Carrion is a bloody, intricate experience with a consistency problem that breaks the momentum that’s central to a game like Carrion.
Carrion tells a tale as old as time: a military base or secret laboratory is holding a dangerous, mysterious creature captive, the creature breaks loose, the creature destroys everything. This time around, you’re the mass of teeth and tentacles that ravages the base in this reverse horror power fantasy from Phobia Studios and Devolver Digital.
While it’s a relatively by-the-numbers power fantasy, Carrion shines as a puzzle-platformer with fantastic level design and surprisingly tense encounters with the humans that you hunt and kill considering your power over them. That said, Carrion’s attention to detail and puzzle design does a brilliant job of allowing the power fantasy to come out in calculated and fun explosions of bullets and tentacles that complement the occasionally slow pacing of the game’s puzzles.
Carrion opens on you, a monster comprised of a few mouths and a whole lot of tentacles, stuck in a test tube of sorts. You’re prompted to shake the tube and break free to wreak havoc on your captors. Carrion’s loop revolves around you reclaiming the base that once acted as your prison. Cracks, crevices and pipes in walls act as save points where you can spread your roots throughout the base’s foundation, which in turn, weakens sealed doors so you can slither on through to another part of the base.
The in-between centers around a cycle of finding new abilities, which range from being able to turn invisible to possessing humans to flip switches (or to kill every other human around them), using the new abilities to progress past environmental puzzles and killing everyone that tries to stop you.
Traversal as a whole is one of the game’s most interesting mechanics. Unlike most games that look like Carrion, there’s no jumping. You can freely in any direction and squeeze into any open crevice in the game, allowing for more improvisation in stealth sequences and puzzles. That said, as you grow bigger, eat more people and gain more abilities, sometimes the monster gets too big. Prohibitively big.
Unlike series like Resident Evil or Katamari Damacy where clunky controls are central to game design and feel necessary, I didn’t feel the same about Carrion. Because you play as a blob of appendages, it’s sometimes hard to figure out what part of the monster you’re controlling in the latter parts of the game. I found myself getting stuck at certain points of the game that I shouldn’t be stuck on because every time I moved the stick a different part of the monster moved.
Outside of occasionally getting caught in tight corridors, Carrion controls like a dream. Even just moving is beyond satisfying on every level and that feeling of satisfaction is bolstered by the level of detail that went into Carrion. The game’s presentation is stunning. From the detailed, lively sprite work to the lighting and balance of beautiful colors and setpieces ready to be painted in blood. Carrion is a treat on the eyes.
The audio design is no different. The sound design is cartoonishly horrific — blood and guts squish and people scream, the monster’s tentacles make a satisfying pop when they disconnect from the base’s ceilings and walls. Even the music establishes an underlying sense of animalistic rage and fear that helps to build the game up.
While the main objectives of the game are to destroy and escape when destruction fails, it’s not just a simple power fantasy. Different unlockable abilities add depth to the game’s already fun and captivating loop that gives it a Metroid-like feel. One standout ability that adds so much to the stealth and puzzle elements of the game is the ability to possess different humans and control them.
Going from giant, tentacled killing machine to human might sound like a downgrade, but allowing the player to control a character with a gun, or the ability to pilot a mech feels fantastic, especially when those same weapons were the same ones that kept you from progressing before.
Aside from unlocking and using new powers to solve puzzles in Carrion, the monster that you play as grows as it eats more people. Small elements and attention to detail like that in Carrion are what elevate it above being a unique puzzle and stealth game. Various hidden rooms throughout the map, marked with slight indicators that allow you to upgrade different abilities you’ve picked up along the way, make exploration and backtracking rewarding.
In fact, Carrion is one of the few games I’ve played where backtracking feels well-implemented. Rather than breaking the pace of the game to tell you to backtrack, Carrion is designed with backtracking in mind. The game bought me back to places I’d already been to so I could try out new powers and abilities at least three or four times. If there hadn’t been blood splattered on the walls and destroyed doors all over the place, I wouldn’t have known.
The fact that I wouldn’t have known highlights another frustrating part of Carrion. While the game generally directs you well with environmental elements like signs and other such indicators, there were a few specific parts of the game where everything just stops and unlike the rest of the game, you’re not guided. It feels like the care that went into the other parts of the game that subtly guide the player through the game just disappears.
Carrion is a satisfying, bloody, intricate experience with fantastic puzzle, level and encounter design. However, it also suffers a notable consistency problem that breaks the sense of destructive momentum that’s central to a game like Carrion. While players who come looking for a rip-and-tear experience like DOOM (2016) might be disappointed by the game’s puzzle and stealth mechanics, Carrion never sacrifices its reverse horror atmosphere and cartoonish, over-the-top violence and gore, even when it slows down.