Carrion Is the Perfect Break From Horror

I love horror games, but I associate a certain fatigue with them. They are, after all, typically designed to get your body in a very intense state of being. When Amnesia: The Dark Descent started whipping out the monster sequences, I could usually only play for an hour at a time before every part of my body compelled me to stop. I adore Little Nightmares 2, but that entire game feels like you’re sneaking around a government base, waiting for the moment in which you’re suddenly discovered and shot. If you wanted to boil down the design philosophy of these games, you could probably do it in about four words: You never feel safe. I love these games! My brain hates them!

“Hide and Run From the Monster” is basically the ethos of survival horror. Amnesia and Little Nightmares have a pretty typical formula of puzzles overlaid with the presence of Something, typically Something That Looks Mutilated And Weird, Who Is Very Mad At You. So, a simple trek to get a lever or a tentacle-melting serum is punctuated by the presence of Mr. Mutilation, who will pursue you or, perhaps worse, not notice you, forcing you to cope with the fact that he will pursue you if you fuck up and knock the vase next to the tentacle-melting serum over. When a game has closets you can open and close that conveniently leave you enough space to stand in, my suggestion is to exit the game and play something more wholesome. Maybe Mario.

You don’t have to sadistically taunt your victims before you eat ’em, but you might anyway.

The overwhelming sense of powerlessness that pervades most horror is something that Carrion — developed by Phobia Game Studio and published by Devolver Digital, and itself billed as a “reverse horror game” — made good note of. A lot of horror games are sorta fundamentally like a game of hide and seek where the seeker is an asshole who won’t give you a turn. You power through the game anyway not just to win and wipe that goddamn smirk off their face, but also because you hate their guts so much that you hope for the chance to one day turn the tables on them with a clever eye for environment hazards (there’s nothing quite like trapping a pursuer in Little Nightmares 2 in a furnace, which is sorta where the hide and seek metaphor gets disturbing so I’d recommend you stop thinking about it). But still, we wanna seek at some point. This is how I think a bunch of player-driven vaguely murdery shit — GMod’s Murder Mystery and Trouble in Terrorist Town, not to mention the ever-popular Among Us — got big. Carrion is very smartly like playing as the murderer/imposter/terrorist of the state in those games, minus the wait between rounds, the alternate roles, and the political subtext.

I genuinely feel sorry for them. Sometimes.

In Carrion, you get to be the horror monster. The results of that are explored as much as you could possibly want them to, making it one of the most cathartic games I’ve played in forever. Now you’re Mr. Mutilation, killing screaming people for no real good reason beyond the fact that they’re there, or better yet, for Playing With Forces Beyond Their Comprehension. It scratched such an essential itch that so many horror games have left in me; the weird thoughts I had while standing uncomfortably in those mysteriously-sized closets, thinking “man, he must be having fun out there.” Now I know he was. The fucking bastard.

Of course, there are fun monsters and not-so-fun monsters, so picking the proper horror movie archetypes is important. Carrion’s particular monster is a delightful mass of prehensile tentacles, tendrils, and teeth. You move omni-directionally by simply clicking down and watching as your amorphous blob hooks and drags itself across the floor, walls, and ceiling, squeezing through cracks and knocking aside all sorts of important-looking equipment. In Carrion, your goals are to kill, feed, explore, and grow. The only real story in the game is told through delightful flashback sequences centring on a classic Research Expedition Gone Wrong, and your own motivations are largely that of a hungry but particularly clever animal. Even watching the (delightful) trailer largely reveals every surprise the game has to offer. There really aren’t earth-shaking additions to Carrion’s setting and formula. Just more and more carnage, and that’s swell!

The lighting in this game is honestly gorgeous.

Carrion isn’t just a brain turn-offy gore-fest, though. It’s what people would typically call a Metroidvania game, which means you’ll be exploring a big, interconnected map, solving a few puzzles, and accessing new areas via new abilities gained by progressing through each environment. It’s worth mentioning that Carrion is possibly the simplest iteration of that genre I’ve ever played, though in a very good way. If your interest is getting to the end, backtracking is rarely if ever a necessity, with the rough path of the game’s progression eagerly leading you in a mostly uninterrupted trek from area to area, putting you right in the path of wherever you need to go or return to next. There are some optional upgrades that do require you to keep exploring previous locations on your own, which give you a fun edge but are largely ignorable unless you want something extra to do.

