Released: 14th October 2022
Developer: Ebb Software
Publisher: Ebb Software, Kepler Interactive
Systems: PC, Xbox XS (reviewed)
I’ve been looking forward to Scorn for nigh on six years now. Ever since it first popped up on the now-defunct Steam Greenlight, this alluring horror game captured my imagination for the curiosity it evoked and an art style that mimicked the psychosexual work of H.R. Giger almost perfectly. As I finally played this disappointing, baffling exercise in frustration, however, I was plagued by a revelatory question.
Exactly how much merit does your game have when your biggest selling point is somebody else’s art style? Ultimately, that’s what Scorn trades almost exclusively on. The art was its biggest marketing asset, it’s responsible for the entire mood, tone, even the themes of the game, and it’s something that was lifted entirely from the work of a man who had nothing to do with its development.
Scorn feels every bit like it started with the sole concept of lifting Giger’s art style (alongside Zdzisław Beksiński's) and scrabbled to claw some sort of videogame out of the idea afterwards. With banal puzzles that hide their ultimate simplicity behind infuriating obfuscation, a terrible combat system, and an incomprehensibly ridiculous approach to checkpointing, saving, and basic menus, Scorn is one of the biggest disappointments I’ve ever experienced in my years of videogame criticism.
The only reason I won't say it's the worst horror game I've played in a decade is because I've played Agony.
A first-person horror game that suffers from an identity crisis, Scorn throws you into a grotesque world without explanation. You are some guy who wakes up in a biomechanical nightmare teeming with phallic imagery. You puzzle and fight your way to somewhere because something. In all honesty, I can’t tell you who the antagonist is, where they are, what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how anything works. There’s definitely value in a game that plays its cards close to its chest and maintains mystery through minimal storytelling, but it’s difficult to put intellectual investment in a game that gives you nothing and simply hopes the aesthetic is enough.
It is at least compelling in its visual forgery. Scorn is visually repulsive and that’s to its credit. Flesh crawls across the suggestively contoured environments. Tendrils reminiscent of exposed nerve endings writhe among clustered corpses and hulking machinery. Some of this game’s scenes are truly disturbing, bordering on sick.
The genuinely impressive level of visual horror is, however, mere window dressing for what ultimately amounts to a dreary puzzle game broken up by some of the worst creature encounters you could ever imagine suffering through. It looks fantastic, but it plays like utter garbage.
Scorn’s whole deal starts off with an anxiety-inducing level of vaguery. Almost immediately, you’re provided with half a dozen solutions to a puzzle you’ve not even been introduced to yet. There are wet holes to stick your fingers in and fleshy levers to yank, none of which yet do anything, but expect you to remember them when you need them... whenever that may be. It reeks of a game that asks you not to solve a puzzle using logic and available information, but to simply guess what the developers were thinking. It’s trial and error at its least elegant.
Worse, when the starting point of this first puzzle is finally encountered, it’s nothing more original than a sliding block puzzle. Yes, Scorn’s opening gambit is perhaps the most pathetically trite puzzle in all of videogames. It’s a particularly bad take on the puzzle too, using visual clues so subtle as to be practically deceptive in order for the player to work out what, exactly, needs sliding where.
There is a world of difference between a game that says “figure it out and have fun” and a game that says “figure it out and fuck you.” Scorn is so deeply entrenched in the latter end of the spectrum that it does, at times, feel outwardly hostile to the player. This aggression is carried over into every aspect of the experience.
Scorn’s marketing has been a contentious thing indeed. At first they kept emphasizing there would be combat, then tried to walk that expectation back. Much of the game is about atmosphere and puzzles to the point it’s been likened to a ghoulish Myst rather than any particular horror game. After trying to figure out what this thing was, I settled into the idea that Scorn was an atmospheric puzzle game first and foremost. Its first act was about taking in the grisly sights, not fighting monsters. I was okay with that.
Just as I accepted this, that aforementioned identity crisis kicked in, and I was introduced to combat so completely fucking terrible, I still can barely believe its existence.
