Inspired by Alien and The Thing, this new indie release doesn’t cast you as the human hero but the creature itself.
Playing the bad guy is not an unusual idea for video games. Many gaming heroes are not exactly paradigms of virtue and there’s plenty where you get to play as straight up anti-heroes. And yet being cast as an actual movie monster is still relatively rare. The Aliens Vs. Predator games tried it, and the Friday The 13th game allows you to play as Jason Voorhees, but it’s still more usual to be running away from the stalking horror than playing as it.
Carrion is not based on any specific creature but is instead inspired by a host of 80s horror movies, most obviously John Carpenter’s The Thing. The game starts without explanation, as you explode from out of a containment jar in an underground laboratory and immediately beginning chomping down on hapless scientists.
Your origins are not made clear and while you look very much like the thing during the famous dog absorption sequence – complete with writhing tentacles and multiple mouths – you’re not able to transform into humans or other animals. Instead, you remain as a disgusting lump of meat that leaves behind a snail trail of blood wherever it goes and moves with a liquid slurp that is gloriously disgusting.
Eating humans increases your size, as you grow multiple mouths and become a creature many times the size of when you started. There is a maximum limit, but this can be augmented as you progress, as you come across other lab experiments that also give you the ability to do things like shoot webbing or become invisible. You only have three abilities (plus echolocation) open to you at any one point though and have to either increase or decrease in size in order to access specific ones.
Despite what you may be imagining though Carrion is not primarily an action game. It is instead a flip-screen Metroidvania and rather than flamethrower-wielding humans and robot drones the most persistent enemy in the game is switches… lots of switches. We don’t know what you would imagine playing as the thing would be like but we didn’t envisage endless switch-based puzzles and locked doors, but that’s primarily what Carrion is all about.
Combat is a major factor but it’s almost always over extremely quickly. Puny humans are fragile but so, surprisingly, are you. That means the best tactic is to lurk in the shadows, ideally in the ceiling or under floors, and snatch away unwary humans when they’re not looking. This is a lot of fun and is where the game starts to feel a lot more like Alien, but it’s also pretty one-note and not really very difficult.
You soon learn that it’s not always advantageous to be as big as you can, not least because you’re much slower and harder to move when you’re a dozen snarling mouths joined together by a sliver of gore. That’s all very interesting and unique, except that when you get big the control system begins to break down, to the point where the game constantly misinterprets which part of your body you’re trying to move and where you want to go.
The control system is rather fiddly in general though, and we suspect would work much better with a mouse, as you target people and objects by moving a little cursor that quickly becomes impossible to make out when there’s a lot of action going on. If you’re big enough at the time it doesn’t really matter, because if you just waggle about a bit you’re bound to hit something, but there’s no sense of precision or purposeful action.
Flipping endless switches may not be what you expect from the opening of the game but in fairness a lot of the puzzles are very clever, especially when you get the ability to possess humans and use them to not only activate switches but also fight using their weapons (including a mech with a very percussive minigun). The puzzles see very little evolution beyond that though and the excitement of exploration is constantly tempered by the dread of yet more switches.
It doesn’t help that the backdrops are so dreary and similar looking. Obviously, you don’t want brightness and rainbows in a horror game but since this is primarily a Metroidvania, with a fair amount of backtracking, the game world needed a lot more memorable landmarks. Especially as, inexplicably, there is no map – even though nothing else about the game’s difficulty is particularly extreme.
Carrion is the type of game that’s always most frustrating to review: a great idea that never quite follows through in its execution. The pixel art graphics are fantastic and the whole premise has a great deal of potential, but the reality can often be frustrating, confusing, and frequently rather dull.
We still enjoyed it anyway, just because we like the movies it’s riffing on (the soundtrack is also full of enjoyable homages), but as a game it’s a sadly flawed experience. It spends far too much time being a puzzle-based Metroidvania and not nearly enough being a monster simulator. It would have been far better to focus on one or the other, as while the movie monster can be more than one thing at once this struggles to perform the same trick as a video game.
Carrion review summary
In Short: Playing as an alien monstrosity is a great idea, and at times works well, but the fiddly controls and awkward mix of gameplay ideas doesn’t gel together well.
Pros: The creature is great, with lots of interesting abilities and some impressively disgusting pixel art graphics. Great soundtrack too.
Cons: The controls can be frustratingly imprecise, especially the bigger you get. Switch-based puzzles quickly become a chore, especially given the confusing and repetitive map design.
Formats: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Developer: Phobia Studio
Release Date: 23rd July 2020
Age Rating: 18
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