Surrounded by walls on all sides, with only a yellow light to illuminate the chamber, a lone vat sits. As figures in hazmat suits mill about in adjacent rooms, the sound of shattering glass pierces through the deafening silence. Panic ensues as a spidery mass of crimson tendrils emerges from the broken vat and escapes through a ventilation shaft.
This is the opening scene of Phobia Studio’s latest video game, “Carrion.” The premise is simple: A hideous mass of writhing flesh and gaping maws breaks out of the bowels of a remote research facility, and begins stalking those unfortunate enough to cross its path. The creature is constantly adapting, learning how to assume control of the bodies of its victims, spew projectiles out of its body and even perfectly mimic a human being. Essentially, it’s the plot of John Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece “The Thing.” There’s one small twist, though: You’re the monster.
Marketed as a “reverse-horror” game, “Carrion” is a gloriously gory monsterfest, in which multitudes of humans with guns and flamethrowers pose no real threat to your noodly beast as you unlock doors, gain power ups and, most importantly of all, eat your prey. It’s a ridiculous premise, and doesn’t exactly have anything meaningful to say, but the developers embraced this, throwing themselves (and the game) into the arms of the typical mindless and campy ‘80s monster movie. As a consequence, the game doesn’t take itself seriously, and you’re invited to evilly giggle as you rip poor souls in half and whip them around like ragdolls with your giant tentacles. Victims in one room will cartoonishly scream and run with their arms flailing behind them while people in the room directly next to them will sometimes act as if everything is completely normal. You ram your disgusting body into humans piloting goofy looking battle robots before swallowing a massive ball of uranium to open a door in a nuclear power plant. The gravity of the carnage you’re inflicting is thrown out the window when everything you do is so over the top.
All of the disgusting chewing and growling noises you make throughout the game are set against the backdrop of a visually impressive interconnected world. You can explore the areas in the research complex in whatever order you’d like, and you progress by using your powerups to overcome obstacles. As you crawl your way through the facility, you unlock shortcuts to previous areas that contain upgrades, encouraging backtracking and more thorough investigation. As a result, the game is an interesting mix of the exploration-heavy “Metroidvania” game genre and the carnage-heavy “slasher” film genre.
This campy premise is further enhanced by the beautifully pixelated visuals and the solid pacing. The monster itself grows and shrinks throughout the game, with each size having different capabilities (for example, the smallest size can turn invisible, while the largest size can grow body armor). “Carrion” uses this to its advantage, forcing the player to switch between sizes to solve the various environmental puzzles throughout the game. Each form of the monster alters gameplay significantly, so the constant back-and-forth between forms helps break up some of the monotony of all the chomping you do.
There’s a smooth sense of progression that comes with these forms. Starting out as a relatively vulnerable abomination prods the player to be more strategic when approaching new scenarios, minimizing exposure to any armed prey by crawling through vents. Thus, achieving full-fledged nightmare status feels like genuine growth, and is all the more satisfying for it.
However, the real strength of “Carrion” is in the creativity the game allows players to have. The player can grab hold of objects, taunt prey into entering rooms alone, rip flooring out from under enemies and trap victims in webs. Those scenes in horror movies where you yell at stupid characters not to do stupid things can be routinely recreated throughout “Carrion,” and in the place of the tension that’s present in a standard horror film, there is anticipation and eager planning. The varied level design in tandem with the arsenal of unique powerups gives the player a wide breadth of options when considering how to clear a room. Whether that means hiding in the ceiling air ducts and yoinking unsuspecting personnel into the rafters or wildly swinging an unhinged door around the room, the player is given directorial power, able to film his or her own monster flick.
In spite of its successes, there are several areas in which “Carrion” falls short. The most egregious of the game’s sins is the lack of a mapping system. The open-ended world design of “Carrion” allows for a lot of possibilities, but the game fumbles trying to deliver on those possibilities. It’s remarkably easy to get lost in the winding hallways and caverns of the research complex, and given the amount of back-and-forth the game requires of the player, this becomes problematic as the player discovers new areas, and thus, new places to get lost. Though not all games need maps (take 2012’s “Journey” as an example), when a game is designed to encourage frequent backtracking through complicated routes, the lack of a map can make said game needlessly frustrating.
There’s one point in particular that comes to mind for me. You’ve just gained a powerup that allows you to break through wooden barriers, and a green exit sign lights up next to a doorway. You go through the doorway, hit a bunch of dead ends, then give up and come back to the door you came through. Rinse and repeat this a few times before you go in the opposite direction, happen upon a completely unmemorable and remote room you passed by earlier, and realize that this was actually where you were supposed to go. It grinds the momentum to a screeching halt, ripping the player from that blissful state of immersion.
The rest of the game’s flaws are relatively minor in comparison. The main game can be completed within a few hours, short enough to where it’s probably not worth the $20 price tag, but long enough for the gameplay to get stale. There are only so many ways to chase and eat people, and soon you’ll have recreated pretty much every cheesy monster flick out there. The anticlimactic finale is what drags the one dimensional gameplay out into the open. While most of the game is spruced up by interesting room layouts or intriguing puzzles, the last act has you smashing into hordes of researchers and scientists, all of whom are utterly defenseless against you, a 10 ton mass of tentacles and terror. At first, it was fun, but in large doses, it becomes clear that this simple premise can only be stretched so far without adding other elements.
All that being said, I had a pretty good time with “Carrion.” In spite of its many flaws, the game embraced the goofy premise and took it all the way. I’ve always said “You know, I wish there were more games that allowed you to rip through a shady research facility as a grotesque blood-red mass of flesh and teeth,” and Phobia Studios was able to grant that wish, and provided a bit of fun along the way.