About three hours into Scathe, I made the decision to turn off the in-game dialogue. It wasn’t over poor voice acting, however. A first-person shooter set in a hellish maze, Scathe places you as a messenger of death unleashed by a celestial “god” to track down and face his diabolical twin brother. The two beings chatter away as you face the hordes of Hell. One typically explains the game, while the other playfully taunts you. It’s sometimes hard to tell which is which, since they both sounded the same to me. But after hearing the Divine Creator warning me about a turret for the seventh time, as I’m fighting said turret, I’d had enough. And this is only one example of Scathe’s issues with repetition.
In Scathe, you play as the eponymous Scathe. A silent warrior type set to prove his worth, Scathe is tasked with solving a maze and returning with the staff of its wicked commander, Sacrilegious. It’s rather thin as far as stories go, serving only to provide an impetus for your trek through the shadowy underworld.
Round and round we go
And it’s said underworld where you’ll spend your time running and gunning. You move from level to level in a branching, winding maze. Most levels include up to three exit doors, each one taking you to an area that could contain a new weapon, a boss room, or a brief horde challenge. An in-game map shows you the levels you’ve visited, as well as the ones connected to the area you’re currently occupying.
Borders around the hexagonal “zones” show you what can be found in the level. No border is your standard level, for example, while one with green arrows will only feature a new weapon to add to your arsenal. The game doesn’t properly explain this, mind. I meandered around the game’s corridors for some time before I figured it out.
Within most of the levels are six Runes to find, and these are necessary for progress. You need to collect enough to unlock Guardian Doors that lead to the game’s six boss battles. Defeating bosses rewards you with a Hellstone, and collecting all six grants you an audience with Sacrilegious himself — as soon as you find the last room with its looming ‘final boss’ doors.
Have you heard this one before?
Admittedly, my first impressions of Scathe were positive. Scathe is a retro-style shooter by way of Doom; there’s no crouching or reloading of weapons, and your pace is set at a constant sprint. You have a rechargeable dash, which is great for avoiding incoming fire. You can also use it to smack a close-range enemy for an instant kill. Its setting is gorgeous and atmospheric, with lushly demonic lighting. The action is tense and unrelenting, offering few moments of respite between turning demons into fountains of gore and blood. If judged solely on its shooting and visuals, Scathe would be easy to recommend. However, beneath the impressive surface, things get a little gray.
The warning signs come early enough with the dialogue. Throughout my roughly seven-hour journey, both gods repeated the same lines over and over (and over). And, as I mentioned, after a few hours I couldn’t take it anymore. Muting the dialogue only provides some relief, however.
A limited arsenal
I hope you enjoy the starting machine gun because that’s what you’ll use 90% of the time. Granted, the gun is fine, with infinite ammo and an alternate fire that releases powerful cluster rockets. You’ll only notice the weak power output when faced with dozens of unflinching foes — which is common. There are other weapons to find: the typical shotgun that can launch an explosive mine; a flame launcher with a secondary fire wall; a blade-firing bow that can fire an even bouncier blade; and a lightning gun.
However, ammo for additional weapons is breathtakingly scarce, and your supply is equally limited. I ended up hoarding ammo like a Skyrim player stockpiles health potions, whipping the other guns out for the occasional boss fight. But after about 45 seconds of hammering the boss, all my other guns were dry and I would return to the machine gun to painstakingly clean up the remaining health bar.
It’s a numbing sensation, all things combined. The weapons themselves don’t sound powerful, almost muted, so using them when you have the chance doesn’t feel all that satisfying. Even the powerful revolver barely registers as a cough. The constant dialogue cracking off over the hypnotic whir of the machine gun, along with having to deal with enemies respawning in levels you’ve already “cleared,” makes for a slowly draining experience.
Nothing up my sleeves
Magical spells do spice things up, but not all are that useful. Within the maze are rings that grant spells, recharged by collecting “demon souls” dropped by enemies. These rings of power offer abilities to use during your fights. One can slow down time, which is great when dealing with the horde rooms covered in enemies and annoying traps. The freeze spell, however, is something I almost never used. It encases nearby demons in ice, letting you deal some damage while they’re immobile. But unless you use a different weapon, the machine gun can’t often clean up all the demons before they’re loose again.
There was one spell I used almost exclusively once I discovered it. The Crush spell eats up a lot of soul power, but when activated it pretty much insta-gibs every standard enemy around you. And since enemies drop plenty of souls, recharging it doesn’t take long. It’s so overpowered. I ended up using Crush multiple times in every level, just to speed up my adventure through the maze. It’s especially useful against those annoying ‘helicopter’ foes, who often fire away just outside of the machine gun’s most effective range. I have a feeling it’s going to be nerfed.
There are also some frustrations adding to the tedium. The goal in the game is to collect enough Runes to unlock boss arenas. They’re often found around levels, but some require you to shoot a hidden button to open a nearby locked door. But sometimes you need to complete a timed platforming challenge. And there are few things more aggravating than trying to navigate a series of small platforms in first person, especially when you’re hopping over pools of lava that kill on contact. Enemy AI is suspect. Some demons sprint past you and round a corner before something clicks in their brain and they realize the threat. If you’re not paying attention, you may also fall through a random hole in a bridge stretching over lava or blood (that also kills for reasons).
You also have lives, which are already unnecessary in modern games — least of all a shooter. But losing all your lives doesn’t force you to start fresh. I lost all of my lives twice, and from what I can tell it merely starts you off back at the last boss arena. It’s an obnoxious punishment, one that doesn’t add to the game. It’s especially irritating since you will likely die a lot. Horde rooms where you must clear out a set number of enemies are frustrating, mostly because it’s nearly impossible to do so while also avoiding fire traps, as well as smashers that kill you instantly. Extra lives can be found in levels, but, again, I don’t know why they needed to be featured.
The end of the maze
At the end of the day, I can’t help but feel disappointed with Scathe. As a fan of shooters like Doom, Scathe is the kind of game my eyes would naturally gravitate to after spotting it in a storefront. However, I often judge how engaged I am in a game based on how much I’ve slouched in my chair. And I was nearly butt-to-floor by the end. There are some positives: the shooting is solid, and the graphics are clean with levels featuring varying biomes. Some of the boss fights are also great. Scathe also includes drop-in online co-op that works well, if you’re fine with sharing lives. But my interest faded over time, and I grew weary pretty fast due to the sedating gameplay.
Scathe includes multiple endings, as well. I saw two, but one I believe to be the “true ending” required me to go back and track down what I had left from 192 Runes. But in the words of America’s ass: “No, I don’t think I will.”