Review is based on my experience with the Xbox One release of Carrion.
Some Kind Of Monster…
Monsters, specifically those who exist in the realms of horror, are beyond tantalising. The first ‘monster horror’ flick is over 100 years old, and since those early days we have created legendary beings that have been absorbed into society’s collective memory. Watching a movie about a monster, and actually playing as a monster however, are two very different things. The former being an exciting popcorn fuelled romp, whilst the latter tends to be…difficult. Oftentimes you end up feeling like you are just some guy on the prowl, regardless of the monster assumed control of.
Not with Carrion. Carrion is a different kind of beast. The game begins with you, a flailing mass of grotesque tentacles contained within a test tube. Naturally you break out and the screams of horrified scientists fill the air. Those screams are quickly silenced as your enthralling tendrils grab monitors, vents and bodies – tearing and devouring everything in sight. You are not a bipedal humanoid – you are nothing more than an amorphous mass. Tendrils explode out, latching onto the wall to pull your form across the room with a disturbingly visceral grace. Mouths forming purely to feed before retreating into whatever alien anatomy the creature has.
You are inevitably let loose amongst a vast, underground installation filled to the brim with locked doors, impassable paths and your soon-to-be-devoured captors. As you explore the vast and varied facility that held you captive, you will stumble across pieces of yourself, similarly encased in tubes. Breaking them apart and being reunited with your fragmented self reveals the true nature of Carrion’s gore filled design – this is a Metroidvania. Doors may be locked, but following the right path will lead you to, well, more of you. Those doors can be torn apart, ripped open or smashed through and more and more of the installation becomes available.
The game is split into nine distinct zones with a fairly large interconnected series of rooms linking them all together. Scattered around each area are structural weaknesses and cracks in the facility. These allow you to infest large areas of the world, save, and once enough have been graced by your being, allow you to writhe open the path to the next area. Whilst thematically distinct, and containing challenges that require slightly different approaches, this is the core loop of Carrion. It is visually a treat to behold and due to the brevity of the game, it is a loop that doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Getting to these infestation points is where the gameplay really lies, and it is where Carrion truly shines. Every room is a puzzle, whether that be combat, environmental or both. You have a number of abilities at your disposal, obstacles in your way, and you are left to your own devices. Puzzle solving is usually fairly simplistic, forcing you to use your powers in a specific way to get to a specific location, so you can interact with a level of some kind. Sometimes you will need to be a bit more creative, but ultimately, those are your brain benders. Oftentime navigation will be a puzzle in and of itself, as paths are typically one way, or blocked off, and you need to figure out how to bypass them, again, using your ever expanding arsenal of powers.
Whilst these puzzles are rather samey in terms of ultimate goal, Carrion does an admirable job of preventing you from feeling bored, tired or like you are retreading familiar ground. There is enough variety to be had with each power application to keep you interested and plodding along the game’s desired path. This is made all the better by the game’s absolutely stellar pacing. You will not go more than 20 minutes without finding a new power to play with, effectively resetting the metaphoric stagnation meter. The powers themselves are wonderfully integrated too, with a diverse set of abilities at your disposal. They range from simply being able to bash through solid objects, to changing your molecular structure when exposed to water, to literal parasitic possession. There is always something new to mess around with, and it does a fantastic job of covering up any potential boredom that may arise from the repetitive nature of the game’s tasks.
Rip and Tear
Combat also goes a long way when it comes to keeping things fresh. You may be a monster of potentially titanic proportions, but you are not indestructible and your enemies are more than capable of inflicting a fair amount of damage. Flinging yourself into gunfire, for the most part, will do very little in terms of effectively dispatching your enemies. Combat requires a bit more thought, and the levels accommodate that line of thinking. Alternate paths, ventilation shafts and underwater tunnels give you plenty of options when it comes to approaching any given challenge. Like any good monster flick, stealth and strategically removing threats one at a time, is the name of the game. Once you start mixing in abilities and different enemy types, the game’s combat really opens up and allows for all manner of creativity.
One of the more interesting aspects of Carrion is the concept of size, and how that integrates into gameplay. You start off as a fairly small octopus/spider/squid looking thing. You can easily rend a man limb from limb, but you are squishy and fairly weak. As you absorb more biomass your size increases, you become more powerful. Paths can be broken through, enemies can be brute forced from time to time, but movement is more difficult. Eventually you will achieve your final form, a disgusting, lumbering mass of viscera, tentacles and gaping maws. Nothing can stand in your way, but navigating the facility is noticeably more difficult, making stealth almost impossible.
What abilities you have available at any one time is determined by how big you are. When you are in your base form, you can fire projectiles or use camouflage, when you are ginormous you can reinforce your flesh to become impervious to damage, or reduce an entire room to nothing but a blood stain. Puzzles often require specific abilities to complete, and the breaking down of your body using handily scattered pools of…red stuff(?) allows you to fully utilise each form’s abilities. This goes one step further in combat however. As enemies damage you, you will literally lose biomass, slowly reducing your size, and therefore changing your abilities. Reacting to your fluctuating power, and even planning when you want to be “weaker” is an engaging balancing act that keeps combat interesting and enemies feeling dangerous.
Becoming The Beast
Speaking of feel, Carrion truly feels like nothing else. Being an inhuman, inhumane, fluctuating mass of death is a power trip like no other. Powerful tentacles severing heads, removing torso’s and even ripping mechs apart piece by piece is satisfying. This is made all the more satisfying by the screams of terror as you go about your business. Not everyone is armed, in fact most people are desperately trying to flee. You feel like a monster, and you act like a monster. What surprised me, and I recognise this is very much a subjective thing, was when I took control of one of my human adversaries, specifically an armed one. There was something deeply disturbing about gunning down defenseless scientists, all the while fleeing and screaming. It truly highlighted just how monstrous the creature is, and how a once enjoyable murder spree changed radically the moment you replace the monster, with something more relatable.
Graphics aren’t everything, however a game like Carrion would certainly benefit from visuals that can sell the abhorrent abomination you are controlling. Luckily for us, Phobia Studios are masters of their craft, as Carrion is one the most beautifully realised games to be released this year. Everything from its gore soaked environments, its fascinating world and disgustingly awesome monster design looks stellar. The animation in particular elevates the game to a whole new level, with the monsters movements being truly out of this world. Watching as hundreds of tentacles dynamically latch onto the environment or witnessing the slow, wet descent as you dangle from the ceiling – it is horrific in the best possible way.
Worth A Look?
Carrion is a game that, above anything else, understands pacing. Sure, the gameplay is satisfying, the puzzles are fun and controlling the monster is a blast, but when you boil everything down to its core, it could have been incredibly repetitive and ultimately boring and drawn out. Phobia Studios kept the story to a minimum, focused on the gameplay and added new and interesting things to do over the game’s duration. Once they had told the story they had wanted to tell, and you had experienced everything they wanted you to experience, the game ends. Nothing stays around long enough to become stagnant, and as a result, the game remains fresh throughout. I cannot recommend Carrion enough – this is a game that needs to be played.
Toast Seal Of Approval
Carrion is a fantastic title, however if you want to check out some other games like it, then Momodora: Reverie Under The Moonlight is a Metroidvania worth a gander. If you were more into solid puzzle solving, then Mars Power Industries has you covered. Brutal combat more your thing? Project Warlock or DOOM should be right up your alley.
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