Note: This review is based primarily on the Microsoft Windows version of Scorn (which is where we finished it), although we have also spent a few hours testing it on Xbox Series X where the game feels like a match for the PC version in terms of both visuals and performance. It appears to be running at 4K, 60FPS on Series X.
We've been looking forward to Ebb Software's Scorn ever since we first clapped eyes on its gruesome "biopunk" body horror action all the way back in 2016. The richly detailed, HR Giger inspired world design and blood-soaked meshing of flesh and machinery immediately set all the right kind of alarm bells ringing in our minds, this was one twisted Zdzisław Beksiński-esque adventure that we simply had to get our hands on.
Where early footage, and perhaps our own lazy expectations, seemed to suggest an almost Dead Space-styled action adventure though, what we've actually ended up with here is a full-on puzzle game. Yep, if you're coming into this one expecting balls-to-the-wall action in something resembling an Aliens sci-fi/horror setting, well, prepare for a bit of a surprise because there's very little in the way of combat here as you creep your way through five acts composed entirely of brutally gory puzzleboxes that you'll need to solve in order to proceed on your not-so-merry way.
Not that this is a bad thing by the way, far from it in fact, we are 100% down with a focus shift from the usual old shooting down dark corridors FPS malarkey to this much more intriguing setup and, for the first few acts of a roughly eight-hour long ordeal, Ebb Software absolutely nail what they've set out to achieve. This is a spectacular looking game, with one of the most extraordinarily detailed worlds we've ever shuffled, groped and crawled our way through. It's horrifying, intense, claustrophobic, entirely otherworldly and just an endlessly absorbing and fascinating space to explore.
The devs have described in the build up to release how they see the world of Scorn as a character in and of itself. They want to simply throw players into this nightmare and have them exist there, to breathe in the heavy atmosphere and draw their own narrative conclusions by interacting with an environment that gives you no clues, no guidance, no help whatsoever, and there's no doubt they've achieved this. Scorn is one of the most unearthly experiences we've had in a very long time, it really does take a while to get your bearings, to get a handle on how things work and start to claw your way through its extraterrestrial meat prison.
Each of the five acts that make up the campaign are essentially great big ghoulish multi-levelled puzzles. You enter an area, get your bearings and slowly begin to investigate your surroundings to work out what you need to do in order to open up a way forward. The very first act settles you into the overall flow of this setup, gives you various alien consoles and technology to muck about with, sets you to shifting aspects of the environment around, figuring out how pieces of machinery work, pushing and prodding and putting it all together so that you can escape to the next section of the ordeal. There's a dark sense of humour at work too, with some absolutely OTT moments of extreme body horror that you're forced to sit through in order to complete parts of the puzzles at hand.
In fact it's worth pointing out here that if you're at all squeamish, if you don't particularly enjoy the thought of, let's say, having to graphically crush an alien foetus in a tube so that its eyes slowly push out of their sockets and pop as the pressure builds and its bones break down, then you may need to think twice about whether or not you're gonna withstand the onslaught of brutal imagery that makes up so much of what Scorn is all about. If you can take it though, this is a very unique, very odd and very memorable game to work your way through.
However, as much as Scorn nails its aesthetic and creates an extremely impressive world in which to play, it makes a handful of slight mistakes and missteps that work to drag the overall experience down, the first of which is the decision to introduce some light combat into a few sections around midway through the game. We can understand the reasoning behind it, and it does add a little extra tension, but the gameplay mechanics here just do not lend themselves well to action, your avatar is intentionally slow and cumbersome, and as a result you're left facing off against a handful of enemy types with no real way to properly avoid their annoying ranged attacks beyond trying to stay out of their way altogether.
You'll get weapons to aid you; a pistol of sorts, a fleshy alien meat gun that shoots disgusting bone pellets, alongside a shotgun and grenade launcher variant that pack a bigger punch, but they all feel incredibly slow, clumsy and imprecise to use, they take time to fire and often miss their target. We get that your skinless humanoid protagonist isn't meant to be a space marine, we're not expecting to dodge roll or high-kick our way out of trouble here, but the way the action has been designed makes for a few frustrating sections where you simply die repeatedly until you get a read on where and when enemies appear, where your nearest healing point is, and how you can make it through a few small corridors without taking too much damage. It all works much better if you employ stealthy avoidance tactics but, in the end, it just feels like the game as a whole would have been more enjoyable, and much more replayable, if this stuff had been left out.
The puzzles too, which get off to a great start, slowly begin to become a little bit too repetitive and on-rails for our liking. The very first act drops you into a large open area and lets you loose on a nice big environmental head-scratcher that works as a very strong opening. However, as the campaign draws to a close, it feels as though the puzzles run out of steam a bit, they lack original tricks, reusing the same handful of mechanics throughout, and they begin to feel a little too repetitive, a bit too safe and samey, as a result.
To be clear, this is all still a lot of fun, just existing in this world and struggling forth to see what on earth is going to happen next is worth the price of admission alone we reckon, such is the strength of the artistry on display, but there's a definite narrowing of the scope of puzzles as things draw to a close. They still take up multiple levels and rooms, and you'll still need to make a mental map of where everything is as you move around and piece things together, but being locked out of certain interactions with consoles and various mechanics until you need to use them, and having done so much of the same thing earlier in the game, means that figuring this stuff out isn't quite as difficult, or as rewarding, as it perhaps could have been.
And so the horrifying alien vibe has to do some extra legwork here, the surreal aesthetic and incredible mood of the whole thing needs to step up in order to keep you fully engaged and, thankfully, we were completely and utterly engaged for the entire running time, despite the missteps we've mentioned above. As much as that little section of combat feels ill-advised, as much as the puzzles deteriorate slightly in quality as you make your way through the campaign, Scorn still feels utterly absorbing thanks to some incredible world-building and the genuinely otherworldly look and feel of the spaces through which you work.
You've also got the grim sci-fi narrative that's working away in the background and asking so many questions as you push forward. Why are you here? Where is here? Who (or what) are you? What is your meaning or purpose in all of this? There's some properly intriguing stuff here, all of it conveyed entirely through the game's strong use of imagery. With zero dialogue in Scorn, no prompts or help, you're just dumped down into this alien torture complex and left to figure it all out for yourself, and that's some impressive storytelling and world-building when you consider it. With no text or audio logs, no lore dumps, cutscenes or conversations, you're just left alone with this richly detailed, highly disturbing environment to study and draw your own conclusions from as you poke and prod and press on through the nightmare.
Scorn may drop the ball here and there, then, but it's also left us with the feeling that we've just been through a unique and rewarding ordeal, an original and thoughtful videogame experience that's left a lasting impression on us, and we'll take that over barrelling through yet another big dumb shooty-bang-bang space adventure any day. If you've got the stomach to handle the extremely graphic nature of this one, you'll find a truly haunting and artistically inspired indie adventure awaits.
Scorn may make a few missteps here and there, with some short-lived but shoddy combat sequences and puzzles that grow a little repetitive as the game reaches its climax, but none of this really takes away from the artistic achievement at core of this adventure. Ebb Software's debut is one of the most gruesome, thought-provoking and completely alien experiences we've had in a very long time. It's a game that flings you headlong into a blood-soaked nightmare, leaves you to push and prod and make your own way forward, to draw your own conclusions, and it's one that's left a lasting impression on us as a result of some truly superb world-building and startling imagery. It's absolutely not for everyone, but if it sounds like your cup of tea, we urge you to give this one a whirl.