HIGH Just watching the monster do its thing.
LOW The lack of a map occasionally makes navigation frustrating.
WTF Why do humans have such trouble dislodging themselves from ladders?
Carrion is being marketed as a “reverse horror game” in which players aren’t getting scared, so much as they’re doing the scaring.
We play as the villain of the story – a monster attempting to break out of the underground lab where it’s being held, and there’s a certain gleefulness to the way Carrion presents horrific violence that suggests it isn’t interested in lecturing us about morals.
The creature is a squishy, writhing, amorphous mass of tentacles and teeth, and critically, that’s all that it is. It’s not a metaphor for anything, nor is it a tragically misunderstood figure in a narrative about how man is the real monster. At no point does Carrion fixate on all of the widows we’re making during our escape attempt. This isn’t that kind of game, so sit back and enjoy four or five hours of guilt-free carnage.
It’s certainly a sight to behold. Carrion‘s monster is a triumph of procedural animation, sprouting new appendages as it needs them and squeezing and contorting its body like a dense liquid to fit through small spaces. It’s both massive and fast, and in the aftermath of a successful attack, the game’s 2D industrial environments run convincingly red with blood. If we were playing as one of the humans, this thing would be terrifying. Instead, it’s our enemies who are running and screaming, and it’s quite the power fantasy.
The monster is as much a joy to control as it is to watch. The player can move freely along both axes – just point the left analog stick in any direction, and the monster will sling a tentacle and effortlessly pull itself forward. The right stick, meanwhile, is used to grab and thrash objects, which forms the basis of a combat system that’s appropriately barbaric. There’s nothing subtle or meticulous about the way the creature picks off its enemies – it prefers to burst from vents, rip its targets in half, and devour the remains.
Encounters tend to quickly go one way or the other. Guns pose little threat, and thus a room full of poorly-armed humans can be cleared in a matter of seconds while blood cakes the walls and torsos are strewn across the floor. Security forces turn the tables when they come equipped with flamethrowers and impenetrable shields, but since the monster isn’t restricted by gravity or the size of an opening, it can rapidly retreat to an air duct or elevator shaft and flank such enemies from behind.
That’s as tactical as Carrion’s combat gets, and even then it unfolds in short order and usually ends with the monster violently whipping its prey around like a dog that’s caught a small rodent. Even the flying drones, the peskiest enemies, are defeated in the most inelegant manner – by grabbing them and repeatedly bashing them against a wall. It’s some of the purest and most brutal catharsis I’ve experienced in a game in ages.
Of course, if all of Carrion was like that, it’d run the risk of turning into white noise, which is why developer Phobia frequently shifts the focus to navigating the labyrinthine layout of the facility. This involves absorbing anomalous materials and learning new skills, like being able to shoot webs or impale and pull down obstructions.
The interesting thing about the upgrade system is that the monster’s ability set is based on its size, which in turn is linked to its health. Eating victims causes the creature to grow, which lends it greater damage resistance but also locks it out of certain powers. Players can deposit biomass and reduce the creature’s size when they need to, but this makes it more vulnerable. Phobia knows this, so they’ll force us to reduce our own health because we need the cloak ability to get past a security system, and then they’ll follow it up with an intense ambush when we’re at our most frail. Carrion does a remarkable job of continually changing the stakes.
The emphasis on exploration and upgrades probably makes Carrion sound like a Metroidvania, but that’s not usually the case. As sprawling as the facility might seem at a glance, Phobia generally limits where we’re able to go at any given time, subtly funneling us to where we need to be whenever backtracking is mandatory. I was often overwhelmed by the layout of the environment, yet found myself naturally winding up where I was supposed to be, regardless.
Unfortunately, Carrion’s lone misstep is when it finally opens up toward the end of the campaign and we’re free to hunt down optional upgrades by returning to earlier areas with an expanded ability set. The game doesn’t have a map, which makes it borderline impossible to keep one’s bearings. As gorgeous as Carrion’s environments are, they’re still just industrial corridors with very little in the way of recognizable landmarks.
This is also the one portion of Carrion that doesn’t clearly signpost where to go next, meaning that even non-completionists who just want to see the game’s ending may wind up getting lost. When I was set loose to explore, the path to advance the story was easy to miss, and I wound up spending at least half an hour trying to get back to where I was supposed to be.
While the decision to go briefly open-world disrupts the pace of an otherwise tight and lean experience, the actual finale makes all the right moves and almost completely redeems the misstep. For a title that relies so heavily on quick, gruesome gratification, it would have been a mistake to end on a sudden difficulty spike, but Phobia doesn’t succumb to the pressure of closing the campaign with a final exam, but instead capitalize on the beautiful mayhem that’s made Carrion so special up until that point.
Throughout Carrion, we’re given glimpses of a story unfolding elsewhere in the facility, concerning a human who’s arrived at the lab to… do… something. Is this happening in the past? Is it a premonition? Why are we controlling him, and how does this relate to the monster?
The answers are chilling and surprisingly low-key, though I maintain that it’s a mistake to ascribe any particular meaning to Carrion beyond it simply being about a monster that wants to eat people – and that’s okay. Games can have messages, but they can also be a venue in which we act out our most twisted fantasies free of judgment and consequence.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Phobia Game Studio and published by Devolver Digital. It is currently available on Xbox One, PC and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately five hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains Blood and Gore and Violence. The monster in Carrion doesn’t simply kill people — it violently rips them apart and devours them as they scream for their lives while blood sprays all over the walls. Totally inappropriate for children.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: There’s no dialogue whatsoever aside from a handful of text prompts, and audio cues play zero vital role. It’s fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.
He was born and raised in Amish country and has yet to escape, despite a brief stint in Philadelphia, where he attended Temple University. He took a one-credit course there called "Career Opportunities for English Majors," which painted a bleak picture for prospective writers. Mike remains steadfast in his ongoing role as a video game critic, however, and has recently written for GamesRadar. Most of his work can be found on HonestGamers, where he has contributed over 200 reviews to date.
When not playing games or writing about them, Mike is a rabid indie music fan and ardent concertgoer. He doesn't read as much as he probably should, but his current favorite author is Alastair Reynolds.