Review: Scorn

14 Oct 2022
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For those of us who stumbled across its initial pre-alpha footage all the way back in 2014, waiting for Scorn has been quite the test of patience. A first-person horror adventure game rooted heavily in the singular art styles of artists H.R. Giger and Zdzisław Beksiński was an immediately captivating prospect. The footage was replete with everything from puzzle solving to shooting mechanics with a truly unique visual style, and as a fan of all things horror, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.

Now, just shy of eight years later, Scorn is releasing courtesy of developer Ebb Software and publisher Kepler Interactive for PC and Xbox Series X|S on October 14th, 2022. When I first launched the game on my PC, I couldn’t help but wonder: would the extensive development time work in the game’s forever, or would it actively undermine it?

The answer, as is typically the case, ended up landing somewhere in the middle.

Heartwork

Scorn begins with no preamble, immediately presenting our humanoid protagonist as he wrests himself free from the tendrils of fleshy overgrowth threatening to overtake him. When he’s finally able to rise to his feet, plunging through a narrow hallway is all it takes to reveal a phantasmagoric hellscape of biomechanical proportions. It’s unclear what our protagonist hopes to gain from his progression deep into what remains of this world, but there’s no doubting that survival against nightmarish creatures and the repairing of distorted machines blocking his way are key to reaching his destination.

As you may be able to glean from the above, there isn’t much of a concrete narrative in Scorn. Almost like viewing an evocative painting, it’s more about interpreting each plot development on an introspective level instead of following a more straightforward story. There are no dialogue sequences or exposition dumps, leaving players to rationalize the game’s events personally in order to reach a sense of cohesion in storytelling.

And yet there’s still a clear thread of consistent theming as the game carries on. Body horror is a big focus here, with a particular emphasis on unsettling physical alterations to living creatures creating uncomfortable situations for the player. These do just enough to get you to question why the on-screen depictions are so unsettling without overstaying their welcome.

And on that note, there are certainly some gruesome moments that the faint of heart may struggle with, and Scorn certainly pulls no punches when it comes to gore, but I wouldn’t say there’s anything truly stomach-churning for the average player with experience in the horror genre.

To Mega Therion

Before diving deep into the gameplay of Scorn, it’s important to establish just what type of game it is. Although horror is an accurate categorization, the title has far more in common with a puzzle game than a typical horror release does. It’s more than happy to throw you into the midst of its world without instruction, in essence forcing you to figure out what needs to be done for yourself. It also works its hardest in establishing a sense of atmosphere rather than trying to simply startle you.

You’re likely to feel a bit lost at certain points as a result, and you’ll spend a decent amount of time scratching your head to figure out which part of a given puzzle you should tackle first to gain some headway. It feels daunting in the beginning, but like all great puzzlers, the more time you put into it, the more you start to understand the game’s logic. Once you start solving the more difficult puzzles, you fall into the flow of the puzzle design on both a mechanical and visual level, making the next challenge feel just a bit more manageable.

When it comes to the variety of those puzzles, Scorn sports a relatively decent spread. You’ll solve environmental challenges (such as combing a large area for switches) in addition to more conventional brainteasers like sliding blocks and Lights Out-style puzzles. Most importantly, the pacing and implementation of the puzzles never feels overly familiar, lending itself well to longer play sessions.

Scorn isn’t without combat encounters either, though, and it very much ascribes to the Silent Hill school of thought that combat should be equal parts grueling and deadly. Though the player character is nimble, the only weapon he has access to for quite some time is a melee-range device resembling a captive bolt gun. It only provides two uses before requiring a lengthy recharge, and when you combine that with several enemies that have ranged attacks, it can make for some tense hit-and-run scenarios where you’re trying to squeeze out damage without taking any yourself.

