Apparently saying “I like making the people scream” gets you funny looks these days, but when you’re playing as a tentacled mass of toothed anuses in Carion you don’t have a lot of options. You’re absolutely a monster and there’s very little good lighting or high angles is going do to help this:
As you can probably tell by now, Carrion is basically ‘crappy monster movie: the game’. And it captures that straight to VOD magic of terrible but brilliant schlock beautifully. You can almost hear the rubber costume creak as you stalk and consume tiny screaming victims - erupting from air vents in a writhing mass of tentacles to feed, or slithering across the floor to the safety of a pipe when the flamethrowers come out. There’s a strong John Carpenter energy to it all that almost makes me sad at all the dead Kurt Russels and Jamie Lee Curtises I’ve probably left chewed up in my wake. There are no resourceful heroes or plucky young survivors getting out alive here.
A perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility
No, the star here is the creature and it is a beautifully realized thing. From the moment you take control it feels monstrous. The ability to thwip along ceilings and walls on a web of tentacles feels a lot like Spider-Man, if Peter Parker was a protoplasmic blob made of mouths. Simply slithering around, darting into pipes, or lifting up from the floor to scurry into a ceiling corner feels amazingly tactile, accompanied by the pleasingly whipping sound of tendrils lashing out in search of purchase. Terrorizing people is similarly great and hilariously over the top as your victims scream and run flailing or slump in a corner, frozen in terror and awaiting the mouths. The endless mouths.
How this translates into a gameplay challenge is a similarly pleasing thing, marred only by a lack of communication that can occasionally leave you reaching with every tentacle you have to work out what the game wants. Despite an excess of gore, limbs and screaming this is a puzzle game at heart, with the core aim to escape a shady underground lab one section at a time. There are doors to open, one-way tunnels to get back from and various barriers that can be overcome by different powers as you unlock them.
Gaining these different abilities transforms the environment around you as certain grates, or obstacles suddenly become something you can open. For example, one of your first abilities is a spider web-like projectile that lets you trap people and trip door switches through narrow blocks you can’t get through.
These sorts of abilities mean a level you’ve been crisscrossing for 20 minutes can suddenly change once you acquire a new power. Some random environmental detail, or frustrating out of reach door, takes on a new meaning and an area you assumed was finished takes on a new lease of life.
The indestructible creature! Bloated with the blood of its victims!
When it works there's a nice sense of expanding realization as you unpackage how your surroundings have altered, but sparse communication means it’s not always immediately obvious what you’re meant to do or how some things work. Bar some opening text explaining the very basics of movement and eating people, nothing else is explained and on several occasions I found myself backtracking endlessly trying to work out what part of the level I haven’t interacted with yet or what I’ve missed. When you do work out the thing you need to solve a puzzle or tricky section it can feel amazing but Carrion doesn’t always make things clear, leaving you trying everything to see what sticks. Combined with the lack of a map helping you get lost in a nest of air vents, tunnels and water pipes there are occasionally mildly frustrating breaks in an otherwise excellent flow. These lessen as you progress but largely because you’ll be remembering how you got stuck before.
These stalls are at least intermittent and rarely get in the way of the monster fun times for long. While there are puzzles to solve and enemies to defeat, the core of being a monster and shredding your way through screaming victims never gets old as new powers appear. You can turn invisible, for example, or generate a spiny shell to impale anyone you smash into - both of which require energy drained from electrical panels you’ll need to find and reach. A vital movement skill you unlock gives you the ability to turn into worms underwater and swarm through grates you couldn’t otherwise pass (usually once you’ve worked out how to redirect water flow). The absolute top drawer power though, has to be Parasitism, letting you take over a human victim, or body, and puppet them on the end of a tentacle. If no one sees you do it, you can just walk into secured areas unbothered. And, if you possess someone with a gun? Well, perhaps not everyone will get eaten. At first.
I dunno what the hell's in there, but it's weird and pissed off
One of the cleverest things Carrion does with all this is the way it defuses an obvious design problem: if eating people makes you bigger, how do you avoid ‘being as big as possible’ becoming the aim. Combat, for example, sees your creature whittled away by gunshots or flamethrower damage, dying if its body mass hits zero. The instinct is obviously to eat everyone you can and bulk up all the time. However, certain powers are only available at specific sizes - you can only fire out that switch flicking web as a smaller blob for example. Once you tip over into a bigger size the ability is replaced with a lunging smash that is the only way to destroy certain doors. You can only become invisible when small as well, swapping it for the impaling spikes when larger. (There’s also a third size tier with other abilities that you’ll have to discover for yourself.)
It’s an ingenious idea because it ensures biggest isn’t always best, and forces you to strategically manage your size to change abilities and solve problems. You’re able to dump biomass into pools of water, losing mass when needed, that you can return to and consume if you need to be bigger again. In the later stages of the game, it becomes clear just how much of a puzzle box each level becomes as barriers that have existed for the entire game suddenly become removable as you juggle abilities to open things up.
Those layers make Carrion more than just a monastery gimmick. It never stops being a blast to erupt from an air vent in a swirling mass of tentacles, snaffling up screaming people like bloody pick’n’mix. There’s an endlessly pleasing tactility to ‘being’ the monster and using its abilities, but there’s more than just a mindless organism here. Moving through levels and working out how to progress provides a lot of rewarding puzzles to solve. A challenge that improves constantly as you unlock more abilities. It’s a unique, and darkly funny game that manages to make its weird idea work beautifully well.