Review: I Can’t Shake the Feeling That Scars Above Is Just an Imitation

By now if you haven’t played a soulslike game, you know what they are, and have seen the many variations thereof. Scars Above goes the risk/reward gameplay route, but instead of being a pure soulslike, it veers into new territory by becoming the first Returnal-like that I’ve seen.

Scars Above is a third person action adventure game. In it, you play as scientist and astronaut Dr. Kate Ward on a mission in Earth’s orbit to study a large alien structure called “The Metahedron.” Dr. Ward’s team is called the Sentient Contact Assessment and Response Team—or “SCAR” -- though shouldn’t it be “SCART?” I don’t think”SCARTS Above” elicits the same feeling, though Scars Above is painfully contrived.

Screenshot: Scars Above

While I can’t help but to draw visual comparisons between Scars Above and Returnal, Scars Above does a fair amount to differentiate itself. Unfortunately, it does so through well-worn game mechanics like elemental weaknesses and tropey storytelling. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make up for it with great feeling gameplay, either.

Scars Above doesn’t feel as great to play as the games it’s aping. Movement feels floaty, with animations that continue on past the point you stop pushing the thumbstick. Dodging is important to avoid damage, but doesn’t feel great—and doesn’t feel fluid between multiple dodges. There is melee, but it gets forgotten pretty quickly in lieu of ranged weapons. Ranged weapon, rather, since Scars Above has exactly one gun--a modular, sci-fi rifle called VERA that shoots different elemental-based attacks.

Screenshot: Scars Above

Usually when a game uses one gun with multiple different attacks it feels a little boring, but Scars Above manages to make each of VERA’s attacks feel unique. Additionally, Scars Above uses a checkpoint system that is also old hat at this point. Citadels serve as respawn points, as well as places to replenish health and gear charges.

Combat in Scars Above is okay—fun, but not as tight or gratifying as I would prefer. Boss battles, however, are one of my favorite parts of Scars Above. Boss designs are great, with most bosses having obvious weak points to exploit. Boss fights, while fun, never felt quite as challenging as they could be, with many boss fight arenas littered with ammo and other helpful pick-ups.

Screenshot: Scars Above

Puzzle solving is also an important element in Scars Above. While puzzle solving, Doctor Ward tends to take a more scientific approach. She is a researcher after all, and that is laid out plainly through various voice overs and even in the investigative interface that comes up when interacting with most puzzles. This is all window dressing, however, as puzzles are usually solved by trial and error manipulation, or finding missing items to insert into appropriate slots.
The exoplanet that Kate Ward finds herself on is one full of environmental hazards, as well as foes.

Sometimes you’ll have to manage your body heat to not freeze, or find ways across waters infested with hungry leeches. The level design is mostly well done, with linear sections that lead into small open areas that can be explored. Exploration yields experience that can be spent on the skill tree, as well as upgrades to your weapons and equipment. Developer Mad Head Games nailed the look of the game’s strange, alien world.

Screenshot: Scars Above

While Scars Above does have a compelling mystery, it is also one that feels like it has been well tread before. Enigmatic storytelling interspersed with striking vistas can almost be its own genre at this point, and it feels like developer Mad Head Games went down a list to tick every box. I am a sucker for sci-fi games where you have to go into a situation that clearly went bad and piece together what happened, and Scars Above sets that up perfectly.

Despite everything Scars Above manages to do well, I still can’t shake the feeling that I’m playing an imitation—and my time could be better spent with better games. Scars Above feels like one of those B-movies that tries to cash in on the success of a Hollywood blockbuster, and while it isn’t great, you sit through the whole thing anyway.

Scars Above is available today on Steam for PC and for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation5 as well as Xbox One and Xbox Series S|X.

A Steam key was provided to us for this review

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Antal Bokor

Antal is video game advocate, retro game collector, and video game historian. He is also a small streamer, occasional podcast guest, and writer.