Scorn review: Xbox’s horror-exclusive fails to improve Giger visuals

Throughout Scorn’s long development period, Serbian developer Ebb Software has spoken out about the sources of inspiration for his horror game debut. In creating its otherworldly horrors, the studio has looked to artists famed for their ability to disrupt, whether it’s Zdzisław Beksiński’s desolate surrealism or HR Giger’s biomechanical grotesquerie.

Giger’s work, in particular, has been interwoven with stories before, but never quite with Scorn’s focus. Before a single face is embraced, the 1979 film Alien makes us anchor in human company. The two Dark Seed games, both point-and-click adventures from the 90s, situate us in a ‘normal’ world before throwing us headlong into all the Giger designs that adorn the parallel universe.

Contempt, however, does not offer us the luxury of a familiar space. Even the player’s character is only vaguely humanoid, as a single glance at his body in the game’s first-person perspective raises questions. Did tearing off the stiff, bony tendrils that had encased this thing ripped off an outer layer of skin to expose the muscles? Or do all bodies of this species look like this? Does his growl mean there’s a mouth under the layer of smooth flesh where we’d expect one?

The player character in Scorn sticks a glowing red tube in his wrist, with bloodstains on both hands

Image: Ebb Software/Kepler Interactive

No internal monologue clarified. No magazine or lore codex explains. Leaving aside things like maps, objective markers, collectibles and helpful NPCs, Scorn is determined to make you disappear into a totally alien universe. The early hours of the game are easily the most inventive and atmospheric, apart from jump scares and overt horror to build fear. It has you trudging through the emotionless metalwork, finding each environment built in the service of strange, violent machines operated via control panels with finger-sized openings.

While none of the machines are terribly complex once you discern their function, there are no tutorials or text beyond the basic menu prompts, so you’re left with nothing to do but your own observations and experiments. When you rotate the segments of a pipe-like thing, you have to pay attention to the differences in how the small parts shift. The puzzles hardly repeat each other either, because by repeating puzzles you would get to know the world; instead, you’re constantly going to new devices with different operations to consider.

The initial puzzles take up a significant portion of the final eight hours of gameplay, to the point where you might wonder how many combat features are in the game. Eventually you’ll get a health bar and some sort of phallus as a weapon, but the first of the twittering, dripping flesh shapes you come across seem more territorial than evil. Contempt places you as the primary instigator of violence; After all, you’re the one who brings this derelict, buzzing machine back to life for another demonstration of its gruesome purpose: the ripping, crushing, and pulverizing of some cattle creature seemingly bred only to die.

A strange stage device rests like the end of a gothic corridor in Scorn

Image: Ebb Software/Kepler Interactive

A few of Scorn’s machines seem a little too deliberately calculated for the shock value (one involves squeezing a fetal creature into pasta), but they all serve to make gory and explicit text of an implicit truth: the wheels of the industry take a toll in blood. Even your weapon periodically collects a load, because it’s attached to a back-mounted parasite that likes to stab its limbs viciously in your guts.

Scorn just doesn’t know where to go to keep the mystique of his powerful early hours

There is certainly a risk of Scorn’s very specific, violent sensibilities getting old. But the game changes its setting as you progress, with alien metalwork from an abandoned civilization gradually being overtaken by pulsating flesh. The effect is a bit like when nature reclaims an abandoned structure, but this time your path is blocked not by beautiful greenery, but by the strung carcasses of countless penis horrors.

For a short period of time, the game reaches an acceptable middle ground, when the phallic creatures that want to hurt you are just plentiful enough to make you jump to the docile (though still disgusting) creatures that just adorn the environment. But as creature encounters continue to escalate, the game’s design becomes more conventional. Peeling away the layers of this bizarre and horrible society is also taking away the early sense of invention and discovery of the game. The items and mechanics underneath are disturbingly ordinary, like a staggered weapon that’s just a shotgun, except wet and dirty.

The player character aims the gothic looking shotgun at a monster approaching them in Scorn

Image: Ebb Software/Kepler Interactive

To its credit, Scorn never switches to an action-heavy shooter; even in the sections that are busiest with enemies, the game maintains a methodical pace that leaves you stressed out about ammo and health refills. But the fear of the strange and obscure that it had so carefully cultivated until then is beginning to fade. Where before you were hesitant to work with certain control panels, you soon find yourself reloading the Gross Shotgun with the smooth familiarity of hitting the same “reload” button as any other game with less disgusting but functionally similar weapons.

Even Scorn’s drop in tension feels disappointingly typical. The game just doesn’t know where to go to keep the mystique of its powerful early hours, to the point where even the weapon parasite you’re supposed to kill turns into hackneyed convention. On paper, it’s a fascinating concept: the thing that gives you strength also slowly kills you. In practice, it only happens that the screen turns red at the edges while the controller vibrates and you wait for the interruption to end.

By the time the parasite finally interferes with your ability to use machines or switch weapons, the damage has already been done. There are few enemies left and the game is almost over, so whatever extra tension might have been created by these limitations never gets off the ground. Scorn is certainly a transporting experience, at times a true masterpiece of visual craftsmanship. But the unfulfilled possibilities linger a little too prominently, a reminder that it’s not a mechanical masterpiece either.

Scorn was released on October 14 on Windows PC and Xbox Series X via Game Pass. The game has been reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Kepler Interactive. Vox Media has affiliated partnerships. These do not affect editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commission on products purchased through affiliate links. More information about Polygon’s ethical policy can be found here.

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