. You need to find all the elements of a scenario and then combine them to see a scene play out and advance the story. The game incorporated the scanning mechanic really well, and there is always a reason for Kate to be going somewhere or doing something.

Bosses don’t line up so satisfactorily in Scars Above. I came across two true bosses, each of which is a puzzle. The first boss is evident because of the large bumps growing around it. The second boss was more of an amalgamation of baffling systems and mechanics. The game teaches you a lot between each one, and figuring out which mechanic you need to use on this boss takes more thinking than you feel you have time.

Screenshot by Gamepur

Each fight is stressful and enjoyable enough, as all boss fights should be, but they’re all incredibly frustrating to start with. I had to put the game down a few times and get some space because it felt like I was going mad trying to do what was required of me yet getting nowhere.

I feel there’s a great story to be told in Scars Above, but I can’t help thinking that Mad Head Games could have narrated it in a better way. Having fewer enemies in the game but making more of the “fight smart, not hard” style it’s going for would have given boss battles more of an identity. Scars Above will become a cult classic that fails to click with most players.