To say I was out of my comfort zone is perhaps an understatement – not only had I travelled to the hitherto unknown far flung wilds of the Balkans, but I was also about to partake of a supposedly Souls-tinged science fiction adventure called Scars Above, inside a spooky former crypt that felt like something out of Castlevania. But Serbian-developer Mad Head are crafting something here that really surprised and delighted me in equal measure, to the point where I could have quite happily taken a build of it back from Serbia and continued playing once we were ushered out of the preview into the cold, bleak midwinters night in Belgrade.
You take the role of Kate Ward, a scientist employed by NASA-esque company SCAR, who are investigating a mysterious alien object that has appeared in the earth’s orbit. This peculiar astral body has been christened the Metahedron, and anyone with even a fundamental knowledge of how these things pan out will immediately know that messing with it is likely to be a Very Bad Thing. Sure enough, after a brief section where you roam the ship, learn how to interact with and craft items, and chat with your fellow SCARS buddies, the entire crew end up being dragged into the icky sci-fi void of the Metahedron, and you are dropped into the game proper as Kate emerges in a strange alien planet bereft of any equipment, work colleagues, or a clue as to what the hell is going on.
Kate is no mere generic space marine type; she is a scientist and as such immediately seeks to learn as much as she can about her unfamiliar environs, questioning the ominous, looming monoliths in the distance, constantly speaking to herself to make sense of it all, and scanning the flora and fauna she encounters in order to better understand it. It soon becomes clear that the planet Kate has found herself on is extremely hostile, with a myriad of Lovecraftian beasties and environmental hazards all looking to kill her.
Initially you have to ward off the small spidery enemies that leap toward you with a small melee knife-like tool that you recover from the remnants of the SCARs spacecraft. You can also use this to cut down roots and branches that block your path. As you progress you are able to discover and craft new means of protecting yourself and traversing the various obstacles along the way. There were three weapons/tools on offer during the portion of Scars Above I got to experience, each with different elemental properties which become key to your survival and to defeat the increasingly more dangerous foes.
An electrically charged device that you build during the intro is handy during the early sections set in a gloomy marshland, as you are able to not only hit enemies directly but also electrify the water to combo together multiple hits at once. Later on, you will discover a flame shot that can burn its way through certain roadblocks and ignite enemies that are vulnerable to heat. The final weapon I saw was a freeze gun that can halt nasties in their tracks but also be used to create safe platforms on terrain that would otherwise see you swallowed down to a gooey, acidy death.
As I have alluded to, Kate is a scientist and not a soldier, and the weapons you find are not guns in the traditional sense with the grunt and heft that you’d find in similar games. You really get the feeling that you are vulnerable and that essentially, Kate is underpowered – until you start to discover that elemental weaknesses can be exploited not only in the terrain but in the enemies, particularly the epic boss battles. One such encounter early on is very cleverly designed and requires use of all three types of weapon to succeed, fire to disable it temporarily, shockwaves to attack its vulnerable core, and ice to protect yourself as it spews gunk around you that needs to be frozen in order to walk over it.
Scars Above is a thrilling experience and one where you never appear to be at an unfair disadvantage if you learn the patterns and have the dexterity to switch weapons at the right time. Science, harnessing the latent biological advantages of an otherwise hostile world, and learning are key themes. Despite not being what you would consider a triple-A title, Scars Above is a very competent one and is extremely fun and challenging to play.
I barely scratched the surface of the many skills you are able to unlock by collecting the glowing purple cubes you encounter, and left the preview really wanting to know what the next weapon was going to be, and to have a crack at some more of the well-executed boss battles and menagerie of creepy alien blighters. Some of the animation could do with a bit of a spruce up, truth be told, and there were a few times where I found myself getting stuck or oddly encumbered by scenery, which I am sure will be ironed out prior to release. The passion for the sci fi genre and in delivering an enjoyable and playable game is clear to see in what Mad Head have done thus far, and I for one will be feasting on its off-world delights when it drops in 2023.
This Scars Above preview is based on hands-on impressions from a press trip to Serbia. Accommodation and travel was provided by the publisher. The game is coming to PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S|X in 2023.