By Josh Speer / August 4th, 2020
|Developer||Phobia Game Studio|
|Release Date||July 23rd, 2020|
|Genre||Stealth, Horror, Metroidvania|
|Platform||PC, PS4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One|
|Age Rating||Mature 17+ – Blood and Gore, Violence|
I like to think of myself as a good person. I preface this review thus because after playing Carrion for a few hours, you start to feel like a sociopath. Gobbling up humans like popcorn chicken and cutting a red swath of destruction across sinister facilities. But just cause I’m generally decent doesn’t mean it’s not fun to be bad sometimes. And playing this reverse horror Metroidvania definitely puts you squarely in the shoes of the monster. Though really, if you think about it, you didn’t ASK to be placed in a vat. So I’m sure those devious humans brought this mayhem upon themselves. Regardless, Carrion is a wholly unique experience, and one of the most noteworthy games I’ve played in a long while.
As you might expect, there’s not much plot in Carrion. The writhing mass of red tentacles and mouths you control doesn’t do much talking, though you do encounter several potential flashbacks. This happens when your character, who I started referring to as Tentacly Joe, inserts himself into strange mechanical devices. The focus shifts to you moving around as an unknown human going about searching for specimens and unlocking facilities. It’s not clear to me whether these are actual flashbacks or some premonition of the future, but they provide the bulk of the narrative. The rest of the time, you rampage Joe through many facilities in your effort to escape.
The loop of the game goes like this. You search for hive crevices which unlock the portal to the next area. These are eerie openings in the walls of the facility that Joe burrows into. The crevices also double as save points, and heal you. As you progress through each area, you’ll encounter vats identical to the one you first escape from. By interacting with them, you’ll gain a new ability, such as spitting spider webs, turning invisible or using echolocation to identify key locations around you. Once you’ve gotten all you can from the area, you’ll be able to reach the newly opened portal and squeeze through into someplace new. But as you go from point A to point B, you’ll have to deal with a lot of pesky humans first.
While you might think Joe is totally overpowered in the game, that’s not entirely true. You’re a grotesque entity capable of gobbling up humans to increase your mass and alter your available abilities. The bigger you are, the more you can do, but at the expense of other powers. Small Joe can do things Large cannot, and Medium can do things neither is capable of. You can always dislodge excess mass in murky pink pools to adjust your skill set, often strategically. But none of that changes the fact these humans are more than capable of putting the hurt on you. Your size corresponds to your overall health as well, but they have tons of tricks and traps to cut you to pieces.
Humans will shoot you with pistols, burn you with flamethrowers and block you with sizzling electric shields. They also have littered the facility with powerful machines, including various drones, gun turrets, explosive devices and more. And as you might expect, the farther you get, the harder the challenges thrown at you become. A great example are the walking mechs piloted by humans and armed with gatling guns that can easily pulp you. Thankfully, as you progress you learn plenty of new tricks to deal with them, though my favorite is Parasitism. It lets Joe extend a tentacle, plunge it into a human host and turn them into a puppet. You can then use that host to activate switches, shoot other humans and even pilot machines. A favorite moment of mine involved using one meat puppet to pilot a mech and proceed to blast everything in the room to shreds, including another mech that was trying to stop me.
Your primary means of dealing with humans is stealth. They’re smart and react to sounds and sights, so you’ll have to sneak about. Once you get your tentacles on a human, you can smash them against walls to incapacitate them. Once you’ve got them, Joe will automatically drag them towards his hungry mouths and gobble them up, regaining some health. Often you can’t wait that long, since the humans will protect each other. So in the interest of avoiding damage you might have to get extra violent. Joe is very nimble and surprisingly fast, can squeeze into small openings and slither about effortlessly. He’ll automatically cling to walls, so you have a lot of flexibility how you explore. Thankfully that lends itself to the stealth sections. I admit that I really wasn’t expecting this element of the game, but overall I’m a fan. Carrion is a great blend of terror, caution and violence, with puzzle solving to space sections out. Though there’s no distinct bosses I encountered in the game, many rooms are set up as a gauntlet. You’ll always have the means necessary to get past them, but sometimes figuring that out is the biggest hurdle.
Now, I’m a big fan of Metroidvanias, and for the most part Carrion gives me what I expect. The challenge scales nicely and combat keeps expanding based off your skill set. The one surprise for me was the lack of maps. Granted, you can use Joe’s sonar to get a rough feel for your surroundings, but I always prefer a visual key to guide me. And though the lack of a map wasn’t a problem for most of the game, it became one late in the experience. I got to one section called the Armored Warfare Facility, the second to last area of the game. Things were going great, until I decided to meander. Instead of relentlessly proceeding forwards, I meandered to a switch I thought I needed to activate. Instead of helping me, it effectively locked me out of the path I was meant to take. I tried finding an alternate route, only to discover indestructible blast doors had blocked my egress. This after 10 hours or so of playtime. Unfortunately, this meant I wasn’t able to fully beat Carrion, which is really disappointing. I’m always paranoid about getting trapped in any game, and find it’s usually due to poor design. While the rest of the game was quite enjoyable, this definitely prevented it from getting a perfect score from me.
I’d say Carrion controls pretty well, with some provisos. As you control a constantly moving mass of murderous intent, it stands to reason the controls are a bit slippery. It’s not too hard to kill humans, but often it can be tricky to accurately interact with specific features. These include flipping switches, shooting webs and grabbing a nuclear core in one section. I would imagine the game controls more precisely with a mouse and keyboard, but all things considered it runs pretty great on the Nintendo Switch.
Visually, Carrion is a treat. It uses pixel art in astonishing ways, and is equal parts glorious and hideous. This is a gory game, and you’ll literally paint the walls red as you play. And though Tentacly Joe is no hero, he’s a very unique looking creature. Likewise, the many humans that you’ll mow down show off a lot of personality, reacting to your intrusion with alarm. The sound effects are no slouch either. You’ll hear lots of screams of distress, both from your prey and Joe when he’s injured. Though there’s not much in the way of actual music, there is a low key ambiance that builds the dread remarkably well.
Carrion is a game I’ve been looking forward to for a while. And though I am more than a bit disappointed I got stuck, I’m still eager to play through again sometime soon. It’s an absolute steal at $19.99. Warts and all, this is a fascinating and wholly unique game. I’m glad as always that Devolver Digital takes chances on titles like this, and can’t wait to see what’s next from Phobia Game Studio.
Review Copy Provided by Publisher
CarrionDevolver DigitalMetroidvanianintendo switchoprainfallPhobia Game Studioreverse horror