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“I don’t know what the Hell’s in there, but it’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is.” – Clark, The Thing.
The reverse horror game is not a new concept but it is one that remains thoroughly unexplored outside of multiplayer games. Dead by Daylight and Friday the 13th: The Game are two of the most recent, most popular examples but finding a reverse horror game – that is, a game that lets you play as the monster rather than a survivor – with a compelling story is pretty hard. Carrion’s story is fairly thin on the ground but what Phobia Game Studio’s debut lacks in plot it more than makes up for in terms of viciously fun gameplay.
You play as a red, amorphous blob of tentacles, fangs and eyes cooped up in a vat in a sprawling underground research facility. One day you break out and must eat your way to the surface, growing stronger and bigger the more you consume. That’s pretty much it in terms of story. There is some background as to how you got to the lab but most of the game involves getting out of it and that’s where the fun is. It’s all well and good to identify with Ripley in Alien or MacReady in The Thing or Chief Brody in Jaws but it’s way more fun to actually be the unstoppable monster that’s influenced by these films.
Carrion is quite open in terms of player approach. Sneaking around is occasionally an option as very few areas actually require you to kill everything in them to progress. The game aids you in this regard by offering you an invisibility option as your smallest form but the bigger you are the easier you are to spot and by the game’s final areas stealth will have mostly fallen by the wayside. That’s fine though because the various upgrades you find allow you to dash, shoot webs, grow spikes and armour, possess humans and shoot out spear-tipped tentacles. It’s a monster’s world, we’re just living in it.
Carrion’s combat is often quick and kinetic and feels satisfyingly chaotic too. At full strength you’ll be swinging from the walls and roof, dwarfing even the mechs sent against you, spearing drones and smashing scientists and soldiers off surfaces. Rendering humans without armour into pulp and pieces allows you to chow down on them and regain health allowing you to pulp yet more tasty, terrified humans. The cycle continues, the system works. In all seriousness Carrion probably has the best movement in a game this year so far. Tendrils whip out like wet ropes and haul you towards your next target at lightning speed. The monster moves quickly even when huge and over-reaching often feels natural rather than irritating. As players we’re often used to controlling something both human sized and shaped so it makes sense that this enormous toothed maw would be a little awkward after being squashed into a tank for so long.
It doesn’t take long to master Carrion’s simple movements and you’ll quickly be smashing or slithering through any and all barriers with the various upgrades you need to find. There are 9 upgrades that aren’t necessary but they all feel useful. After all, adding an extra prehensile tentacle to a gathering swarm of them is an advantage. More meat for the grinder! Carrion never feels too difficult, after all this a power fantasy that – when played right – makes you feel more powerful than anything in the room. Sweeping into a large chamber in the late game and stripping the armour off mechs, gobbling up some flamethrower wielding soldiers and bouncing some drones off the walls feels as good as slowly slithering up to a door, waiting for the right moment and dashing through to crush three cowering scientists against the opposite wall. Dinner time!
If there is one criticism I want to level at Carrion it’s that despite the rather simplistic goal there never feels like there’s enough real guidance. I’m not asking for it to hold my hand, tentacle, lamprey mouth, whatever but the occasional hint or onscreen arrow would have made things easier than trekking through the labs I’d turned into abattoirs not five minutes previously. Absent of any threats or secrets it feels pointless revisiting these areas and although the path forward is often quite clear it’s not always obvious how to get there. Still, monsters don’t use maps so I suppose the occasional swing-and-a-miss can be forgiven.
Carrion’s neo-retro look is a good one. A great many areas are hidden in shadow and those that aren’t will be quickly plunged into semi-darkness as the passage of your enormous bulk will shatter most light sources. This helps with the whole you-are-a-disgusting-flesh-creature vibe. Playing as a collection of sharp teeth and angry eyes is fun for the most part but whenever I took a short break to grab a drink and came back I’d think “Eurgh, who was playing this? Oh yeah…” Carrion is proof that I can empathize with squishy, eldritch creatures but only when I’m playing as them and even that’s stretching things but the shadows, smoke and half-light help just as much as the pixel art and robust sound design. Cris Velasco’s synth-heavy score does too and although it nods to John Carpenter, Ennio Morricone and Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic scores it feels empowering here rather than threatening.
Carrion ends the way you would expect a power fantasy about a mutating, infectious biomass to end. Ripley doesn’t kick you out into space and Chief Brody doesn’t shoot the oxygen tank in your jaws. Instead it’s ending is more similar to The Thing’s only after Childs and MacReady have their “How will we make it?” conversation. I’m weird and I’m pissed off and I’m going to end the world one slurping, sucking bloody murder at a time. It’s a monster’s world now, we’re all just living in it.