Scorn introduces you to monsters a little ways into the game, and dealing with them is the opposite of entertaining, scary, thoughtful, or even mildly tolerable. Your starting weapon is a shitty little piston thing that thrusts into enemies with all the reliability of Liz Truss’ premiership. You cannot accurately judge this disastrous implement’s distance from enemies. You have no defensive capabilities to protect from the monsters’ powerful blows or surprisingly ranged projectiles. There’s no dodging. No blocking. Your best bet is to sprint and hope, with damage taken in the process feeling like a case of pure chance.
Monsters are introduced before Scorn vaguely and begrudgingly points you toward your cruelly limited healing capabilities. This makes the first few monsters thoroughly unpleasant to either fight or flee, as you’re almost guaranteed to take hefty damage while stumbling around them in tight spaces. Healing is presented just like puzzles, and later weaponry - you're given useless components and stumble onto whatever makes them useful after a period of arbitrary confusion. It's a cute little schtick that wears out its welcome in moments.
It is, by the way, perfectly possible to be caught past a checkpoint with such little health - and monsters so hard to evade - that you literally cannot progress without restarting the chapter.
Speaking of checkpoints, they’re rationed like chocolate during World War II. Since much of the game involves watching tedious animations while puzzles bring lumbering machinery to life, the ability to manually save, or at least access to liberal checkpointing, would be a blessing. Instead, Scorn expects you to replay huge chunks of it should you die, which includes solving multiple puzzles you’ve already solved.
This is an absolute fucking sin - there’s nothing challenging or interesting about completing puzzles you’ve already completed. Having to sit through them and their laborious animations again is actually worse than the notorious respawn animation in Too Human, and when Too Human can act as a more positive frame of reference, you have truly fucked up.
Wasting time as a form of punishment is something this game delights in to a near sadistic degree. In fact, the very presence of combat feels mean-spirited on a meta level, like it was put in as a joke at the expense of anybody who wanted to fight in a puzzle game. The problem is, everybody suffers its punchline. Simply put, combat should not have been in this game at all if its creators gave such little of a shit that they couldn’t even begin to make weapons feel adequate, defense feel possible, and the dumbass monsters even mildly interesting to fight.
Some might try to justify the shitty fighting by saying it wasn’t Scorn’s focus and we shouldn’t expect it to be good. In fact, some have tried it with me already. Fuck that. Scorn’s encounters represent a brutal barrier to progress, and as such you are forced to engage with them. If the player has to focus on their existence, it’s up to the developer to focus as well, or otherwise scrap their pointless inclusion entirely.
Oh, by the way, don’t expect this boneheaded creation to even do menus like a proper videogame. At one point late into a chapter, I was relentlessly knocked on the ground and mangled by a big charging lump of meat. Rather than bother with a run that I knew was doomed, I thought to restart from the last checkpoint, so I did what I would do in literally any videogame - I opened the pause menu, selected “Load,” and booted up the most recent save.
Admittedly, I did this without closely studying what I was doing. I simply expected it to work like every other game I've played in my life. My mistake.
Having already experienced how vague, incompetent, and pointlessly spiteful Scorn was, I should have known better than to trust it could handle checkpoint saves like a decent game would. See, it turns out there are no checkpoint saves. The most recent save put me right back to the beginning of the entire chapter, before I’d made perhaps over an hour of progress. Even worse, this overwrote all of that progress without warning, without the hope of reversal. My saved game was swiftly and automatically wiped.
This is where I stopped, because that’s just fucking stupid. It’s stupid, and Scorn is a stupid game. I am baffled by how bad it actively chooses to be, with its save system serving the ultimate incomprehensibility. I’m not the only one stung by it, either - I’ve had multiple people tell me they’ve lost progress to this exact trap.
Trap... that's actually the perfect word.
So much about Scorn feels like a trap. It’s designed to cost you progress, to waste your time, and some might think this burdensome despair is some sort of brilliance on the part of the developers. To someone who values their finite time on Earth, it’s snide crap that shows contempt for its audience at every opportunity.
I have nothing but contempt for it in turn.