Game Pass newcomer Scorn's grim beauty is only skin-deep

Opinion by Luke Albigés,

Scorn's bleak biomechanical aesthetic is undeniably impressive, but it's pretty much the only aspect of the dark puzzle game that is — combat, world-building and even the puzzles themselves simply don't feel fleshed out.

I wanted to love Scorn, I really did. It's been on my radar for the majority of the eight years since it was first announced, and it's honestly remarkable that so long passed with us learning so little about the game... even down to what kind of game Scorn actually is. Some expected a pure horror experience, others a fleshy FPS, and it wasn't until right up to release that the truth came out — Scorn is a plodding puzzle game with body horror elements and some clumsy combat, and sadly, its jaw-dropping Giger-inspired art style is the only thing it really has going for it.

Scorn is all style, no substance

Scorn certainly gets off on the right foot, plonking you into its horrible world without explaining a thing — refreshing in an era when UIs are often cluttered with waypoints and tips and when many games want nothing more than to hold your hand. This sense of wonder and mystery as you get to grips with Scorn gels wonderfully with the world itself to constantly keep you guessing, although the complete lack of direction won't be to everyone's tastes and has already led to some players just wandering about aimlessly, scratching their heads. Once you begin to comprehend the language of this world, though — identifying commonly used mechanics such as fleshy switches and organic keyholes — the curtain falls on Scorn's fleshy facade as it becomes clear that these alien contraptions merely obfuscate and disguise puzzles that are actually extremely familiar and straightforward. You'll do laps of the chitinous corridors in search of the few things with which you can actually interact, trial-and-error your way to a correct sequence of events, then get treated to puzzle game elements too typical, too safe to feel at home in this place, like sliding block puzzles and basic maze games. The overarching main puzzles of each area aren't that hard, just ill-explained, convoluted, and sometimes even illogical — pretty much the worst thing a puzzle game can be.

That lack of logic extends to the world itself as well. There's no problem with having an air of mystery about the setting, but Scorn ends up holding so much back from the player that there's not even so much as a goal or objective, making it hard to know if you're even making progress. Truth be told, it's a largely linear game so you are pretty much always making progress, but towards what, and how much? Other puzzle boxes like Myst and The Witness share a similar mysterious air, but at least offer something to remind us that we're getting somewhere, with book pages and lasers respectively. Maybe that's the point... maybe Scorn doesn't want us to feel like we're getting anywhere, but either way, the lack of feedback or any sense of progression leave much of the game feeling like an aimless, ponderous slog — a walking tour of several stunning Giger exhibits where the puzzles engineered to deliver some semblance of gameplay often end up detracting from the experience, running you on wild goose chases around each area until you're sick of the sight of those initially stunning architectural feats and vistas.

I'm all for oblique storytelling in games, but Scorn is so stingy with its lore that it becomes practically impossible to make any sense of its world. This isn't like a Dark Souls or Destiny situation where casual players can have a rudimentary understanding of your character's role in the world while those willing to read deeper into the additional lore have much more to learn — Scorn's few actual narrative beats barely hang together as a cohesive 'story' as it is, and trying to flesh it out in any meaningful way relies almost exclusively on guesswork from the player. Some have seemed to enjoy this aspect, as I think would I had Scorn deigned to give us just a little more to work with. While drawing your own conclusions and mentally filling in the blanks can be intriguing and entertaining, too much of Scorn's lore is just that — blanks. As much as the game likes to shock with its frequent body horror intermissions, it's hard for events to have any real impact on the player if there's no sense of the consequences, purpose, or significance of anything that happens. Are the horrific events that play out normal in this world? Without knowing something so fundamental, how can they be truly shocking?

Speaking of truly shocking, time to touch on Scorn's combat. It's bad. Bad by design, possibly, but still bad. The good thing is that you rarely have to actually engage with it, as you can often just let the weird little critters go about their business (whatever that is) and they'll just leave eventually, but there are parts where it's necessary and it's not a fun time. Ammo is severely limited, encouraging you to conserve and play almost like you don't even have a weapon, which, honestly, would probably make the game better if it were the case. There's even a boss fight later in the game, for some reason, and as with all other encounters, the only scary thing about it is how much progress you stand to lose if you die. Scorn is not kind with checkpoints, so you'll often find that death can put you back behind earlier sections of puzzles before you can try again, and with areas typically looking very similar, it's not always obvious just how much progress you've even lost or what step you're at. I've heard horror stories of the game checkpointing mid-death and of losing over an hour of progress, but thankfully, the worst I had was a tedious repeat ammo run then gauntlet run past six or so enemies (with a couple of slow lift rides in there for good measure), all on just a single bar of health so dead to a single touch. Fun.

I don't hate Scorn. To an extent, its striking aesthetic is enough to carry it as an experience, but the supporting elements certainly aren't there to make it a good game. It helps that it doesn't outstay its welcome and you can see it all inside of five hours (less with a guide, no doubt), although that does draw attention to that questionable $40 price tag for a short one-and-done adventure which is almost more tech demo than game. Still, a decent get for Game Pass, and despite all of the criticism above, I wouldn't recommend against playing it, even if only to quickly grab the Scorn achievements and move on — as I say, it's certainly a novel experience and a feast for the eyes, but you really need to temper expectations on the gameplay side of things. As a puzzle game, it's nowhere near as smart or creative as the likes of Portal, The Witness, or The Talos Principle. As a horror game (if it can even truly be considered one in the first place), there's nothing especially scary about it, just an ominous and imposing atmosphere and a lot of gore. As a shooter, it's barely even passable. And while it's definitely better than the sum of its parts, there's no doubt that the art is doing a lot of the heavy lifting here. Certainly not one of the best Game Pass games, then — Scorn just feels disappointing, barren, and un-fleshed-out for a game almost a decade in the making.

But maybe that's the point.
Luke Albigés
Written by Luke Albigés
Luke runs the TA news team, contributing where he can primarily with reviews and other long-form features — crafts he has honed across two decades of print and online gaming media experience, having worked with the likes of gamesTM, Eurogamer, Play, Retro Gamer, Edge, and many more. He loves all things Monster Hunter, enjoys a good D&D session, and has played way too much Destiny.