Carrion Review: Monstrously Fun Power-Fantasy Gets Lost in the Maze

Reverse horror game Carrion is a new retro-styled 2D horror game developed by Phobia Game Studio and published by Devolver Digital. The game is available now on Xbox Game Pass for Xbox and Windows 10. The game features wonderfully detailed art, satisfying combat, enjoyable puzzles, and unfortunately, frustratingly labyrinthine level design.

As a reverse horror game, Carrion makes you the monster.

Become The Monster

As a reverse horror game, Carrion makes you the monster. The most terrifying monster you can imagine: a bloody amorphous abomination of teeth and tentacles. Thump. Thump. The humans can hear you moving through the air ducts. Blood drips through the ceiling into the room below. One of the humans begins to cry. You burst through a vent, a dozen tentacles shoot out, whipping your massive body across the room. There’s a cacophony of horror: a blood-curdling scream, the crack of pistol shots, a thump as your web pins one of them to the wall. The light bulb bursts and you crash through computer equipment in a shower of sparks. In the dim red emergency light, they shriek as your tentacles drag them across the floor into your mouths. Blood, body parts, and green slime shower the room. Silence.

Carrion is a masterpiece of sadistic details. The screams are chilling, the imagery gruesome, and Carrion invites you to savor it all like the subtle flavors of a fine wine. This is a game for people who love horror films. It draws heavily from the visual language of John Carpenter’s 1982 classic The Thing, as well as from the Alien movies. The eerie soundtrack suits the game perfectly, and the sound effects are excellent.

There’s not much of a story: you are a monster that escapes from an underground lab. You do learn the monster’s origins in a series of flashbacks where you play as a human scientist and do some basic platforming and puzzle solving. The concept is simple and it works for this kind of game.

Simple and Satisfying Controls

It is odd to play a 2D game where traversing the levels is so easy. Simply move the control stick in any direction and the monster uses its tentacles to float through the air. The focus of the gameplay isn’t platforming, but interacting with game world objects and enemies. The right thumbstick moves your reticule, and you use the right trigger to grab onto an object or enemy. The intricate game world reacts wonderfully to your actions, chains hanging from the ceiling rattle as you pass, you can throw objects across the room to crush enemies, or grab a human by the leg and whip them against the wall. It mostly works great, but sometimes the monster moves so fast, and the tentacle reticule so slow, it feels imprecise in combat, and it’s sometimes difficult to get the monster to do exactly what you want.

As you progress, you acquire new abilities, such as mind control, invisibility, and a web attack, to name a few. Gobbling up humans makes you bigger, unlocking certain powers, but disabling others. You can strategically deposit your biomass in pools of water to use certain abilities available only when you are small, like invisibility, but it comes at the cost of lowering your health. You use these abilities to solve puzzles, and defeat newer more powerfully equipped enemies. The humans eventually take a page from Ellen Ripley’s playbook and equip themselves with flamethrowers and giant mechs. More abilities and scenarios provide an amusing sandbox for you to find creative new ways to kill your prey. While satisfying, the combat mechanics aren’t particularly deep, and I was rarely forced to change up my standard hit and run tactics.

Carrion’s levels are filled with door and lever puzzles

The Real Horror is the Level Design

As you might expect from a science fiction horror game, the setting is a vast labyrinth of corridors, tunnels, air shafts, and sewage pipes. Carrion takes a metroidvania-esque approach, barring certain paths until you unlock certain abilities. This non-linear level design necessarily means that there is a lot of backtracking involved. While there is some variety in the game’s areas, many of the rooms and hallways look largely identical. Here’s the kicker: there’s no map . . . .

If wandering around aimlessly for 30 minutes or an hour is a deal breaker for you, then you should absolutely not play Carrion. Unless you play with a guide or plan to draw maps like in the days of classic PC adventure games, you will get horribly lost in Carrion’s maze. It’s not unlikely that you will spend a great portion of your playthrough going from room to room, wondering which of the hundreds has some puzzle or secret passage you haven’t found yet. To make matters worse, interactable objects sometimes blend in very well with the detailed backgrounds, and you may pass by quite a few times before you realize what you need to do.

It would have been so easy to add a map, or an objective marker, or a clue system, or something to prevent this needless frustration. It is sad that the game’s many great moments are hidden inside an often tedious and unforgiving maze.

In playable flash backs you discover the monster’s origins

Is Carrion for You?

If you are easily frustrated, or don’t like getting lost in video games, Carrion probably isn’t for you. The game is fairly short, only 5 hours or so, and the mechanics are simple enough that there likely isn’t much in the way of replay value. But this is where Xbox Game Pass comes in. If you’re a subscriber, there’s no harm in downloading the game (it’s less than 1GB) and giving it a go.

As a reverse horror game, Carrion feels like something of a companion piece to this year’s Maneater, another power-fantasy where you play the movie monster, except Maneater is inspired by the likes of Jaws and Deep Blue Sea. If you enjoyed Maneater, you’ll likely enjoy Carrion. If you can look past Carrion’s flaws, there is great fun to be had in gobbling up defenseless humans.

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