As you’re slinking around air ducts and planning a surprise attack on a helpless scientist, it’s difficult not to feel empowered by Carrion’s approach to horror. Here you aren’t the one slowly peeking around each corner to make sure you’re safe–you’re the one doing the hunting, leaving a gory trail of devastation as you pick apart an underground laboratory one department at a time. When Carrion gives you the tools to be the best betentacled killing machine you can be, it’s a satisfying monster simulator with engaging puzzles and clever combat, but it falters in moments where you don’t feel as in control as you should be.
Carrion’s star is undoubtedly the gooey red monster you play as. Simply moving around is immensely satisfying. It feels as though you’re constantly floating, with extending appendages latching onto surfaces around you to feed into the illusion of chaotic but calculated traversal. By making movement effortless, Carrion lets you appreciate how good it looks in motion, from squeezing your red mass into a narrow air duct to transforming into a school of parasitic worms to swim through grates. There are a handful of instances where your size makes orienting yourself slightly challenging, but they’re small teething issues as you learn to navigate around.
When you consume humans, you gain life and grow, while the reverse happens when you take damage. As you progress through each level, you unlock new abilities which are directly tied to your current size. When you’re at your largest, you can cause devastating damage by sending a flurry of tentacles forward and viciously pulling anything in their way towards you. At a medium size, you can encase yourself in spikes and roll around a room dealing damage in all directions, while your smallest sizes offer more utility-style abilities like stealth and a handy stun attack. Tying abilities to your size makes combat dynamic, where you’re constantly watching the damage you take and adjusting your strategy as you go. It takes a bit to get comfortable with the sudden ability shifts in the heat of the moment, but getting access to movesets that let you dominate or flee a fight when you need them feels great.
These skills aren’t just integral to combat, but also to Carrion’s puzzle-filled stages. They make full use of your abilities in varied ways: to flip out-of-reach door switches or find and control the mind of a nearby enemy, for example; in another instance, an otherwise lethal bomb can be used to clear debris blocking a path if you can withstand its blast. These puzzles require specific abilities to solve rather than quick reflexes or intricate movements, which means you’ll sometimes be backtracking through a level to find a spot where you can deposit some of your biomass and shrink accordingly to access the abilities you require. The other side of the coin is more punishing, and I was forced to exit a level entirely on a few occasions to hunt down humans so that I could grow to the size a puzzle required.
The entrance to each level is contained within an overarching hub world, which contains its own puzzles to solve. Navigating the hub world is an annoying chore. You have no map to guide you, and thanks to many routes that involve one-way paths, backtracking to a previous stage is a frustrating endeavor. And if you happen to forget where a previously locked route was after obtaining the right skill to bypass it, you can find yourself doing circles around this area just looking for a way to continue.
While levels are filled with hapless humans to feast on, Carrion features a varied roster of enemies that provide an ample threat to your progress. As powerful as you are, enemies can quickly tear you to shreds with handguns, flamethrowers, and massive mechs with gatling guns. Flamethrowers will damage you over time and force you to find a pool of water to extinguish yourself, while the high rate of fire from a gatling gun will take you from your most powerful to dead in a handful of seconds. Enemies will also defend themselves convincingly from your attacks, turning to face you and using energy shields to repel attacks from head on. It’s difficult to use your size to simply overwhelm a room full of armed soldiers, encouraging you to tackle each one with a formulated strategy.
Most combat encounters force you to think carefully about picking off enemies individually, using parts of the level that let you flank them from all directions. Levels give you the freedom to choose multiple ways to achieve this; pipe systems let you quickly move from beneath enemies to directly above them, for example, letting you break through glass skylights and yank them inside the vents you’re hiding in. If you get exposed in the open, you also have numerous ways to flee, like by forcibly squeezing yourself into small gaps in the walls or breaking open grates on the floor to make a hurried getaway. It feels empowering to scurry around the edges of a room and pick apart a platoon of soldiers with calculated efficiency, but also comforting to know that when you overcommit you have options to correct your misjudgment. Finding creative solutions isn’t only encouraged, but it works well towards the horror fantasy Carrion strives for.
Executing your coldly calculated plans sometimes requires an exactness that is frustratingly not afforded by Carrion’s control scheme, however. Moving a single tentacle using a thumbstick is simple enough, as is pressing the trigger to grab and let go of switches, doors, and enemies. But when combined with movement, it’s difficult to parse which of your tentacles are part of your movement and which single one is under your control for actions. This isn’t an issue when you’re given the time to solve puzzles or dispatch enemies one at a time, but in the many instances where you’re thrust into bursting combat arenas with danger coming from all angles, it’s often easier to flail around while grabbing things indiscriminately rather than trying to direct attacks accurately. Wiping out a room isn’t as satisfying when you don’t feel wholly responsible for its execution.
Some infrequent flashback sequences where you play as a human scientist instead of the far more interesting monster also hamper some of Carrion’s pacing, while not adding much to its sparse story in the moment. These sections don’t feature interesting puzzles, and sport slower and slightly unresponsive platforming and odd issues with ladders, resulting in far less satisfying movement when compared to that of the monster. The way these moments eventually tie into the surprising ending that comes full circle with the game’s opening almost makes them worth it, but it’s only once the credits are rolling that you’ll likely find a reason to forgive their inclusion at all.
When it’s letting you live out its proposed reverse-horror fantasy, Carrion is at its best. It excels at making you feel empowered as an evolving lab experiment gone wrong, giving you ample opportunities to flex your death-dealing tentacles and tear enemies limb from limb. While giving you numerous tools to wreak havoc, it also uses them in smart ways to find a good balance between its gory combat and problem-solving. Carrion falters when it requires too much fine precision from you with a control scheme that doesn’t allow for it, and is at its lowest when you’re not playing as its headlining monster at all. These are disappointing distractions, but Carrion’s main event is still a bloody great time.