About a year ago, several developers and publishers launched a series of game demos for the Game Awards. I recorded a bunch of footage for these and wanted to do a few “hot takes”, but found myself drowning in classwork and work…work. But, one game that definitely stood out to me was Carrion, a nice little indie game about playing a mutated blob of gore and terrorizing the local scientist population. I was intrigued by the gimmick of playing the monster instead of running from it, and I was excited to see where it all went. Now that it’s out, and available on Game Pass, I figured I’d revisit this little treasure. Does it hold up, or will this monster game end up dead on arrival?
Part One: Story
Now, I didn’t go in expecting much in the way of story. I mean, outside of a ravenous hunger that needs to be satiated, what kind of story does a goo blob have, except as the conclusion to several hundred scientists? Color me impressed if I wasn’t wrong… mostly. At key points in the game, you uncover what I could literally describe as Plot Devices, that show you flashbacks to some set of scientists and corporate types excavating the area. I assume this is meant to be the stand in for the story, and provides a bit more depth to the character of the blob (which is getting a bit repetitive, I think it may be time to call him Frederick or something).
So these scientist types are digging around where they don’t belong, and somehow unleash Frederick upon the world. At this point, my eyes begin, unfortunately, to glaze over. The problem with focusing on story in a game like this is that there is very little in the way of empathy here; I can’t empathize with the scientists because I’m spending most of my game time mowing them down relentlessly, and I can’t empathize with Frederick the Meat Blob because it’s tough to empathize with an insidious creature plowing through scientists that sit cowering in fear.
I’m also more than a bit disconnected by the handling of these flashbacks. Were they just cutscenes, I may have been able to get behind a creature infecting a computer to gain insider knowledge, but the way it plays takes me entirely out of the plot dump. But, we’ll get more into that in the next section. For now, suffice to say, my gripes about the story aren’t that indicative of the quality of the whole game, though having a dearth of story content does detract somewhat from the pacing.
Part Two: Gameplay
For indie games in particular, I’m most excited about new and experimental ideas for gameplay. Unique Selling Points mean so much to me because they are the aspects of gaming that can sometimes vastly improve the medium, or at the very least shift the industry. With Carrion, we get a very interesting take of sidescrolling “platformers”, by removing the need for jumping and most of the need for attacking. With Frederick having no discernable front or back, our movement is largely based around gliding across the map, being propelled by tentacles. You search the map for means of progressing to new map segments, and gain health by crunching down on cowering humans. It’s a pretty morbid affair, but intensely satisfying once you get the hang of the movement style. I was very impressed by the effortlessness displayed while backtracking through sections I’d been before.
However, backtracking will occur a bit too often. Usually in these open-ended sidescrollers, exploration is the way to uncover the way forward, and this game is very similar. The problem for Carrion, though, lies in the map layout and the lack of a map on your HUD. My girlfriend gave up on the game after an hour or so of play when she got stuck on where she needed to go, and couldn’t figure it out despite backtracking and retracing her steps. Part of this is due to the game’s insistence of portaling you to different locations every few map segments, leading to a bit of confusion as to where things are in relation to each other. Combined with a lack of minimap and a lack of enemy respawns means that you’ll end up spending a ton of time mindlessly flying through empty screens, looking for the one way to advance to a new area, often stumbling upon the answer only after looking through every level for the “key” to the puzzle, more often than not a wall that can be broken or a lever that you couldn’t access the first time through.
Combat is serviceable, and it’s fun to fling folks about and devour them as you see fit. However, at time of writing, I’ve yet to face any mortal threat, and I find most of the challenge coming from the awkwardness of the controls. I repeatedly find myself struggling to operate my grabbing tentacles in the way that I want to, leading to many occasions where I’m aware of the method to defeat a foe but am held back by my controls. The health regen on consuming humans is a nice touch, but I wish I needed to do it more often, as I never dip below full health except when I bungle the tentacle grabbing.
All in all, my experience with Carrion in the gameplay department is met with both applause and mild disappointment. I’d love to see the gameplay expanded upon, but it would not be remiss to sand off a few of the rough edges. Potentially giving us a soft lock on human targets with the tentacles, or perhaps even allowing us to attack by flying directly into foes. Needless to say, I was excited by the aspect of being the monster, and I’d love to see more games taking this reversed role.
Part Three: Presentation
Now this is where Carrion truly shines. I was floored the first time I consumed a human being, and it still feels new every time it happens. You get this brilliant splash of red, combined with the most disgusting crunching sounds… I know it sounds a bit off-putting, but that’s exactly what Carrion goes for, and it really nails it. I’m not usually one for gore or massive creep-factor, but at no point did I feel queasy while playing. Carrion manages to effectively make an art form out of gritty 80’s horror, and I’m very impressed. The sound design is very on point, too, with satisfying slithering slipping into your ears every time you begin crawling around. The cries of innocent humans pierces through the chaotic scrambling through metal ducts, and you can feel the fear and anticipation.
Saving your progress is sickeningly juicy, creeping into nests of gore to store your mass and creating restore points on the off-chance you perish. I enjoy the HUD as well, with its very minimalist aesthetic. I’ve never been a fan of massive info-dumps during my gameplay, and Carrion keeps things to a minimum, though it could use a bit more info (a minimap, for instance).
Part Four: Cohesion and Conclusion
With the previous review, I talked about how good cohesion can bring an otherwise average game to excellence. Carrion does seem to struggle with this, though. The story aspects don’t really mesh well with the gory mindless slaying. The minimal HUD doesn’t mesh well with the confusing map. The interesting and unique fighting style doesn’t mesh well with the lack of enemy respawn or complexity.
By no means is Carrion a bad game. The sum of its parts should be more fun, but I don’t have the same amount of interest that I did during its demo release. I love most of each aspect of the game, from the visual style to the intriguing playstyle, from the twisted narrative to the superb sound design. But for whatever reason, this isn’t giving me as much satisfaction as I’d like. Many were upset that the game would release at only a few hours of content, and while we’re going to talk about game length in a future article, Carrion is one game where I feel as though six hours of play is perfectly adequate, if even a little longer. Perhaps this game could’ve been given the roguelite treatment and been saved by a procedurally generated challenge run? It’s anyone’s guess, too be honest. I mostly enjoyed this short little game, but I would consider it a brief aside to a major focus.