Show us your half-spoiled meat.
Carrion‘s premise, while not entirely new, is an excellent one. There are few games that cater to the very specific power fantasy of playing as the monster in a horror movie, and many of them are multiplayer or mechanically mismatched. Carrion takes the direct approach: you are the flesh monster. The humans put you in a jar. Eat your way out. It’s as simple a premise as it is effective. Unfortunately for every positive I can name, I have to immediately qualify it with a “but”.
It begins with the presentation. The monster is a feast for the senses, with ever-shifting flesh spilling in every direction as tentacles rocket out and yank the mass from place to place as teeth gnash and meat noises splat. Every bit of your HP bar is reflected by the creature’s size, which is simultaneously immersive and useful. Unfortunately this also means some difficulties in play. Mechanically speaking, the thing moves via an ever-shifting center. That center is where enemies aim at and where damage is dealt. Unfortunately you can’t see that center, which means in combat maneuvering is dubious. Sometimes you’ll be able to zip straight into a vent, other times your meat’ll get stuck and shot to pieces before finally managing to scoot in. The game doesn’t feature platforming – the creature just climbs everywhere via tentacles – but even so you’ll occasionally bump your center into a screen transition by accident thanks to wobbly physics. It’s not broken, and in fact it’s usually fine, but it’s just wonky enough to be frustrating in tense moments.
The plot is simple but communicated well, with nary a line of dialog in the entire game to get in the way of its environmental storytelling. There are text alerts on screens throughout the facility, but beyond that everything that transpired is communicated to the player via what you see during your escape attempt. This approach is strong and remarkably rare in video games, which is why I was so disappointed that it was interrupted by human segments at several points where you see the past from a different perspective. While I appreciated that it still tells the story entirely in play, being forced out of your awesome meat-mode and having to use ladders like a chump felt awful by contrast. These flashbacks aren’t particularly numerous but they were never welcome, completely halting the game’s pacing every time they came up.
The single strongest ace in Carrion‘s hand is the combat, which is spectacle embodied. Humans use a wide variety of weapons and machinery that do all sorts of harm, but you have an even wider array of offensive and defensive options gained over the course of the game. Teeth, claws, webbing, tentacles, parasitic puppetry, and sheer force are all at your disposal. It’s typically easy and fairly low stakes as save points are common and often in adjacent rooms, but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying. Eventually enemies start having a variety of defenses that make them immune to simply being whipped around but the game never forces you to solve combats with only one method, which means every battle feels like a blank canvas primed and ready to be creatively splattered with gore like a particularly gruesome Pollock painting.
But, because there’s always a but with Carrion, the game’s Metroidvania-lite approach means that all those moves also have to function as traversal tools. This wouldn’t be an issue if you could just perform them whenever they were needed, but they’re restricted by the size of your mass. Need to shoot web at a switch? Better dump your meat off in a pool, then backtrack to pick up the meat and smash through a barrier because you can only do that when you’re bigger. Late in the game you’ll have to swap size constantly just to progress through a single room’s worth of obstacles. It’s never particularly cerebral or puzzly, just procedural and slow. Every area amounts to a certain number of save points you need to spread biomass to, which causes a percentage of a door to open, which you’ll eventually go through to access the next area. Lather, rinse, repeat.
You won’t be putting up with it for particularly long either. Carrion took me about 4 hours to complete, finding 5/9 of the optional upgrades, and occasionally getting lost in the map-less complex of doorways and one-way tubes. The game ends almost immediately after revealing the final ability (which I won’t name as it’s a very cool moment), one that could have been the most interesting in your meatwad’s kit had you been given time to play with it. There’s no final confrontation, no gauntlet of challenges, the game just stops as soon as it runs out of ideas. I appreciate restraint when used to keep ambition in check, but it felt like there was so much potential left on the cutting room floor here.
The highs and lows of Carrion average out to a tepid “meh”. If it was more focused on the combat I would likely recommend it anyway, but it’s all so stretched out over dull traversal and “puzzles” that I can’t. Irony of ironies, there’s just not enough meat on these bones.
Reviewed on PC via Xbox Game Pass.