When the mysterious sci-fi action shooter Scars Above was first unveiled during Geoffcom's Opening Night Live at the end of August, I thought it had big Returnal energy. Based on the reveal trailer, it certainly seemed to be riffing on several of the same themes as Housemarque's challenging PlayStation exclusive - what with its lone female scientist stranded on an alien planet schtick, third-person shooting, and big eerie alien monsters after her etc. - so when I saw it was part of this month's Steam Next Fest demo bonanza, I knew I had to give it a try. And while it certainly captures the same kind of atmosphere as Returnal, I'm sorry to say that's about as far as the comparison goes, as the rest of Scars Above is a much slower, more traditional kind of space action game.
The Next Fest demo covers most of the game's first chapter, putting you right at the start of Dr Kate Ward's adventure. It skips the preamble of how she actually winds up on this ashen, alien planet, but I'm guessing she's been zapped there by the strange 'Metahedron' structure we saw in that first reveal trailer. You know the one - the big ominous pyramid hanging in the sky above Earth. She also appears to have been separated from the rest of her science team - the eponymous SCARS, or Sentient Contact Assessment and Response team, if you want the full acronym - and most of the demo is spent hunting for clues as to their whereabouts.
Only it's very clear some timey-wimey shenanigans have occured since she was last in contact with the rest of her SCAR team, as Kate stumbles upon several cables and makeshift campsites set up by other members of her crew that have clearly been there for some time. The entire planet seems to be abandoned, though, and I imagine that the bulk of the game will be spent finding out what happened to them.
It's not completely empty, though, as there are plenty of ornery monsters waiting to spring out of watery pools and gross-looking pods and sacs to do you in. At first Kate only has a big slashy knife to her name, but she quickly obtains a gun that can fire electric, fire and eventually cryogenic bullets to exploit enemy weaknesses. Firing an electric bullet at an enemy in water, say, will do extra 'wet combo' damage (as water conducts electricity and all that), while cryogenic grenades can be used to freeze surfaces to form bridges and new pathways. They can also be used to crust up big monsters to slow them down a bit, giving you a bit more time to hit their big glowing weakpoints.
This would all be fine and dandy if Kate herself wasn't so awkward to control. She's certainly not as limber as Returnal's Selene Vassos, and at times felt more like a stiff tank lady from Capcom's olde Resident Evil games. It makes combat feel quite frustrating as a result, as even simple things like dodging and getting out of the way of enemy attacks feels stilted and laboured, like your timing is constantly out of sync with everything else. There's none of Returnal's fast-paced 'keep moving or die' energy to be seen here, and most encounters boiled down to dodge-rolling from side to side while trying to fire at maybe one or two enemies at a time.
Weirdly, there's a very light touch of Souls to the way Scars Above is structured, too, as Kate can rest at these strange glowing pillars that both restore her health and a bit of ammo, and respawn nearby enemies. Like the FromSoft ouevre, you'll only want to use these pillars very sparingly, as running back to heal at them will simply force you into doing the same old fights over and over again. Unlike said FromSoft games, however, Kate doesn't gain any EXP from defeating enemies, so you can't use them to grind or farm extra ability points. It really is just fighting for the sake of having a scrap.
Instead, the main way of improving your stats is by gaining 'Knowledge', either from scanning downed enemies or by finding little purple knowledge cubes around the environment. These will fill up a bar that gradually grants you ability points once it reaches 100%, but Scars Above commits that cardinal sin of never remembering which cubes you've found since your last save when you inevitably peg it. Thankfully, the abilities you unlock are permanent, but if there's one thing I hate hate hate in games, it's doing multiple loops of collectible hoovering every time I die in a fight. I guess this does let you grind to an extent, although the 3% knowledge gains you get from the cubes aren't exactly big enough to really make it worthwhile, in my opinion.
It's a shame, as the general vibe of this alien planet is something I'm extremely down for. I love the look of it and the strange structures Kate glimpses on her travels, and the puzzle-y nature of her various gun attachments gives the demo's exploration sections a nice sense of contrast to the fighting. I just wish said fighting was a bit more fluid and satisfying under the thumbs. So yes, I've cooled quite a bit on this linear, third-person space shooter since its initial reveal, but you never know. There's still time for some extra polish, as its release date is still listed as 'Coming Soon' on Steam, rather than a specific date, but right now I fear that developers Mad Head Games have mistaken 'challenging' in its Steam description as 'actually just a bit janky'. I await its full release with cautious optimism.