Scars Above review: Sci-fi Soulslike set in space

scares aboveMad Head Games

Scars Above is a third-person sci-fi adventure from Mad Head Games, but is this spacefaring journey into the unknown worth your time?

Scars Above’s trailer had real Mass Effect and Returnal vibes, however, after playing through the game we can confirm that it’s actually a sci-fi Soulslike. Or at least, the Soulslike formula heavily influences Scars Above, but the game also dabbles in several other genres such as puzzle solving, third-person shooting, as well as cinematic and environmental storytelling.

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The plot begins when an enormous and mysterious alien structure appears in Earth’s orbit and silently beckons humanity. Humanity names the enigmatic object ‘The Metahedron’ and sends a team of experts known as the Sentient Contact Assessment and Response team (SCAR) into space to make contact with it. Players take on the role of Kate, an engineer on the team with a talent for crafting. That’s when things start to get strange.

Scars Above: Key Details

  • Price: £34.99/$34.99
  • Developer: Mad Head Games
  • Release Date: February 28, 2023
  • Platforms: PS5, PS4, PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S

Scars Above trailer

Lost in space

The crew is suddenly engulfed by light before Kate wakes up stranded on an alien planet where various monsters are waiting to make her their next meal. A mysterious holographic alien figure seems to be guiding Kate, leaving cryptic clues. She also starts to find evidence that the rest of her crew has also arrived on the planet, but Kate cannot find them, only their belongings and the efforts they’ve made to survive.

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From here, Kate’s mission is to locate her team, escape the planet, and solve the mystery of how they got there – and what it could mean for humanity. While intriguing and original, the game’s story pulls from several influences and we often got the sense that we had seen these elements before. However, it was able to surprise us more often than not, although some of the copy/paste sci-fi dialogue made us cringe at times.

Scars Above bossMad Head Games
Scars Above features some scary-looking bosses.

Tools of the trade

Early on in the game, we crafted a gun that Kate calls VERA which became our primary mode of offense once things got going. You can melee attack enemies, but why take the risk when you can blast them from a safe distance? VERA is the gun you’ll use throughout the adventure, but you’ll be able to load it with various forms of ammo from electrical bolts, explosive rounds, and freezing charges. You can also combo or use multiple attacks on enemies at different stages to maximize damage.

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We found this to be simple, creative, and fun. It also allowed us to take advantage of the environment too, switching out our ammo depending on what suited our situation best. Is there a swarm of little alien nasties coming toward you in the shallow water? Blast them with an ice charge to freeze them all, then before they can wiggle out of their icy prison, fire an electrical bolt into the middle of them and watch as the water carries the charge and fries them all. Just be sure to get out of the water before you electrify it!

This is the sort of tactical gameplay that underpins most of Scars Above and as the terrain, enemies, and challenges change, you’ll often have to think on your feet in some trial-and-error moments that make the game feel even more Soulslike. You’ll often come across Pillars that you can activate, these are checkpoints and work a lot like Bonfires/Sites of Grace in the Souls games. They heal you and replenish your ammo, but they also resurrect all nearby enemies.

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Sci-fi Souls

While out exploring the relatively linear alien world, you’ll be able to unlock shortcuts back to these Pillars to save you from navigating the same dangerous areas over and over again. If you happen to die during a boss fight, these quick routes back to the action are very helpful, but it’s a formula we’ve seen emulated in most Soulslike games ever since Demon’s Souls started the trend in 2009.

While Scars Above recycles these tried and tested gameplay loops, it also has some of its own tricks. For starters, combat is primarily geared around third-person shooting. So, while you battle bosses in a very ‘Soulslike’ way, diving out of their attacks and countering when it’s safe, this is all done using VERA as your tool to defeat these colossal enemies. It’s a novel approach and Scars Above really blends third-person shooting with Souls-style combat in a way that feels natural and fun.

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scars above bossMad Head Games
Imagine Dark Souls with a gun, now we’re talking!

The galaxy’s greatest detective

Another important part of Scars Above’s gameplay that sets it apart from other titles in the sub-genre is the addition of puzzles that reminded us of the Batman Arkham series. These brain teasers are often simple and involve scanning something, pressing the action button, then walking around to scan something else, but it’s a nice way to shake up the gameplay and provides a nice opportunity for some environmental storytelling. It also helps teach you various mechanics and creates an origin story for every tool you use in the game.

For example, you can extract the ingredients for your freeze rounds from the glands of a huge alien growth that’s stuck to a wall and then synthesize this into the ammo you need. You’ll initially do this to freeze a patch of water so you can safely cross over to the other side, but really, it’s a cool in-universe way to get a new attack mode for your gun. What’s impressive is that the devs have gone to the effort to create an explanation for everything you’re doing and this helped us become more immersed in Kate’s story and the dangerous world around her.

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Verdict 4/5

Scars Above is not a triple-A, big-budget, blockbuster of a game and therefore shouldn’t be reviewed as one. While well-designed and creative, the game isn’t going to appeal to everyone and will feel low-budget compared to many of the games it’s clearly been inspired by. That’s okay, though, as Scars Above knows its audience and has been crafted with sci-fi and Soulslike fans in mind.

If you fancy tackling some big bosses – but with a gun that fires various elemental attacks in a world that wouldn’t be out of place in Mass Effect or Returnal, then Scars Above may be an excellent way to spend your time. You’ll also get to brush up on your science fiction detective skills!

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Reviewed on PS5

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