This was going to be a review of Scathe, a new “bullet hell” single-player/online co-op first-person shooter, but I couldn’t bring myself to make it far enough for a full review. So let’s call this “impressions” with a hope that the game will evolve into something to spend many more hours with in the near future.
(A Steam key for the game was provided by the developer; as always, I do my best to keep that from coloring my experiences.)
Scathe definitely reminds me of the recent Doom games in some of what it is going for: fast paced, demon slaying, pure shooter experience. That is not to say they are similar, far from it, but I think will be a common first impression for anyone that has played them.
Unfortunately, Scathe in its current form doesn’t hold baby demon’s first fireball to its recent Doom forebears.
The basic setup is that you are the chosen warrior sent by the Divine Creator to put Sacrilegious in his place by killing lots of demons. You are put in the maze: a set of connected levels, some of which have new weapons and spells, all of which have lots of things to kill. The overall design and look is in that Doom vein as well: typical ugly demons, monsters with big guns, lava, ruined (usually interior) hellscape, blood and guts, etc. A bit generic maybe, you know the kind.
You collect shards from regular enemies and hellstones (another collectible) from mini-bosses which you need to get to the main boss (which I didn’t get up to). But basically you are navigating each level for an exit to the next level in the maze. While you have a health bar, there’s also a lives system. When you die you respawn at or nearby where you died. Run out of lives, and you go back to the start of the level, no big deal.
It is not all bad, but Scathe left me wanting in some of the most important areas. Perhaps most critically, you may not find a new weapon for several levels. While some of this seems down to luck depending on which way you go, there is definitely some tuning needed as I read many others complaining about going the first few hours with merely the starting weapon. It is sort of a machine gun type, unlimited ammo (no reloading!), with pretty poor accuracy (spread) at anything beyond mid-range. The alt fire is a tight cluster of rockets with a cooldown period. The weapon is a bit underwhelming in power, sound, and just plain umph you want in a shooter. So then to have to use exclusively that for maybe the first hours of the game…yeah, not fun.
The overall structure of the maze map with different levels wasn’t working for me. In the map view you can see which levels are connected to the current one or where you’ve previously been, marked if they have a new weapon or spell. But there’s no way to quickly go to or through levels you’ve been to: if you end up taking an exit (all marked with some sort of rune symbol) in one direction and later want to go the other way for a weapon you are stuck playing through all the levels in between, or trying to run through, which can be difficult with the amount of enemies. So exploration doesn’t really get you much as you continue collecting some items (purposes of which I’m not sure other than making sure you can unlock the boss) but don’t get anything else: no weapons or anything to help or reward you. The levels I saw I found confusing and repetitive, with instant, and I do mean instant, death from lava.
This leads to another major complaint in that I didn’t feel much drive to keep going. The hordes of enemies and the same starting weapon wears out its welcome too soon. I did get a spell after a bit, one that heals and is quite helpful, but nothing to reward initial play. For a shooter like this that is a fatal flaw.
Speaking of health, you don’t have much and find very limited health pickups. Instead, you have the life system. Which, fine, but too often you respawn in a nearby-ish location that can easily throw off your sense of direction in the level. All this serves as another way to stymie the flow of action, a critical element here. The amount of enemies and their health means you are bound to die yet there isn’t much penalty, or reward/system to keep you alive.
Enemies are often on the simplistic side. Some stay far away hurling slow moving projectiles (I guess part of the “bullet hell” aspect), annoyingly difficult with the starting weapon to hit consistently. Others charge at you. Often this ends up being a perfectly lined up stream of enemies coming at you, where you can stay still and just keep the fire button held. The in-game “wiki” (set blurbs about things you discover) notes some weakness and strategies, though of little good that does if you don’t have other weapons.
There is also an overabundance of spherical bouncing enemies that like to swarm you from all over and blow up. Many have a funny at first, then very tiring, high pitched scream. They are annoying and again more punishing than need be with the starting weapons poor accuracy at range.
As I said, it is not all bad. I enjoyed the music, even if it is not quite up to the recent Doom standards, it fits the bill in my limited play. The magic system, where you can cast spells after killing enough enemies, looks good, but again falls down in that you just don’t find new spells quickly. There are some video filters (like a retro low pixel look, night vision, and so on) you can unlock with the runes you collect, which is neat.
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Finally, I see some people are enjoying the drop-in and out online co-op. A good co-op shooter can be a lot of fun, but I did not try it out with strangers. I was too underwhelmed by what I had seen so far, though I bet some at least is mitigated by having a buddy to play with.
The developers seem to be paying some mind to this feedback though. A recent patch addressed the complaint of seeing ammo pickups for all weapons, even if you had none of them. Not a huge deal perhaps, but a constant reminder and tease of what you are missing out on. Yet that doesn’t address the core issue of not getting the weapons in the first place. Some other nice changes have been made, like letting you adjust the pretty frequent voice overs from the Divine and Sacrilegious, which can get tiring. The swarming suicide enemies have their health tuned down as well.
Oh, and almost forgot about the dedicated button to wipe your helmet of the blood on it. I mean, sure, kinda fun the first time or two, but really? Yes, your vision gets obscured by some viscera, but I certainly don’t want to manage that with pressing a button for a face wiping animation every so often. You can disable it.
There are some good bones here: the weapons I didn’t get to play with look fun in the official videos, the overall graphics are pretty high quality, the movement is fast (though the dashing melee strikes timing and motion feel off to me, with a long cooldown), and there’s some ideas to add replayability with the maze. Unfortunately that last bit seems to be core to the problems that need a strong tuning.
The maze structure seems to be built towards playing multiple times, taking different paths, as noted in Scathe’s marketing. But with weapons and spells few and far between, this doesn’t mesh well at all with what you want in a shooter. The lack of a level jump and constantly respawning enemies means you are dissuaded from backtracking, which would push you to move forward except for how unrewarding most directions seem to be. I actually thought the level design and maze were meant to be random, but both seem set from what I’ve seen. This makes even less sense then, though I guess the fix is “easy:” at least sprinkle more weapons everywhere. Though the core design needs more to really make play rewarding.
So, I didn’t play much of this in the end, though I was initially taken in the first minutes. I will probably keep an eye on it, as the small (just two people!) dev team could certainly make this much better. Hopefully there will be some major patches to make the game more enjoyable.
(Played via Proton 7 without any issues at all on my desktop, with great performance (typically 60 fps) at 4k with an AMD 6700 XT GPU and 5600 X CPU. Amd’s FSR (not sure which version) is available. There are no plans currently for a Linux version. Scathe should work well on the Steam Deck with its official controller support and lower settings. I never (yet?) got the hang of FPSes with a controller so I didn’t try it, but yes it is on my list of things to do with the Deck.)