Most of the time the phrase “less is more” isn’t used hand-in-hand with “over the top,” but Carrion is a rare exception. Phobia Game Studio’s reverse-horror game published by Devolver Digital places you in control of a sinister ball of noodles with teeth, and then leaves you to your own devices as you gradually grow in physical size and develop a respectable amount of new ways to kill people by taking a quick bath in toxic waste. Rather than tossing a bunch of half-baked ideas into the game, Carrion instead takes what it’s good at and perfects it, resulting in a blood-soaked masterclass in building core gameplay mechanics.
The first thing you’ll notice about the game when you take control is how good it feels just to move around. Seeing the monster’s tentacles sticking to the walls and ceilings in time with your motion is incredibly satisfying for some reason, and while I’m sure this feels even better with mouse and keyboard controls, the Nintendo Switch version of the game is able to deliver that same sense of fluidity as you slither through the corridors of the research facility.
Enemies halt your escape from the lab mostly in the form of human characters and drones, and while the monster is powerful on its own, you won’t be able to just plough through and eat everything. Well, you can eat the humans, (which is also really satisfying, I promise I’m not a psychopath) but as you progress they’ll arm themselves with pistols, rifles and energy shields, which requires you to approach with either stealth or at least some sort of plan.
Upgrades are interesting in Carrion, because unlike in many action games, you don’t just forget your old abilities once you gain stronger, better ones. Carrion insists that you use them all to solve all the puzzles that unlock new areas, but you can only have a certain level of upgrades at a time. You’ll occasionally have to forfeit your larger body and its upgrades in order to reach a switch or punch through a wall. While I do enjoy this idea, the game’s lack of a minimap does hinder this a bit after you put some hours in, since the maps get larger and there’s more and more you have to remember. Some players might not have as much of an issue with this, but personally I’ve never been great at backtracking by pure memory in these Metroidvania type games. That being said, the variety of upgrades makes an already visceral and engaging combat system even better. I might even go so far as to say I would’ve enjoyed the game more if it was more focused on just eating people and ambushing them in their offices, listening to them scream and beg for their lives like pathetic little insects before I throw them into the wall over and over and over again with my powerful tentacles…Anyway.
The concept and gameplay of Carrion are definitely over the top, but the “less is more” comes into play narratively and in the sound design. Environmental clues like scrolling signs, alarms and screens let you know how much havoc you’re causing, and where tasty survivors might be hiding. A moody, ambient soundtrack hums in the background while the disturbing crunch of breaking bones fills anyone within earshot with dread.
The only breaks you get from destruction are brief flashbacks where you play as a researcher who discovers the monster. There isn’t much to say; you’re a creature that gets subjected to awful experiments and eventually you take your revenge, but the flashbacks do help flesh out the world a bit and get you used to control humans, since you do get to hijack bodies later in the game.
Carrion is simple yet challenging, confined yet momentum-driven, and overall a fantastic twist on the indie 2D action game. The highly detailed pixelated art style can make it a little more difficult to see when playing the Switch version in handheld mode, and aiming is a lot easier when using the Pro controller, but when docked, Carrion is perfect for players wanting a roughly 10-15 hour game that blends ultraviolence with problem-solving. I honestly can’t think of anything like it, and the monster’s controls are almost worth the very reasonable $20 price of admission alone. If you’re tired of being the good guy (or of being a person at all), and need a little catharsis, I couldn’t recommend Carrion more.
- Fluid, satisfying movement
- Great art direction that serves both world-building and gameplay
- Upgrades make already fun and challenging combat even more so
- Backtracking can be tedious with no minimap
- Not much variety in puzzles or enemy types
- Somewhat harder to play in Nintendo Switch’s handheld mode