Where Carrion really shines is the combat. You might feel invincible dragging yourself from room to room, but the reality is a lot more grounded than that. Carrion starts by letting you drag off unarmed schlubs to be viciously torn apart (and used as improvised projectiles or bludgeoning tools, if you’re like me), but before long it layers additional threats onto its range of hapless researchers. You’ll eventually encounter people toting guns, flamethrowers, and even armour that’s too thick to eat through. Bursting into a room baring your teeth feels cool until someone blasts you with fire and you need to slink off to take a quick bath. It’s here where you’ll get the most out of Carrion: Clearing out areas methodically, probing for weak points, and attempting to quietly take out the mostly readily armed targets until a room is vulnerable enough to be stormed. The best rooms in Carrion feel like a puzzle without actually being one just through challenging your ability to be a scary, meticulous, and smart horror villain.

The game knows exactly what you’re going to do here every time. I love it.

And God, did I mention how delightfully fucked-up this game is? My favourite moment in Carrion was when I ripped a dude’s spine out by slamming him against the wall a bunch and then chucked it at a nearby soldier, knocking him on the ground and making for an easy kill. My second was when I opened an upgrade canister by grabbing a discarded, half-eaten body and started hitting it against the glass. The game has an entire library of varied, bloodcurdling screams that teeter on the perfect line between being satisfying in the moment and making you feel sorta fucking awful when playing them back. It’s impossible not to get sucked into the game’s loop of creature feature ass shenanigans. You can tell Carrion loves lining your path from A to B with everything from unassuming people in bathroom stalls to plenty of gunless, hapless scientists who exist to, quite literally, give you your fill of the horror movie vibes.

That being said, I don’t think anything demonstrates the game’s dedication to feeling like a horror movie quite as well as its health system. You initially start with five hexagons at the top of your screen as a rough denotation of how much punishment you can take, refilled (of course) by eating people. It’s actually more of a mass meter, since you physically shrink at lower health, but grow as you gain it. Where this gets cool is when you’ve gained enough upgrades to add additional hexagons to your meter. These aren’t just upgrades to your mass and health, but new forms, rounding out the game with multiple organic (nice) approaches to causing general chaos and mayhem.

Your initial form is amazing for sneaky horror takedowns and disabling prey from long ranges, but comes with the danger tradeoff of low health. Bigger forms come with their own benefits, such as more health and devastating attacks, but also limit some of your previously available strategies. Every form is required to solve puzzles (which can lead to instances where the game forces you to give up mass and then travel through an area with inedible armed guards), but it’s the spur of the moment where things get really nuts. You might go into a combat arena fully juiced on health/mass, only to get absolutely blasted by a machine gun, forcing you to switch from brute force to more methodical, calculated attacks in your smaller form. The riskier inverse is entering a fight grossly underpowered and replenishing enough to yourself to start going absolutely apeshit. Carrion’s health system isn’t a measure of success or failure, but just another way the game smartly railroads your perception of the combat. I mean, the initial problem posed by the premise is how you force the player to do interesting things if they’re basically The Blob with teeth, right? It fixes that in one swing.

Industrial, sciency environments make up the bulk of the game. Thankfully, they don’t end up feeling too samey.

It’s not perfect, though! The main complaint is the lack of a map system, forcing you to go off memory and context clues to move ahead or backtrack for upgrades. If you’re laser-focused on where the game is leading you, or have a mind for more map-focused exploration games like Super Metroid or Hollow Knight, it’s not a huge problem, but don’t be afraid to open up a fan walkthrough if you ever get totally lost. I understand why it doesn’t have a map — you’re basically an animal — but I would’ve been fine with the game cheating its premise here. Additionally, the game’s final areas, though fun, didn’t feel as properly climactic as they could’ve been. I was waiting for the ball to drop and lead to some big challenge or boss that would’ve properly tested all of the different forms and abilities I’d gradually learned, but no dice. It’s not disappointing! Just not as cool as it had the potential to be.

Carrion is a delight. I’d especially recommend it as a companion piece to particularly intense horror games. The 4–5 hour campaign might be a put-off for some, but I feel it manages to end right when it would start overstaying its welcome. Plus, there’s custom level support and a DLC campaign. It’s well worth your time!

Try not to make too big of a mess! The janitors are still alive, so that sucks for them.

Carrion is available on Steam, the Epic Games Store, and GOG. It’s also on Xbox Game Pass for PC!

Writing self-indulgently about video games and what they’ve meant to me, or others, along the way.