I first saw Carrion as a short animated gif, a proof of concept showing a gooey red nightmare monster rampaging its way through pixel-bound tunnels. It made me think of what an Aliens-styled sequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing might look like if it was presented on some kind of super-powered GameBoy Colour. Like the monster it portrayed – it drew me in and infested me.
Fast forward to now, and having avoided most of the media leading up to its release (I was trying to keep my initial expectations intact), I have now allowed this nightmarish beast to consume me.
And it’s bloody brilliant.
Always remember to clean your air con vents of unsightly build-up
Carrion is touted as a reverse-horror title, pitting you as the thing that headlines films where daft idiots wander off alone into dark places and die in horrible, creative fashion. The stuff of night terrors during your youth – however in this instance the player instead gets to enjoy a hellish romp through darkened sciencey/military locales as a terrifying organic beast of flesh and tentacles…and many, many teeth. The hapless idiots that wander around the facility are your playthings – though you will quickly find that some of them are a little more prepared for you than you may initially expect.
Carrion is a gorgeous game. It exemplifies the modern trend of gaming companies using pixel-based graphics as a method of communicating simple visual elements, while keeping the game running at a blisteringly smooth pace. What you witness on screen is both simplistic and clearly readable, while also being devilishly complex when you scrutinise it further. It is a game I can safely say looks better in motion than any screenshot may allow, so do yourself a favour and if you are curious find a video. The nature of your evil spaghetti creature being a noodley beast of bloody biomass means that every small action is a flurry of organic motion and mess, with every horrible limb and turgid tentacle stirring and mixing your visual pot, cooking up a freakish eye-feast.
It’s like a grotesque, yet gorgeous lava lamp
Even though the environments are simplistic, they are rendered with gorgeous coloured lighting and doodads that sway and smash as you scurry across and through them. The levels employ a ‘screen-based’ persistence, like you would find in many metroidvania-style games – where you disappear through a door or edge and appear elsewhere after a fullscreen dip to black. My greatest concern with games like these is that the feeling of moving from one place entirely to another via screen-wipe can at times be disorienting, making the backtracking nature of the title a tiresome memory challenge that gets in the way of the good stuff.
Luckily, the developers at Phobia Game Studio have done a lot to make sure that screens have clear landmarks, and your sense of direction is intuitively rewarded. When you are navigating back from where you came, the areas you traverse are so varied that you are always aware of where you have been. Even the permanence of your presence, via infested corners and smashed details do a hell of a lot to make sure you never feel lost.
Forever poked by yonder noodley appendage
The only way I can describe the fluent, simplistic character control as the Carrion beast is…slinky? You effortlessly shoot out all manner of horrifying appendages to convey yourself in any direction you choose via a super intuitive ‘chase the cursor’ effort, which both feels entirely alien but also incredibly natural. I rapidly grew a comfort level with my blood-red beast and started to revel in the chaos I was quickly creating. My stupid fleshy human self was settling in beautifully with my toothy noodle blob, and I was eager to express myself further on the stupid pixel humans who had tried to imprison me.
The narrative of the game is thankfully communicated in a very ‘light-touch’ manner. Flashback sections are presented as discovery pieces, where your gooey monster-mass is seeing the world through the eyes of its victims. They are interspersed at times where a rest stop would be appreciated, and present the game’s world in a far less violent manner. At first, it was frustrating to control a clunky person amidst the creature carnage spree, but I quickly came to enjoy these sections as a hype builder for where my journey would take me next – and the subtlety in the storytelling (there are no big title cards, or heavy-handed expository moments) made me feel clever in my own right as I started putting the pieces together.
It’s hard to describe the conflict in Carrion as a ‘combat system’, the very nature of the game feels more like its moment-to-moment gameplay is better interpreted as a puzzle game. The amount of agency you have within the game means you spend more time thinking about what you will do next, rather than reacting to what is happening already. You can be a red-rollicking nightmare, washing over areas like a crimson tsunami of pseudo flesh, enveloping whatever gets in your way – or you can be more sinister, plotting what to do next and incorporating an almost stealth approach.
The game taunts you with its many threats moments before you once again become an all-consuming nightmare
My first encounter of true enemy resistance actually shocked me. The world had been so unabashedly my oyster, that the notion of someone fighting back and actually gaining purchase felt more like an insult than anything. I actually applaud the title for gestating such a feeling of confidence within me, that the moment I was no longer 100% in charge I felt such a genuine wobble. It was a clear case of ‘hang on, you can’t do that’ as I was repelled…and it festered into a feeling of pure indignation as I developed a healthy grudge towards my adversary. I started to relish these moments, because they allowed me to feel the thrill of becoming the alpha predator again and again, as each time I overcame and became cleverer than they.
The quirks of your slimy-stabbiness comes in the form of your biomass, and the upgrades you acquire during the game. Biomass is simple – determining how big and terrifying you are, based on who (or what) you have consumed recently. The real clever point of the biomass management within the game is when puzzles serve to force you to reduce your biomass. My initial reaction was that it would force me to downgrade myself, effectively becoming weaker to bypass an obstacle – certain abilities are simply unable to be performed when you are a hulking mass of malevolence, similarly your hardest hitting bio-abilities are not available when you are a more humble-sized horror. It became clear that these moments of choice are very well curated, often at times where your rampage might have peaked, allowing you a short period of humility as the game taunts you with its many threats moments before you once again become an all-consuming nightmare.
Fire = Bad
Sometimes I questioned if the game’s difficulty was deliberately skewed in sections to make sure a no-win scenario was avoided, but my suspicions never gave rise to being annoyed or feeling cheated. I would find myself in a room with all manner of nasty anti-monster things present, but my mistakes would never leave me with insufficient biomass to progress. Even after I had thwarted all of the hazards and lost a generous chunk of myself, I still had sufficient biomass to use a big-boy-only crushing ability and slam through a wooden wall to progress. I find myself curious that if I play through again, I should…try to fail harder?
The game shares my irritation with drones, as the upstart flying douchebots are always a thorn in my many-fanged arse. Encounters with them are fraught with worry, as often they will rocket from an unexpected corner and your attention is now entirely their property. Throw in the odd multi-drone mixup and you have an effective micro-boss battle amongst your terror tourism. Beyond drones, the human survivors do have other mechanical tricks up their sleeve – but I will leave that for the curious among you to discover on your own playthrough.
Bummer, I thought that my CARRY ON joke was super original
Carrion is a game that is comfortable in its own skin – or perhaps lack of it. There is a laser-precise focus on what the game was meant to be, and everything built around the core of its gameplay loop is done so in a way that beautifully complements it. At its price point, I would struggle to think of any curious would-be blood-noodle creature leaving the experience disappointed.
Get out there and become the stuff nightmares are made of, it’s good therapy.
Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher
- Phobia Game Studio
- Devolver Digital
- Xbox One / Switch / PC
- 23 July, 2020