The first time I heard about Carrion described as a “reverse-horror,” I did a double-take. The concept is not new, beginning with one of my all-time favorites, Aliens versus Predator (1999), its sequel, Aliens versus Predator 2 (2001), and its reboot Aliens vs. Predator (2010). Our readers might also be familiar with 2016’s Dead by Daylight or 2017’s Friday the 13th: The Game and of course, Valve’s Left 4 Dead (2). But those games are derived from established franchises that do not think of themselves as “reverse horror.” To my knowledge, 2019’s Sea Salt is the first game to introduce the concept, but Phobia Game Studio’s Carrion, with Devolver Digital‘s marketing, is the game that has recently captured everyone’s attention, and for good reason.
What would a (reverse) horror game be without violence? In Carrion, it is as common as players should expect it to be. Pass by defenseless individuals cowering in fear, or hover over them ominously before biting them in two? Players decide how many bodies they want to ravage in ways that would make Marvel’s Carnage blush. Every kill rewards with a cascade of red droplets all over the screen. The alien bites someone in half, sometimes upper torso first, with pelvis and legs flying elsewhere to be retrieved; other times, the monster consumes its victims legs-first.
When I warned my 13-year-old that this game would be scary, I cleared a room of people, slaughtering them all with blood sprays everywhere. All he said was, “That’s it?”
I did keep the Parental Lock on this game so that my 11-year-old would not see it as he has night terrors. The way that the victims scream as the monster grabs them strikes me as more unsettling than the violence; some of those shrieks are genuinely blood-curdling!
Carrion establishes in its opening minutes precisely how frightening the playable tentacle monster is. Exceedingly mobile, the alien moves freely around the screen, terrifying every human it passes by in neighboring laboratories. I do not blame their fear; if I saw a facehugger scurry from under my sofa and into my central air vents, I, too, would lose sleep—forever.
The H.R. Giger’s Xenomorph comparison is apropos here. The Carrion monster begins very much like a chestbuster, adroitly scurrying around vents and scarring the foolishness out of potential victims until it can find nourishment and expand its body mass. It differs significantly from the chestbuster, however, in that its basic form is more like an amorphous splat with 30-foot sublimely-animated tentacles used to maneuver around a room with more dexterity than Spider-Man. Most importantly, it does not seek out vermin or pets, but full-grown humans. In Carrion’s opening five minutes, players can chomp down on their first victim, spraying blood everywhere like an unmanned fireman’s hose, as though the beast excretes blood and green goo as a waste product everywhere it goes.
The objective is Carrion is to escape from the science facility in which the organism has been imprisoned. To accomplish this goal, the life form must access its other biomasses encased within containment units that are secured in other sectors. In Metroidvania style, acquiring biomasses unlocks additional abilities; the creature is not only as agile as Spider-Man, but it can also shoot webs through small crevices to activate levers, or turn invisible to avoid detection from threats or infrared sensors that lock doors.
The alien is most vulnerable in this form, but also most nimble. As it procures more mass, it naturally loses its legerity in exchange for constitution. The monster’s growth is three-tiered, with each level locking and unlocking skills. So at maximum girth, the creature can no longer turn invisible or shoot webs; in exchange, it can shoot tentacled spears that can impale its victims and break reinforced glass. It can also still squeeze into vents, but when it emerges, it is elongated and ungainly, making it a larger, slower target for enemy fire.
I could continue describing the organism’s abilities, but the appeal of a game structured like a Metroidvania is discovering new capabilities and their applications. Yet Carrion does not play like a conventional Metroidvania; though the organization of different sectors such as the Military Junkyard, Botanical Gardens, or Leviathan Reef Base may resemble environments in an adventure platformer, and the game locks progress behind the acquisition of new abilities, it assertively reminds players that they are the predator. Whatever encounters the creature must fight for their survival, and not the other way around.
In other words, Carrion intentionally makes the player overpowered and darn-near indestructible, and it feels amazing! The game pragmatically deconstructs the shortcomings of the horror genre by demonstrating the ludicrousness of comely though otherwise unremarkable people overcoming an omnipotent adversary. Carrion corrects this by endowing players with overwhelming power, and cutting them loose, to set an example as to how things are supposed to be done.
After playing so many games where one must cautiously approach threats, I am thrilled to be able to rush a room and turn everything walking on two feet into leaking ragdolls. Phobia Game Studios has managed to pull off what a game like Hatred could not, because while players can kill humans, at no point is it necessary, even when the screen prompts players to do so (sucks for androids and bots though). Even when players do eat humans, culpability for committing monstrous acts of violence falls on them rather than the actual monster. After all, it is only doing what is natural to it to survive and escape. This idea, too, is key to differentiating the game from orthodox Metroidvanias—players will spend a lot of time navigating and solving puzzles, characterizing a plausibly sentient life form rather than an impetuous agent of chaos. This setup is brilliant.
The music augments the reminders that regardless of how one may try to play through Carrion, Phobia Game Studios intended for it to be a horror game. Tracks like “All Hope is Lost,” “The Lab,” and “Frontier” set the mood for as the creature explores, while tracks like “The Hunger,” “Eternal Adversary” and “Attack of the Peacekeepers” blares as the creature rips a room to shreds. If I were not playing as the organism, I would be too petrified to proceed.
The one thing that holds Carrion back from GOAT material is its lack of well-developed story. The game unveils the creature’s original discovery through a series of flashbacks, yet I still have questions. Where did the creature come from? Why did it come? What is it? I have additional questions, but those would be spoiler material. Notwithstanding, Carrion is an overall noteworthy game that should be remembered during GOTY season in 2020. As I have established from the beginning of this review, there are few games like it.
Review copy generously provided by TinsleyPR
The Bottom Line
Carrion is a stellar example of how indie developers like Phobia Game Studio continue to provide unique fusions of video genres.