Sometimes being the antagonist in a video game is a good time. You finally get to break down the usual barriers put in front of you, and you are free to listen to the devil on your shoulder a little more. It’s relaxing. It’s cathartic. It’s fun. But Carrion developer, Phobia Game Studio, knows the one thing better than being the antagonist.
Being the monster.
The setup of Carrion is simple enough. You take on the role of a pulsating globule of wet flesh and gnashing teeth that, after breaking free from its confines in the deepest reaches of a labyrinthian military base, must escape into the world, devouring all that stands in its way. The game doesn’t spell out precisely what the origin or goal of the creature is over its roughly 5-hours of playtime; however, the open-ended narrative allows players to fill in the gaps with their own fan-fiction, adding the lore and characters from their favourite cheesy monster movies. To me, this game is now a canon sequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing. Good thing there is no Kurt Russell to stop the monster this time.
As the creature, you will explore a number of areas and facilities, completing increasingly difficult puzzles, obtaining new abilities, and tearing apart the poor saps unlucky enough to be working that day. The freedom of movement you feel as the blob is utterly intoxicating. Tendrils sprout from the beast and pull you along, allowing you to move unnaturally fast and swing across rooftops and under scaffolding. These tendrils are also used to flick switches, open gates, throw obstacles out of your way, or pull in victims to absorb. By absorbing enemies or depositing biomass (gross), the blob can change its size to go from a hulking killing machine to an almost cute, squid-like creature, able to slip through the narrowest crevasses and on to the next area.
The mechanics of the more intricate tendril movements can be a real pain though when playing the game in handheld mode, with the cursor often flicking just past where I want it to be. I found it much more forgiving when played on a TV, but still not fantastic, often resulting in me thrashing tendrils around the room to activate a switch or lever.
This lack of careful precision also directly affects the combat in the game. Enemies are separated into four categories: unarmed, armed, mech suits, and drones. While taking out rooms of security can be done quite quickly by slamming your tentacles around the screen, enemies with electrified shields demand a more tempered approach, requiring you to sneak behind them… and then slamming your tentacles around the screen. Don’t be fooled into thinking you are indestructible, however. Bullets and flamethrowers rip chunks from your blob with ease, shrinking you down in size and power, and having to double back to absorb some of your biomass deposits (again, gross). Although combat is fun and leaving rooms dripping in viscera and gore left me disturbingly giddy, it did start to get monotonous over time due to its simplicity.
While combat is a bloody distraction, my favourite aspect of the game is some of the devilish environmental puzzles you must solve to work your way through the base. As with all good Metroidvanias, abilities you pick up along the way add into the mechanics of the puzzles, making them increasingly intricate as you progress. Towards the end of the game, you will need every trick at your disposal to unlock doors that have been mocking you throughout the entire journey. The design of these puzzles makes your creature feel more than just a mindless Cronenberg-ian horror. It is an intelligent creature, longing for freedom and capable of much more than violence, perhaps even… love?
It is the space in between combat and puzzles where Carrion starts to suffer. The lack of a map makes sense (Fact: monsters can’t read maps), but it can make it infuriatingly tricky to get back into between play sessions. Multiple times, I put the game back down after circling the same area over and over again, trying to find a way to progress after I had forgotten my general course from the last time I had played. On top of that, a few times I found myself on the wrong side of a mechanism that I had just locked, forcing me to go right back to the start of an area to correct myself. It is a real shame that a game that sinks its teeth so deep into you when it is allowed to flow smoothly has so many hard-stop moments due to confusing level design and layouts. There are also several scenes where you play out as a human investigating the military base, but I found these dull and were a bit of a missed opportunity to add to the narrative in any meaningful way.
Overall the moment-to-moment gameplay and puzzle design of Carrion is superb and when the game is able to deliver on its initial premise of ‘reverse-horror’ it thrives, but a few minor roadblocks along your path prevent it from becoming the true beast it could’ve been. It isn’t perfect, but if you are keen on a power fantasy you can wrap up in a single afternoon, Carrion is killer.