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Thursday, July 23, 2020

[Review] ‘Carrion’ Delivers Exquisitely Graceful and Aggressive Carnage

If, like me, you’re a horror fan who really loves The Thing and The Blob (so, probably a lot of you), Carrion seems like a tailor-made video gaming experience. Imagine being able to play as an ever-growing sentient mass of tissue and tentacles, tearing up hapless humans as you attempt to escape to the freedom of the outside world? That’s Carrion in a nutshell.

Being the ‘monster’ is a novelty that’s had a bit of a resurgence this year with Maneater channeling the chompy chaos of Jaws Unleashed, and the upcoming Destroy All Humans remaster allowing us to enslave humanity as a brain-sucking alien. In the case of Maneater, it felt like the novelty outstripped the focus on how the game played. With Carrion, we have a fairly slick Metroidvania that tends to be a grisly joy to play more often than not.

Carrion starts off fairly serene, as the meatbag monstrosity pulls its relatively lithe mass out of captivity, and begins its search for food and freedom. The game runs you through the basics of tearing grates and doors off their hinges before presenting you with a few sample snacks to feast upon. By pushing the left stick in the required direction and hitting the action button, the blob shoots out one of its tentacles and snatches up its victim, releasing the stick pulls them in, and from there, the toothy maw gobbles them up in a shower of blood and limbs.

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Carrion takes delight in the carnage its carnivorous, pulsating, stringy meat sack causes. The creature itself becomes quite the sight to behold as it grows larger, slopping this way and that, several mouths snapping and growling as its sinewy tendrils thrash about. It’s quick and nimble too, which makes its attacks all the more brutal as it rushes another group of soldiers and deftly murders them with brutal, yet graceful aggression. Despite its shapeless bulk, the creature is surprisingly, but believably, nimble, and violently athletic.

In short, Carrion makes effective and enthralling use of its blood-spattered violence. It’s not just there for the sake of having blood and guts, it serves a purpose on multiple levels. The creature itself is the living embodiment of gore and violence. It’s not just killing for hunger or out of anger, it kills because of fear, it destroys because it has a primal desire to do so, it kills because it can, and like the player, it enjoys the results. Most importantly it does this because it wants to be free, and everything the monster does is in service to this goal.

You’d think the miniscule 2D sprites would have a hard time conveying such bloodshed and viscera, but full credit to the developer Phobia Game Studio, it has managed to capture the grim essence in a simple, yet effective manner. Carrion’s violence suggests a lot more than it actually shows, but it still shows enough to make you feel like it’s gorier than it is. 

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It’s not all about eating and killing of course. The blob must escape its underground confines, and to do that, it has to use its brain as much as its growing brawn. At first, that just means pulling the odd switch and sneaking past soldiers you aren’t quite ready to take on yet, but as you explore the facility, you discover radioactive vats that the blob can crawl into and gain new abilities. 

These abilities open up new ways to get past previously impenetrable areas and easier ways to cope with the escalating threat of the humans’ firepower. These powers include a stringy shot that reaches through gaps to hit switches, protective spikes to roll through busy rooms full of enemies, impaling anything in your way, and eventually, the ability to control humans via a snaky tendril.

Adding a layer to the use of these powers, the blob’s mass directly affects which abilities it can and cannot use. Some remain usable at any size, but in most cases, you’ll either need to deposit some of the meaty beast’s mass into a convenient pool or build the blob back up by reabsorbing that excess mass (or snacking down on a few unsuspecting scientists) in order to use them. This often means a lot of backtracking, which does prove at least a little irksome in the early going, but once you’ve begun to familiarize yourself with the layout of the facility and the general ‘rules’ of what you can and cannot do, it all flows that little bit better.

That does, unfortunately, bring me on to my biggest gripe with Carrion. The game makes you mostly rely on memory to get a bearing on your surroundings as there is no map. The beast can let out a guttural growl that echolocates the fleshy infected areas on the map where you can save your game if they are in the vicinity, so that at least gives you a vague idea of where you are, as do the handy, yet subtle exit signs that point you towards the pipes that allow the blob to move between areas.

It’s the move between areas that causes the most problems. New abilities can mean you need to revisit earlier areas to find ways to progress into new ones, and there’s a lot of semi-aimless wandering during these moments, as you try to get your bearings. It stifles the flow of the game, and pads the already surprisingly large runtime quite unnecessarily.

Carrion is a deceptively lengthy game. There’s a resolution to a story that occurs after an hour or two and it led me to believe that we were probably closing in on the end already, but Carrion not only …ahem… carried on, it got better and better as the game found its rhythm and the selection of abilities continually refreshed the formula.

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The grungy atmosphere and low menacing growl of a musical score play a big part in keeping the mood right. There’s a feeling of the relentlessly oppressive to this world and its sounds that gets turned on its head by the fact that you are predominantly the cause of that. This is about the only reason I could get on board with the whole ‘reverse horror’ label, because otherwise, you may as well call it what it is, horror that happens to be from the perspective of the monster. Sure, you’re doling out the violence toward humans and by default that makes you ‘the bad guy’ because you’re ‘different’, but you wouldn’t call Dead By Daylight a reverse horror for putting you in the moody shoes of a serial killer, would you?

That minor quibble aside, Carrion did what very few horror games have done for me this year: it exceeded my expectations. It ends up being far more than the sum of its fleshy parts thanks to a solid commitment to its sadistic vision of slimy violence.

Carrion review code for PC provided by the publisher.

Carrion is out now on Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch.


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