Power fantasies are nothing new in gaming but Carrion finds a fun way to flip this convention on its head.
Rather than play as a valiant and vigilant hero striving against the odds, you play as the boss they’d ordinarily face off against. A whirling mass of slimy tentacles and squishy biomass, you awaken imprisoned in a subterranean laboratory and tasked with finding a route to the surface.
That journey towards freedom leaves Carrion feeling something like the B-Side of a more traditional Metroidvania.
Twirling towards freedom
Squint a little and you could imagine this being the bonus playthrough you’d unlock after reaching the credits of a conventional sidescroller. Instead, Carrion asks you to scurry and scourge your way through a diverse set of 2D environments, collecting new abilities that make your monster more powerful and then use those abilities to forge new paths forward for yourself.
The tempo here oscillates between a set of linear discrete dungeon-like levels within a more open, hub-like overworld. Backtracking is often encouraged but rarely a necessity. The central conceit here is the asymmetry of the whole affair and Carrion milks that quality for all it’s worth.
When push comes to shove, you’re powerful enough than any single enemy poses little challenge but vulnerable to being surrounded. Winning a full-blown firefight is rarely impossible but it’s not always worth the risk. Sometimes, it pays to be clever and pick off your foes one by one. Carrion excels at turning the tropes of the genre into the building blocks of a fun combat puzzle.
The lack of precision when it comes to movement and control here doesn’t always feel good but it always feels thematically appropriate. As you funnel yourself through tight spaces and into rooms of unsuspecting scientists, it feels like you’re steering an inherently unwieldy and unnatural body. Then, when the bullets start flying and your trawling tornado of tentacles leaves havoc in its wake, it becomes easy to lose track of what’s actually happening on-screen.
Even if these clumsier aspects of the experience sometimes annoyed me, it’s hard to imagine a version of Carrion without them. They’re as foundational to the game’s core power fantasy as anything else. They don’t always feel fun but they do manage to feel right.
Likewise, as you progress through Carrion, your creature doesn’t just grow in size. It also changes in capability. Sometimes you need to make yourself smaller or larger in order to use the abilities you collect. Since your health scales with your size, there’s an element of risk and reward here. Push and pull. You sometimes have to make yourself more vulnerable in order to progress forward.
There’s a menacing edge to the soundtrack in the game but this moody soundscape often ends up punctuated by the shrieks of your foes as you tear them apart. Akin to something like Hotline Miami, there’s a relentless and borderline surreal grotesqueness to the way your character inflicts violence. Regardless of whether you opt for brute force or the stealthy approach, when it all comes together, it feels like your victims never had a chance.
And even if the game's gory trappings aren't your thing, the gameplay here is smart enough to keep things engaging throughout. As far as video game protagonists go, the centipede-like creature in Carrion is unorthodox enough to necessitate some equally unconventional level design.
Whenever you do get stuck, there’s usually a sense that there’s an obvious solution that you just can’t see. Most of the time, there’s a great sense of forward momentum as you lurch from screen to screen and scream to scream.
Frustratingly, about 80% of the way through Carrion, I used my monster’s abilities to bypass something I wasn't meant to and basically ended up having to write off that entire save file and start over. This instance aside, it does genuinely feel like the team behind the game has done a great job in always making sure you have the tools you need to untangle yourself out of an adverse situation or honest mistake.
The Bottom Line
Carrion isn’t especially long but it doesn’t outstay that welcome. Or At least, it shouldn’t. Having to go through everything a second time around definitely killed some of the buzz for me. However, it also made me think a lot more about how so much of what Carrion does is about conveying and embodying that fantasy of being the monster than anything else.
Even the areas where the game does frustrate - for example, through the absence of any in-game map - tie into that emulation of what things must be like on the other side of a pulpy, pixelated horror thriller.
Carrion finds a fresh-yet-familiar kind of fun within the process of translating superficial tropes of the genre into something more tangible and meaty.
Carrion is available now on PC, PS4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch.