‘Carrion’ review: a blood-soaked sci-fi horror that loses its way

Its intriguing become-the-monster premise peters out all too soon

Picture Aliens from the Xenomorph’s perspective or, more aptly, the entity from ’80s sci-fi horror The Thing. A fleshly, amorphous blob, you’ll escape the vat jar in your lab, slink off into the ventilation shafts to grow and morph, before returning to massacre Kurt Russell and all of his scientist mates.

That’s Carrion in a nutshell, you play the monster. It’s a fantastic premise that shows a lot of early promise as you squeeze yourself into gaps around a massive maze-like facility and jump out at guards.

Carrion review
Carrion. Credit: Ewan Wilson

Carrion looks and sounds great too. The pixel art graphics glow like a 1980s CRT monitor, whilst the dramatic soundtrack is haunting, with booming, resonating hints of Jóhann Jóhannsson.

Movement is quick, smooth and undulating. You shift and glide through 2D spaces, tendrils sprouting from your globular body and splaying against surfaces like meaty anchors. There’s some great details: the sound of light bulbs bursting as you slink by, the chains in the background rattling as you writhe towards your next victim, the manic shrieks of scientists, and, of course, the masses of warm gore you leave in your trail.

When you’ve closed in on your prey you can use your tentacle to sweep them off their feet and pull them towards you and consume. Suddenly your bloody blob bears a great toothy maw, or several. Alternatively, like me you may prefer to pull ventilation grills from walls to use like a flail and then devour whatever bits are left over after the pummeling stops.

As you feast, you bloom. There are two further stages of transformation, each of them bigger and more grotesque than the last. Eventually your small crimson clump will turn into a squirming mass that can fill a room and is often leaving a vent shaft at the same time as it’s entering.

Carrion review
Carrion. Credit: Ewan Wilson

Carrion’s cleverest trick is that previous forms never become defunct. Sometimes it becomes optimal to shed excess biomass, leaving bits of yourself in underwater lairs to return to later.

Different transformations acquire different abilities as you pilfer labs for biological material. The small blob can eventually turn invisible and fire webs like one of Spiderman’s Symbiotes, whilst the medium blob smashes through large obstacles and, my favourite, can sprout spikes that impale enemies on contact. Your final form has a defensive ability that makes it near-impervious and able to weather hails of flamethrower and machine gun fire. It also comes with an ultimate attack where its massive tentacles spike everything in a room leaving everything a bloody mess.

Finally, the monster possesses the ability to toss out a parasite that can slither through small spaces and infect soldiers who can then be turned on their pals. At some points, Carrion even allows you to mind control guards and slip into the game’s equivalent of the Power Loader mech from Aliens.

While it can be fun to return to earlier forms – I think the small blob is great, if only because it retains that slow tension you want in a horror game – transforming also becomes increasingly frustrating.

Carrion review
Carrion. Credit: Ewan Wilson

You see, if a third of Carrion is stalking your prey, with the occasional violent catharsis of decimating a room full of soldiers, the rest of the game involves monotonously moving back and forth in order to yank levers that open blast doors to progress. You’ll be forced to wind your way through facility after facility, all of which blur into one another, save perhaps for the one botanical area that’s always a guaranteed stand-out sci-fi environment.

Carrion quickly begins to shed the majority of its mystique and lethality, as you rack your brain trying to figure out what form of entity is needed and what steps need to be taken in order to solve door-puzzle after door-puzzle.

Smart monsters can be a frightening concept, as seen when the Xenomorph figures out it can escape its concrete prison by using its acidic blood to burn a tunnel into existence. But imagine that part of the film through the eyes of the alien… as it sits in its cell figuring it all out like some double-jawed detective. There’s no quicker way to kill horror than through rationalisation.

Carrion review
Carrion. Credit: Ewan Wilson

Like Metroid, Carrion is also a game of locks and keys, only here the key is usually a flavour of tentacle. I don’t think it quite works. An hour or so of tense predator-prey interaction, culminating in some climactic carnage would’ve worked wonders, but as is, Carrion just has far too much meat on its bones.

It’s transformed into a cumbersome, back-track heavy, puzzle-centric Metroidvania (one without a map I might add, because monsters go by feeling) that lumbers on for far longer than needed. While you may control the perfect organism, Carrion itself is some distance from that same standard.

‘Carrion’ is available now on PC, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch.

Our Verdict

Carrion is an intriguing, blood-soaked Metroidvania with a strong premise, but it just isn’t able to sustain the horror and tension for its entire running-time. With a few too many ponderous traversal puzzles and some frustrating back tracking, it ends up losing its way.

Pros

  • Great become-the-monster premise
  • Captures that ’80s sci-fi horror atmosphere
  • Visuals are a gory treat, and the sound of whipping tentacles never gets old
  • Excellent orchestral soundtrack

Cons

  • Horror and tension quickly dissipates
  • Levels blur into one another, and it’s easy to lose your way without a map
  • Far too many lever-and-door based puzzles for a game about playing a carnivorous monster

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