The scariest parts of a monster movie are often the moments before the creature strikes. The ratcheting tension as a shadow flits across the background; a distant creak, crack, or scream; the moment where the hapless victim feels something behind them and stops dead in their tracks as the beast gurgles and they notice the trail of blood on the wall.
Carrion lives within these moments. By casting you as the monster, it lets you be the architect of that scene where the grate is pulled from the vent, and a tentacle rushes out to grab the poor unarmed scientist, dashing their brains against the floor. It’s a great, strange little game about a grotesque pile of viscera and tentacles and teeth releasing all its tension across the facility that was imprisoning it.
It’s like Alien without Ripley there to outsmart the creature, and it’s as cathartic as it is disgusting. There’s a plot of sorts, but the most satisfying stories in Carrion are the micro-moments of horror where you feel truly monstrous.
To play Carrion effectively, you need to get into the mindset of the monster as it wreaks its devastation. I found myself simultaneously sympathising with the monster’s victims and relishing the destruction I was causing – which is, really, what you want from any good monster story. The creature you’re playing as can scuttle in any direction at extreme speed, squeeze into tight spots, eat people to regain health and grow or shrink depending on what range of abilities you need access to at any given point. By the end, you’re so powerful that you can pour your amorphous form into a room and effortlessly tear everyone and everything in there to shreds, but it’s a steady build-up to that point.
Carrion wouldn’t be much of a game if all you did was splatter the walls with blood. It’s structurally similar to a light Zelda title, with a small overworld that can be traversed with new powers you collect inside the game’s ‘dungeons;’ different areas of the facility you’re trapped in. In each area, you need to find your way through a series of locked doors, figuring out small puzzles to flick switches and defeat enemies so that you can find and unlock a new ability, and eventually fully ‘infect’ the area.
Figuring out the layout of each level—and the larger overworld—can be confusing, as the monster does not carry a map and its sonar-GPS, which can guide it towards save points, isn’t very useful. I sometimes found myself getting lost for stretches of Carrion and stepping away from the game for even a few hours could be disorientating, especially when you return to the overworld, which you experience in small snippets between levels. Thankfully the worst case of this led to only about five minutes of frustrated exploration. The game’s about five hours long, which ends up being an ideal length—enough time for you to live out your horrifying monster power fantasies without it overstaying its welcome or stretching its mechanics too thin.
The puzzles aren’t too taxing, and make satisfying use of the monster’s powers. The way those abilities are organised is a little awkward, though—which ones you can use depends on the monster’s size, and the game will occasionally inflate the difficulty a bit by forcing you to move down to a smaller size (which means depositing your biomass in a red pool of goop) to use a specific power. This means that progressing can often mean changing your size regularly, which is a slightly cumbersome mechanic—although returning to your fully powered form is always satisfying.
Carrion is all about making you feel like a true force of nature. You move extremely fast and, in the game’s excellent pixel art-style, look legitimately scary. Crucially, anyone you kill stays dead. There are no respawning guards, no attempts at restoration and repair—just people running scared, trying to escape the inevitability that you represent. There’s a real sense of permanence to your actions, and the realisation that you’re absolutely annihilating this facility is grimly satisfying. Later in the game you even unlock the ability to infect enemies and take over their bodies, turning some rooms into mini remakes of The Thing as you take out their friends and then explode from their used body.
Carrion is excellent at tapping into specific horror tropes without ever being cute about it. Going back through a level after you’ve completed it brings up that same sick shock you might have felt walking back to the entrance of a Hotline Miami level after you’ve killed everyone, even if this game’s tone is completely different.
Carrion is, by design, fairly easy with occasional spikes. In small encounters against more powerful enemies, like shielded guards with flamethrowers or mechs that need to be picked apart piece by piece (until you unlock some more devastating attacks later), you can succeed with hit-and-run tactics and smart stealth. Individually, none of the enemies you encounter is nearly as strong or smart as you. But when the game throws a lot of stronger enemies at you at once, the combat mechanics can feel imprecise—I would swarm over enemies, flailing my grab button hoping to get lucky, and throwing objects at enemies or getting out of a jam can feel like a crapshoot.
Combat never quite effectively coalesces into a puzzle in the way the game seems to want it to, but it’s still consistently entertaining throughout, and you never feel less than extremely powerful and scary.
Carrion’s best moments are the ones where its brutality lead to perfect little horror moments. A door, torn from its hinges and hurled across the room, tears a man ready to fire his pistol in half; the beast, lit on fire a moment ago, emerges again from the depths it dived into and grabs the guy with the flamethrower, carrying him away and assuring the others that death is coming for them too; a soldier, parasitically driven by the monster, climbs into a mech suit and shreds through his former colleagues.
The game is pure power fantasy, a reverse-horror game where you can’t help but root for the monster. It’s also an indie game where it feels like the developers have created the exact experience they wanted to make without compromise—and when your stream into a room like a terrifying cloud of teeth, grabbing, hurling, and eating your screaming prey, you’ll be glad they did.
Carrion was reviewed on PC and Switch using digital copies provided by the publisher.