A lone light dangles above an incubator of some kind. A jostle of the gamepad causes the incubator to sway violently from side to side. Eventually, a gangly, spaghetti-like creature bursts from within. The rest of the room illuminates. Groups of hazmat suit-wearing scientists scramble about in fear. Tradition in video games dictates that one of those scientists must be the playable character. But no. You play the spaghetti-like creature. And you are hungry for blood. This is how Carrion begins – an excellent, side-scrolling survival horror of the most literal kind; that is, you literally control the survival horror part.
You’ll be slithering through vents, splodging atop ceilings, and causing bloody mayhem as you explore the multi-leveled facility from which you were born. Your intentions as this organism of tentacles and teeth are unclear at first, but you slowly assume that this thing wants to get out. It wants to escape.
The lack of an immediate story doesn’t matter. Controlling a bulbous, sticky pile of gore is immensely enjoyable. A story can be found when you find dark computers to crawl into, as you’ll resume control as a nameless human exploring the very facility you, as the monster, now occupy. I found these moments eerie at first but was disappointed with how little they offer in terms of narrative and gameplay. Adopting more of a walking simulator vibe, you’ll learn quite messily that the human was once you. I found I wanted to get back to the monster as soon as possible. A better handling of this narrative could have made the ending a bit punchier.
On the surface, Carrion is structurally akin to Metroidvanian titles such as Thomas Happ’s Axiom Verge (2015). Whilst you navigate a sprawling complex, you’ll be spreading your biomass around like a sneeze in a lift. The more biomass you leave behind, the more of the facility you can invade. The game does a wonderful job of conveying a sense of unimaginable scale. Each time you find a spot for your biomass – which also acts as the game’s save points – bits of you spread into the walls and eventually burst through blast doors – allowing you to progress.
Speaking of scale, you’ll need to observe your growth. The facility is populated with security guards and scared workers who wish they’d called in sick. They are all food. Consuming humans increases your size and your effectiveness in dealing with larger enemies and larger groups. You’ll extend your tentacle, latch onto an unsuspecting foe, and pull them in as a snack. Or, if you’re feeling full, you can always dispose of anyone by flailing them wildly into walls and doors; turning them into red paste. The tentacle mechanic is finicky and took me a bit of getting used to. It’s not one hundred percent satisfying, but when it works, it’s fun to pull off.
The way you look will also determine how you approach the games puzzle elements. Some of your abilities are size sensitive, so you’ll need to pay a visit to the games many gunk pools to shred some of your load to continue. The game does a great job of leaving you to figure out how best to approach a puzzle. It does not believe in hand-holding (or tentacle holding), which can make successfully figuring out how to activate a door satisfying. The same can be said for combat situations. Often, the room full of gun-toting personnel can be ambushed via multiple methods. You can crash through the stalls of the toilets for a kill just as effectively as staying in a vent and pulling your victims up one by one – Alien style. It never gets old waiting for a pair of humans to turn their back, snatching one, and watching the other whiz around, realizing they are alone – until succumbing to the same fate as his mate.
The sound design truly amplifies the grim, disgusting movements of the beast. You move around with the same squelches mimicked by rummaging a wet finger inside an ear. As you bellow down hallways, you’ll cause chains to echo and catch audible glimpses of far off machinery doing its business, as well as distant screams. This game is survival horror at its heart, and while the music is subdued, the dulled, hellish soundscape will keep you tensed throughout – a triumphant considering you are a monster.
There were a few things that I think Carrion could have done better. The lack of a map meant you get lost in areas you’ve already been to very frequently. The beautiful pixel art style the game employs is stunning, however, it can leave certain rooms looking the same. I will say that getting lost isn’t such a nightmare though, and you’ll only really encounter this if you decide to backtrack to secret areas; I simply must see everything. As I scrambled about, my leftover wanton destruction was everywhere. No respawning enemies or environments added volumes to the atmosphere and, towards the end of the game, provided this unsettling feeling that even though you were a horrible monstrosity, you were also alone. It makes finding the next exit even more exhilarating.
The way the game handles power-ups is perhaps the biggest misstep. I found I was discovering new, beefy power-ups much later into the game; leaving me no time to fully appreciate their advantages. Towards the end, I consumed a power-up that allowed me to coat myself in spikes and roll around like a ball of death. But, I only had about one or two opportune moments to use it before the final sequences of the game began. Therefore, the majority of power-ups serve more of a tick box to the gameplay structure rather than an enriching experience. The ones you do need introduce new ways to play. One ability will have you possess other humans to flip a switch or take out others with firearms. It’s cool but mainly situational at best. Nothing truly beats charging into a room, all tentacles blazing, until everything alive isn’t anymore.
As you emerge from the facility in your disguised human form, the credits allow you time for reflection. I’ll surely remember my time with Carrion. Any title that does something different and affective within the horror genre is going to receive praise from me. I reminisce about how much I adore games that allow you to walk the shoes of a creature; I can still remember my time with games such as Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse (2005 and long overdue a remake). The final image of a cityscape leaves me to wonder what horrors my fully upgraded pile of mess will bring to its sleeping inhabitants. Perhaps that story can be fleshed out in a sequel. Regardless, the devs had a lot of fun making this, and it is nowhere more apparent than behind-the-scenes video. Enjoy.