Scars Above - An Amazing Slice of Sci/Fi Adventure
In a world where video games seem to be getting bigger and bigger, where games seem to simply exist to take all of your time, a game can stand out by simply bucking that trend. By not following the pack and creating an open-world chock full of side quests and time-wasting, a developer has a real shot at standing out from the crowd. Tie this more focused approach with a mechanically entertaining gameplay loop and an intriguing story and that is a recipe for a successful game, one that distances itself from the pack by being smaller and nailing the game’s key elements so as to keep the player engaged from start to finish. This is exactly what Mad Head Games have achieved with Scars Above, a game that bucked conventions and delivered exactly what it set out to do.
Scars Above saw me take control of Kate, one of four astronauts sent to investigate the appearance of an extra-terrestrial pyramid above planet Earth. As the mission progresses, something goes wrong, Kate gets caught in a blast and then blacks out, only to awaken on a strange planet with no recollection of how she got there. It is a classic setup for a Sci/Fi story to be sure, but it is one that serves this game perfectly. The writers have used what may seem like a stereotypical tale to warp players’ conceptions of what is going to happen and in the process throw in some wonderfully entertaining twists and turns along the way. I was 100% invested in the story from the start to the game’s very satisfying conclusion and at no point did it ever feel like the story was weak or cliched. Just know it is very much a tale to be enjoyed and should you find yourself playing Scars Above, it is a game where all cutscenes deserve your attention.
On the gameplay side of things, there is nothing that is ground-breaking or genre-defining, instead, the developers have chosen to focus on a few key things and really nail them and frankly, it was a wise move. Combat is a tight, predominantly gun-based affair using elemental weapons to pick out enemy weaknesses and interact with the environment in clever ways. The gunplay is at a slower pace than you might expect, but this allows for the mixing of weapon attacks. Switching between different elements (Fire, Electricity, Poison and Ice) and identifying weaknesses during combat sequences is the key to taking down enemies efficiently and is practically essential in boss battles. One of the most memorable boss encounters in the game had me melting the ice below the boss, and then refreezing it to trap its legs in the water, which would then make it vulnerable to electrical attacks. This sort of light puzzle/combat combo is something that Scars Above does better than just about any game I have ever played and it makes for a thoroughly entertaining experience.
Speaking of puzzles, the game is full of great little mind-benders that are generally entertaining to solve and most importantly, make narrative sense. Kate is a scientist and uses that knowledge to fabricate, deduce and manipulate the world she is in to her advantage. Exploring the world and solving these puzzles add a wonderful sense of discovery to a game that could have easily been a linear combat trudge. They are moments of quiet and exploration between the quite intense and tough combat sections, giving the game a wonderful pace that knows exactly when to ramp up or take its foot off the gas. There is a slight case of obscurity with some of the puzzles though, with manipulation of some objects being fiddly and frustrating, which takes away some of the pleasure of solving these conundrums, but there are only a few instances of this throughout the game so it is hardly a deal-breaker.
Further to the exploration elements. Scars Above borrows the firepit mechanic from Souls games to create save points that refill ammo and health but respawn enemies. The game has come up with a wonderfully inventive way to justify this in the story and it feels like an appropriate inclusion in the game without ever just feeling like it is there because Souls-like games are popular. In fact that could be said about every element in the game, Scars Above doesn’t ever invent anything new in video games, instead it cherry-picks key mechanics from other games and improves, refines and moulds them to suit its purposes. As a result, I was rarely surprised by a gameplay element, but I was constantly impressed with how these elements worked and interacted with each other. This a very strong case to support the old “there is no need to reinvent the wheel” argument.
Graphically the game is quite stunning. While clearly not built with a AAA budget, the art-direction team have done a wonderful job at making stylistic choices that really make the game a joy to look at. There are some breathtaking backgrounds that really made me want to press that screenshot button and the enemy design is both contextually appropriate and highly detailed. There are some occasions where there is a little bit of jankiness, the odd instance of graphical pop-in or the camera getting caught in the environment, but for the most part, this is a game that has an eye-catching look. It also runs wonderfully well on my PC rig, with no instances of framerate drops or performance issues to be found. I also tested it on my much lower-spec laptop and found that with a few slight adjustments to the graphical settings, it ran just as well, which is a good sign that it will work on a wide range of systems.
Now I want to talk briefly about the game’s length. On medium difficulty, the game took me just shy of eight hours to complete. That is a relatively short game in this day and age, but I found it so refreshing to be able to experience the entire game in such a time frame. I never once felt like my time was being wasted, like I was doing things for the sake of extending gameplay. Everything I did in Scars Above was in service of the story and the experience. By taking this approach and focusing on the key elements, Mad House Games have created a game that has no fat on it, a game that left me wanting more, not wanting to just get to the end and I think that is their greatest achievement. Some will say eight hours is not enough, but I say it is perfect, especially in this context.
Scars Above is really the best example I can come up with for perfect AA game design. Mad House Games have created a rousing sci/fi adventure that is perfectly paced, thoroughly entertaining and never outstays its welcome. It was a breath of fresh air in a world of ridiculously time-consuming experiences and I applaud the development team for having the bravery to stick to their guns when it would have probably seemed like a “trendier” thing to do by going down the open-world route. Kate’s adventure is one that is going to stick with me and while it is occasionally let down by some slight jank and fiddly puzzle manipulation, it never loses sight of its goal to create a tight and thrilling adventure. I cannot recommend Scars Above enough, especially to those out there that are sick of games taking just so damn long to finish. Scars Above really is a rollicking slice of Sci/Fi that deserves your attention. Don’t sleep on this one folks.
Scars Above was reviewed on PC with code kindly supplied by Plaion Australia