Though they’re engaging at first, it sadly doesn’t take long for these encounters to feel painfully routine once they’ve been grafted onto the rest of the experience. The culprit dragging it down most is a thorough lack of enemy variety; there are only a handful of different monsters to oppose you for Scorn’s eight or so hours, and a majority of them operate in the exact same way with similar speeds and highly accurate ranged attacks.

Additionally, there’s very little in the way of optimizing your survival in Scorn. There’s no detailed inventory management to speak of, and the only way of managing your healing and ammo is to simply conserve it as much as possible until you come across a station that grants you a one-time supply of ammunition and healing.

There isn’t much depth to the survival horror mechanics, but they’re more than serviceable. Or rather they would be, if not for the old school save and checkpoint system Scorn uses to track your progress. At certain points (such as when you interact with a puzzle or earn a new key item) the game will strictly snapshot your exact health and exact progress at that moment. This compounds frustrations with the combat and makes for some pretty abysmal situations where you’re stuck at low health and thus required to either play perfectly to survive against yet another group of enemies, or restart the entire chapter in the hopes of getting to the same point with more health at your disposal.

The inclusion of an option to save on your own terms in some way would have worked wonders in allaying these frustrating roadblocks, but instead the player is practically guaranteed to hit at least a couple of them in their playthrough. Moments like these put a damper on the stellar execution of the visuals and puzzles, actively preventing Scorn from being as refined an experience as it could be.

Biomechanoiden

Arguably the most exciting part of this game has always been the visual elements and how reminiscent they are of the works of H.R. Giger and Zdzisław Beksiński. From the very beginning, Scorn feels as though you’ve just stepped through the canvas into a living, breathing Giger piece conjoined with a scale common in the works of Beksiński. Its world is simultaneously decaying and very much alive, so much so that a simple turn of a corner can blur the line between the two distinctions.

Though the game only rarely takes control away from the player for cutscenes, the design and framing of the twisted architecture and grotesque biomechanical elements is impactful to the point where you simply have to stop and observe the finer details of the environment. The amount of unique assets in particular is staggering, with every single room and one-off hallway offering something unique and interesting to look at. Moreover, each major area stands thoroughly apart from the one that came before it without diverging from a sense of visual consistency.

An unsettling atmosphere is present from start to finish. The artistic, unabashed fusion of machines and living creatures makes for a ceaseless stream surrealistic imagery. Often it will seem as though parts of the environment could move at any moment, which makes it all the more exhilarating when they actually do. Most everything is brought to life in a fascinating way, with unnaturally natural animations further cementing the feeling of exploring an unidentifiable world. The game also deserves praise for the way it refuses to shy away from the sexual imagery inherent in much of H.R. Giger’s art. Crucially, it tackles this aspect in a thoughtful yet direct way that deftly avoids gratuitousness.

The sound design is executed with a similar level of care, with distant mechanical whirring and ever-present squelching in the environment constantly keeping players on their toes. The original soundtrack is also excellent, perfectly accentuating the warped environs.

Dark Star

The largest draw of Scorn has always been its aesthetic—one rooted heavily in the artistry of Giger and Beksiński. In this regard, the game is a rousing success that transports the player to a world that’s truly alien. It does so with a confidence and talent that practically forces you to take your time and savor the sights of its hostile, desolate world while deciphering cryptic brainteasers.

Which is exactly why it pains me to remember that Scorn was a long time coming, and while the visuals suffer nothing for it, the mechanical design of the game at large feels outdated and incongruous with its aesthetic triumphs. Despite a solid (if somewhat superficial) iteration of survival horror mechanics, the lack of enemy variety and an archaic checkpoint system guarantee multiple spots of unnecessary frustration.

These sections end up being little more than forced time away from the game’s proper strengths of puzzles and atmosphere. Scorn is still a journey worth taking for its appearance and environments alone, but I would have traded away every single repetitive combat encounter for just one more puzzle to sink my teeth into.


~ Final Score: 7/10 ~


Review copy provided by Kepler Interactive for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Kepler Interactive.