Developer: Phobia Game Studio | Publisher: Devolver Digital | Genre: Horror | Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PC | Reviewed on: PC
From the start screen, Carrion is terrifying. A wriggling mass of twisting tentacles and chattering teeth greets the player, drawing them in. From there, the game kicks off into an unrelenting roller coaster of mayhem and carnage. It’s messy, bloody, and downright exhilarating. Carrion is an utterly mesmerizing peek into the cold survival instinct of an unknowable monster, and a perfect way to blow off steam.
Released this summer on Windows, Nintendo Switch, and Xbox, Carrion is game design at its leanest. After pressing “play” from the truly unsettling start screen, the player takes control of a beast and breaks out of a containment tank. From there, it must slaughter and puzzle-solve its way through several different levels to escape what seems to be a mysterious research facility. All the action is in 2D and contorting the fleshy mass through vents, pipes, and corridors always feels amazing. Carrion is hardly the first game to put players in control of a killing machine, but it’s certainly one of the most satisfying. Instead of spending the game running away from a monster, Carrion flips the script and lets the player do the terrorizing.
Food, Glorious Food
Even though the monster is fragile, especially in the beginning of the game, the player never feels under-powered. After the initial escape, the creature must gobble up any available bodies to increase their size, and shatter more containment tanks to absorb different powers. Everything moves relentlessly forward in this ferociously fast-paced game.
The creature starts off small, like a chestburster. But by Carrion‘s end, the monster has grown to a screen-filling tangle of appendages and mouths. Gaining and losing mass is the key to the creature’s features. Some skills like a full-body charge that smashes certain obstacles can only be used when the beast is medium-sized, while a handy camouflage maneuver is exclusive to a smaller monster. Creatively figuring out when to shed mass to scurry past a laser turret with invisibility, or increase size to rip a covering off a tunnel entrance always feels incredible.
As much of a guilty pleasure as it is to impale guards on spikes or lure unwary scientists to a swift and grisly end in a lavatory, the game’s puzzles are also memorable. Every level has a locked door that can only be unlocked when the creature has found enough Hive Crevasses to deposit its Biomass into. If these nouns sound important, don’t stress about it. Carrion isn’t interested in laying out a complex narrative. Its plot leaves a lot to interpretation, and is better for it.
Carrion focuses on “how” rather than “why”. The player can infer that even otherworldly masses of writhing tentacles just want to be free, and instead worry about how they’re going to flip a specific switch or survive a trio of attack drones. This game taps into that lizard brain feeling of pure instinct, where the next immediate goal is all that matters.
This game creates an atmosphere unlike anything else. Carrion channels slow-burning horror movies like John Carpenter‘s The Thing and Ridley Scott’s Alien, but there’s also an urgency here that is distinctly modern. Carrion is short, with full completion clocking in at around six or seven hours. While the creature may lurk in the shadows, there is no hiding in lockers like 2014’s Alien: Isolation. The only dull moments occur when players don’t have a clear idea of where to go next. There isn’t a map feature, but this isn’t a deal-breaker by any means. The creature’s movement is quick and visual cues are distinct enough that players won’t be lost for long. Momentum hurtles forward.
Sometimes, players just want to be something other than the hero. Not to say the creature in Carrion is out-and-out malevolent; it simply yearns for freedom, at any cost. It feels distinctly empowering to turn the tables on the human captors, but it also feels chilling to embody something so adept at turning humans into lunch.
The beast in Carrion lets players experience cold, animal intelligence (if the beast can be called animal). For someone who wants to experience a rush of cathartic euphoria, this game fits the bill nicely. Devolver Digital has published yet another addictive action game, and playing as a monster has never felt so good.