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Carrion is the most disgusting video game I've ever played - and I mean that in the best possible way. The Devolver Digital-published reverse horror from Phobia Game Studio is a violent, gory delight that invites you to slither a mile in the shoes of one of the most wretched abominations that I've seen this year.
The concept is simple enough, but completely inspired in its execution. Carrion is a 2D metroidvania in which you take control of a small mass of writhing tentacles that resides within a mysterious underground research centre. Breaking free of your containment chamber, you scuttle and skitter from room to room, wreaking havoc, earning upgrades, and ultimately growing in size from a spidery little meatball to a hulking heap of gnashing teeth and thrashing tendrils.
What exactly this creature is or where it came from is unclear. There are one or two flashbacks that allude to its origins... but as with any good movie monster, where it came from is entirely unimportant and, ultimately, adds to its intrigue.
And make no mistake, this monster absolutely steals the show in every sense of the word. The design of the world it inhabits isn't without its problems, but controlling the beast as you guide it through a myriad of mazes, tunnels, and secret laboratories is an incredible experience.
At the merest nudge of the left control stick, the monster slips around with unbelievable speed, squeezing into the smallest vents, along ceilings, and through the water. With the right stick, you can reach out a slimy tendril to smash open doors, pull levers, and pull screaming humans into your mouth. I quite honestly have never controlled anything like it.
The way in which Phobia has made this creature feel so alien to steer around is quite something, to the point where it's genuinely quite difficult to describe the experience. When you really get the hang of things (which doesn't take long), you begin to feel like an actual extension of the foul beast - just another appendage carrying out its horrible deeds.
And what deeds they are. Whether this monster wants to escape from the facility it's in to cause further mayhem, or if it just wants to get out and reclaim its freedom is irrelevant. It - and you - will rip and tear through anything standing in the way of its goal.
You can approach "combat" in a number of ways, all of them worth trying out. While clearly a terrifying mass of chaos and death, the beast is not invulnerable. For most of the game then, your best bet is playing it smart. Scuttle into vents and wait for the right moment, leaping down to snatch one of your enemies away before dragging them back into the vent with you to devour them.
It's at this point I should give props to the incredible sound design, because Carrion wouldn't be the same without it. The screams of the terrified humans, paired with the slurping, crunching, and roaring of the monster make picking off your captors one by one such a satisfying way to play. Often, after you've taken out all but one human in a room, you'll hear the lone survivor gently sobbing as they wait for you to leap out of a vent and end it. It's as unsettling as it is empowering, weirdly.
As you pick up more upgrades, you'll ultimately be able to approach combat in a few more ways. Your final form, for instance, is very nearly unstoppable. You can simply come careering into a room full of enemies, smashing them against walls and tearing them apart in a chaotic blur of crimson splatters and agonised shrieks.
It can be a little hard to keep track of what's going on in these moments, but you can essentially mash buttons until the dust has settled... at which point you're left with an eerie silence and a room covered in blood and dismembered corpses. Coming off the back of The Last Of Us Part II, which really wanted to make us feel every murder and bad choice, it's kind of refreshing to have a game that simply shrugs and lets me mass murder as a giant spaghetti monster.
But as fun as that can be, Carrion is still at its best when you stick to the shadows and really mess with the humans. One particularly brilliant upgrade halfway through the game lets you take control of a human host while you lurk in a vent. This has some great uses for a handful of puzzles, but it's at its best in combat. As long as no other enemy has seen your tendril slide down and possess their mate, you can walk around completely undetected... until you decide to open fire and take the entire room out in an instant.
Ironically for a game about a monster trying to escape captivity, Carrion is ultimately held back by its environment - albeit only slightly. While there is a metroidvania-style sense of design to the world and some pretty clever puzzles, your progression through the maze is mostly linear outside of a few optional upgrades.
I have no issue with the way in which the game guides players through the world, mind you. It manages to lead you without ever telling you where to go for the vast majority of its four-five hour runtime. Unfortunately, that makes me all the more frustrating when you do take a wrong turn somewhere along the way. Unlike Samus Aran, our fleshy monster friend doesn't carry a map. This, coupled with the world's maze of one-way tunnels and similar-looking locations means you'll be stuck slithering between rooms for a good ten minutes before you find the right path again.
This wouldn't be too much of an issue if you could at least indulge in some harmless slaughter on the way back to your objective, but when you've cleared out a room of enemies, they're gone for good. Backtracking quickly becomes a chore in which all you're doing is silently dashing around and looking at all the half-eaten corpses from your last visit.
These minor niggles aside, Carrion is a title that I think is well worth checking out for the design of its monster alone, and the carnage you can cause together. It's been a rough year, and we all need to blow off some steam somehow. I just never quite expected that taking control of an otherworldly nightmare unit would be the cathartic experience i needed, but life comes at you fast. Much in the way that giant red tendrils can.
Pros: A terrifying lead character, controls unlike anything I've ever experienced, plenty of brutal combat with lots of ways to engage
Cons: Puzzles are a tad uninspired, world design feels a little dull compared to the monster, checkpoints can be a little frustrating
For fans of: Super Metroid, My Friend Pedro, John Carpenter's The Thing
Carrion was tested on Nintendo Switch with code supplied by the publisher. The game is released on July 23rd on Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch. Read a guide to our review scores here.
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