There's a special place in my heart for single-player narrative-heavy games that are around eight hours long. I love a good RPG or a competitive shooter, but there's nothing quite like being able to sit down and enjoy a game in its entirety in two or three sittings. Enter Scars Above. Coming from Mad Head Games, this sci-fi third-person action adventure is all set on a cruel and unforgiving planet, where protagonist Dr. Kate Ward and her friends have been transported to, following an interaction with a mysterious alien artefact.
This narrative has that aura of mystery and intrigue to it, and is thrilling to follow, but it doesn't come across as anything particularly revolutionary. The clear influences of H.R. Giger and other sci-fi works shine through, and it makes for a story that is simply entertaining, but won't blow your socks off with what it's offering.
A lot of action adventure games would also treat a story like Scars Above purely as a survival tale, and while this title hits these beats, the game is also more about documenting, discovering, and piecing together what this world is and how you actually arrived here. You'll use Kate's scientific skill set to analyse and study the fauna, flora, and environments of the world, all while using her technological knowhow to construct powerful weapons capable of knocking the nasty aggressive species that live on the world down a peg or two. And as you might infer from here, combat is also a crucial part of the Scars Above gameplay cycle.
Using a collection of elementally-tuned weapons, as well as a list of craftable consumables, and timed abilities, Kate will need to fight back against the creatures that attack her. For the most part, as Scars Above is a pretty linear game, this includes dispatching foes that pop up in Kate's path, but occasionally will see her having to deal with a larger group of enemies that exist in a sort of arena, with this type of gameplay also being how bosses are introduced.
From my experience, the combat actually plays very fluidly, and has interesting depth. The way the different elemental types interact with one another (for example a wet enemy will take extra shock damage) on top of the unique attack styles of the firearms all make for an experience where the player has plenty of options. And the mobility of Kate keeps things feeling fast-paced and action-packed, all without making Kate seem like an indomitable action hero that isn't immune to stamina and doesn't shrug off death - even if she does, but there's a very good narrative reason for that. The boss enemies also bring unique mechanics where your understanding of the elemental suite will be put to the test, even though I never really found the bosses to be that much of a threat or a challenge in the grand scheme of things.
But here's the thing, while I do like the combat of Scars Above and I appreciate the story, I find myself less impressed elsewhere. The ability upgrading system revolves around picking up knowledge cubes scattered around each level, with a single ability point rewarded once you have acquired a certain but unclear amount of "knowledge". Considering these aren't exactly hard to spot or find, the whole process feels a bit drab and as though it never really understands what it wants to be. On one hand, you study new life forms you encounter for knowledge, and then on the other you just pick up a floating brick slap-bang in the middle of your path. It doesn't quite work.
Then to add to this are the visuals. While I will say that Scars Above generally has fine and agreeable graphics, the facial animations are abhorrent and actually quite terrifying. If you've ever seen an android in a movie with a silicon face, who shows emotion by only moving its mouth, then this is precisely the way Scars Above's characters appear. They are not life-like at all, and it makes it very difficult to appreciate the gravity in cutscenes when the characters feel fake.
That being said, the monsters do feel real and are pretty nasty pieces of work. Mad Head Games has clearly taken a lot of time researching and creating a scary ecosystem for Kate to chew through, because the monsters that you'll come across in Scars Above are freaky and unsettling. They're not particularly hard to kill, mind you (well aside from the poisonous humanoid fungi) but they are fun to battle with.
From my experience with the game, the environmental puzzles are a bit hit or miss as well. Some are a bit too straightforward and essentially ask you to just remove power cores at the right time to solve a problem, whereas others can be a nuisance to solve. I had a particularly tough time with one of the earliest puzzles, as the mechanic of rotating tetrahedrons to suit a specific pattern did not work well at all with a mouse, leading me to just aimlessly shaking the item around until it eventually landed in the right position.
I do appreciate how Mad Head Games hasn't overcomplicated Scars Above however. What you see is what you get and that allows you to really experience and immerse yourself in the gameplay, without having to worry about excessive resource management, multiple skill trees of abilities, or large open worlds 'brought to life' with fatiguing collectibles to hunt for. This is a straightforward narrative-heavy single-player game, and that should be celebrated these days.
All in all, Scars Above is an entertaining yet familiar action adventure that while having its flaws, is bolstered by enough engaging gameplay elements and tropes that it makes you want to get to the end of its relatively short (for this era of games) story. It won't knock you off your feet, but if you are looking for something new to spread out over a weekend, Scars Above is an ideal candidate.