Hey, have you heard of a game where you play a super soldier that goes to Hell to kill everything that moves? One that involves swapping exotic weapons to deal with the ever-changing challenges that a persistent horde of twisted fleshy mutant hellions provide? Well, Scathe isn’t Doom exactly. It tries its best, but very much lacks the hand-crafted gun puzzle arenas and air-tight weapon balancing that turned first-person demon-slaying on its head for at least the past seven-ish years. But what it lacks in polish, momentum, and wit it replaces with some interesting but obtuse dungeon crawling and maybe its biggest standout feature – co-op.
It may not be completely fair to compare Scathe so directly to Doom. From a distance, the similarities are obvious, but a couple of minutes with Scathe and it was clear that I was playing a game with an entirely different approach to the more famous first-person Hell shooter. Whereas id’s signature game is designed around you being an unstoppable force in perpetual forward motion, Damage State’s take requires a more staid hand, as it’s the enemies that were running me down. They spawn aggressively, with ranged attackers filling the zone with projectiles akin to a bullet hell shooter like Ikaruga or Cuphead, and melee troops charging directly at me or ambushing me from behind or around corners.
Freezing to line up shots was a death sentence, but instead of charging through the enemies like a Doomguy possessed, Scathe requires a much higher regard for personal safety. Health can only be reliably gained back by picking up shiny orange health juice sprinkled across any given room and can be in limited supply. Many of my engagements with the enemy involved strafing oncoming fire, strategically ducking around corners and obstacles, poking out to shoot my stock super rifle from a distance, taking most enemies out from at least mid range, and launching a mini swarm of rockets every so often. Further, more elusive enemies were great fodder for my longer ranged Thunderbolt, which could also arc lighting between multiple baddies doing damage over time. The Ripper was my go to for close encounters, if I got pinned down and felt the horde encroaching on my personal space, or just absolutely needed to charge my way through the blockade of baddies and my dashing attack was on cooldown. There’s even magic that can freeze turrets or crush everyone in close proximity with the wave of a hand. Scathe’s offensive options are plentiful and diverse.
In co-op, up to four players can run through this gauntlet together, though. I couldn’t get more than one other person in on the action during my demo. With the exception of the rooms that require you to kill a certain amount of enemies before progressing upping their totals, I didn’t notice any notable differences in enemy strengths or numbers while in co-op, so in a way, the more friends you bring with you into the fiery depths, the better. We did share a life pool, though, which means you’re only as efficient as the more death-prone person on your squad.
The demonic legions were pretty adequate at stopping me from my goal – navigating the labyrinth of Hell, collecting runes so that I can unlock a boss room and obliterate what was waiting for me inside. They come in various shapes and sizes, from big humanoid beasts, to giant ogres made aaof static, and even a sentient cloud of spikes flying round like a school of fish in the ocean. They wield sinister blades of bone, giant projectile canons, or sometimes just throw their bouncy ball bodies into you. None are hard to kill on their own, but in ceaseless waves, they whittle through your 10-life allotment quickly and efficiently. Luckily, besides health drops and ammo, anything you find is permanently found. This roguelite feature is great for runes, meaning you won’t have to backtrack to pick up a room full of them after you die. This is bad for things like extra lives though, making every time you have to pass through a room on your way to your goal an additional time that much more dangerous.
The maze itself is full of rooms, each marked by a symbol. Memorizing the symbols may help you identify the rooms they associate with, but there is nothing to help you determine what direction you’re going in. There is a map, but digging into the menu to consult it in between horde murder is very inconvient. Also, it only fills in rooms and how they’re connected after you explore them, and makes no mention of power-ups or weapons in them, so it’s very easy to miss valuable items because you didn’t know what you didn’t know.
The rooms themselves are interesting at least. There’s lots of platforms and obstacles to navigate and put in between you and the bad guys. Many rooms have platforming puzzles and switches that are hiding access to extra lives and other collectables. The biomes of the rooms themselves vary pretty heavily as well, some corners of the underworld are all fire and chains while others are dark and swampy. Besides aesthetics, they each also contain unique enemies which force you to adjust your strategy a bit.
Scathe definitely proves that there is room in Hell for a first-person shooter not named Doom. Filling the screen with bullets to keep you on the defensive creates an interesting and entirely different vibe than the in-your-face aggression of the competition. While the running and gunning is enticing and solid, the map feels like purgatory to explore competently without any kind of direction.
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Author: Ryan McCaffrey