It doesn’t take much to see where Scorn’s inspirations come from. Right from your first look at the main menu, the influences of H.R. Giger are going to be more than apparent. However, the most important question when it comes to Scorn is to ask whether it’s all about presentation, or whether there’s an actually engaging game in there.
The first thing I’d say about Scorn is that most players will likely be put off by it. Those who aren’t particularly interested in the niche sub-genre of body horror will likely find Scorn look disgusting more than anything else. This is where the cliche of “it’s not a game for everybody” comes into play.
Let’s get one of the most interesting things about Scorn out of the way: if you’re into the idea of body horror in the style of H.R. Giger like I personally am, Scorn is an absolutely gorgeous game. Even if the aesthetics might not be your cup of tea—which would be completely understandable in this context—it would be difficult to argue that Scorn doesn’t look good.
Every single pulsing vein and throbbing blob of flesh that adorn the environments in Scorn are absolutely beautiful, modeled and textured in the most minute details possible for a studio the size of Ebb Software. Just about every corner you turn around will have you run into some horrifying mixture of biology, metal, and rocks.
"Even if the aesthetics might not be your cup of tea—which would be completely understandable in this context—it would be difficult to argue that Scorn doesn’t look good."
The body horror aesthetics seep in quite a bit into even the smallest of details, such as when you try to interact with things. Rather than just simply pushing a button or pulling a lever before moving on, your character will slowly lay their entire palm on a console before proceeding to interface with it. It’s small touches like these, where even the protagonist shows apprehension, that really amplifies Scorn’s excellent atmosphere.
Speaking of atmosphere, let’s not forget the other most important aspect here: the sounds. As you might expect, Scorn sounds absolutely disgusting in the best possible ways. The wet thuds you hear when an enemy collapses on a floor covered with metal and flesh sound fantastic, and really help in giving the world of Scorn a sense of being real.
The sounds during less action-packed scenes—the moments of quiet exploration and puzzle solving—serve to unnerve the player as they move about quite well. The music is very understated, instead giving the player more of the area’s regular sounds, like dripping liquid or pulsing flesh bulbs. The sound does a lot to elevate the sense of dread and paranoia as you explore the horrifying, seemingly-alien zones of Scorn. The visuals and audio design work in tandem with the fact that you never really leave the first-person perspective once you’ve started the game to provide an excellent horror experience.
When it comes to gameplay, Scorn is a bit hit or miss. The best parts of the game are often the quieter moments, like when you’re trying to figure out how an interlocking series of flesh-and-metal contraptions work together. The ambience created by the phenomenal soundscape coupled with the art direction in an incredible way. The puzzles themselves can often feel rather prone to a trial-and-error approach, at least until you start getting a semblance of familiarity with your environments to really understand how everything works.
"The game never really feels like it was designed with any sort of combat in mind, and it shows, with the character having some weight behind their actions. Unfortunately, this makes for a terrible time whenever you have to use your wonderfully bizarre-looking arsenal to actually fight things."
The other side of gameplay—the combat—often makes up some of the worst parts of Scorn. The game never really feels like it was designed with any sort of combat in mind, and it shows, with the character having some weight behind their actions. Unfortunately, this makes for a terrible time whenever you have to use your wonderfully bizarre-looking arsenal to actually fight things.
The gunplay is terrible, and enemies feel like they’re bullet sponges, and the combat often serves to eliminate whatever fun I was generally having while just exploring and puzzle solving. Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand that horror games are often enriched by their protagonists being poor fighters, but when it comes to game design, something like a classic Resident Evil game or Silent Hill 2 never really feels this bad in actually playing, even when you have to fight things.
Ebb Software has stated in the past that Scorn was never envisioned as an FPS, but the combat feels so bad, Scorn honestly feels like it would have been a much better game had it just focused on its aspects of exploration and puzzle solving. Sure, not having monsters that could potentially kill you could put a bit of a damper on the escalating sense of dread that Scorn thrives on building, but the other aspects of the game—the breathtaking visuals and excellent sound design—could have quite easily carried the game into still being a great, creepy horror game, even if you couldn’t die.
When it comes to the story, Scorn opts for telling a relatively simple one. Lacking anything in the way of exposition through cutscenes or even collectible audio logs or something, Scorn instead lets you experience the story completely through gameplay. A lot of the story told in the game is just the player’s actions in their attempt to rid themselves of a seemingly-malicious parasite. Scorn doesn’t really feel like it takes place in any real world; rather, it feels like a nightmare that a person is going through. The feeling of the game being a nightmare is echoed by the fact that the protagonist seems to know what they’re doing and where they’re going, despite the player not being given any real details.
With everything said and done, Scorn feels like more of an experience than something you’d play just for enjoyment. Don’t get me wrong, the non-combat bits of the game were genuinely quite a bit of fun, especially if you’re into the body horror aesthetics. But it doesn’t really feel like the game is even trying to tell you much of a story either. I get the distinct feeling that you’re meant to draw your own conclusions on just about every aspect of the game. The only real story-arc throughout the game is the relationship between the protagonist and the parasite, and even calling that a real relationship or story-arc would be generous
"Scorn feels like more of an experience than something you’d play just for enjoyment."
Scorn is an incredible experience, and I’d honestly recommend it to horror fans just because of how unique it is, with aesthetics ripped right out of the mind of H.R. Giger. It features jaw-droppingly gorgeous visuals and phenomenal audio design that really help pile its thick atmosphere on the player. Throughout the relatively-short game—I completed it in a single sitting over around 7 hours—the oppressive atmosphere and the general mystery of its setting was more than enough to pull me through.
Exploration in Scorn is a lot of fun, and there’s a level of enjoyment to be had just in admiring the craftsmanship of the visuals and audio alone. As a complete package, however, Scorn is a bit of a let down, not because of its short length, but rather its abysmal combat.
Since it feels like it’s meant to be more of an experience than a game, I believe Scorn succeeds at what it was trying to achieve. Sure, it doesn’t have much in the way of an obvious story to follow, but like I said, even just wandering around ends up being quite a bit of fun.
This game was reviewed on PC.
Gorgeous visuals; Excellent audio; The body-horror style feels wonderfully realised; Puzzle design, while sometimes prone to trial-and-error, is still pretty cool; Creepy setting.
The combat brings the game to a screeching halt; Body-horror might put off a lot of people; Story relies on the player’s curiosity rather than strong plot hooks.