Reversing the role of hero and villain results in interesting experiences so here's Carrion from Devolver Digital and Phobia Game Studio.
The year is 2010. You're sitting at your laptop browsing Kongregate for a hot new flash game when a spooky point-and-click adventure called The Visitor crosses your eye. The brief flash game reverses the concept of horror by placing you in the shoes of a parasitic monster that haunts a rural family. As you finish off the last humans at around 1AM, you decide that is enough Kongregate for the night... and switch to Newgrounds. This was the last time I played a game like Carrion. I love horror but reverse horror titles that put you in the role of a monster are rare. Carrion is a short Metroidvania developed by Phobia Game Studio that allows you to play as a parasitic creature made of guts and eyeballs that bounces from room to room while decimating the scientists who created it. Think John Carpenter's The Thing meets Mewtwo.
You begin Carrion by exploding out of a test tube then start your chaotic warpath. While there is almost no text to guide you, the only thing you can do is creep around and eat people so it's safe to say; that's the goal. Along the way, you'll unlock new abilities that you can use to solve environmental puzzles and progress through the map. Also, many abilities such as Hydrophilia (which turns you into a swarm of worms that can pass through gates) will give you access to previously inaccessible rooms. This brings me to my biggest qualm and what genuinely kept me from enjoying much of the campaign. If I'm going to play a Metroidvania, I expect the map to be long and twisting while testing my patience and ability to backtrack.
Navigating Carrion's map feels like I'm sight-reading an orchestral work written in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. There are multiple areas, each blocked by a gate that you can only squeeze through by spreading enough of your biomass. There is variance in the areas as you'll find a toxic landfill, an ocean floor, a uranium mine, and more. Unfortunately, you are never given a map. The idea was probably that since you play a parasite, the developers thought it would ruin the atmosphere to give you an interface. This works and Carrion is visually immersive but frustration can also disrupt immersion which I feel is an oversight.
The dark sci-fi pixel art and chilling cinematic music go a long way towards making Carrion a memorable horror experience. A lot of work was also put into the audio design, delivering every sound you'd expect from a giant mass of organs slithering through a military facility. However, not enough of that effort was put into making the gameplay appropriately challenging. While the map is beautiful in a terrifying and slimy way, it doesn't feel rewarding to explore. The only thing to do is wipe out enemies while solving basic environmental puzzles. There isn't anything extra to explore or discover which feels like a flop for any Metroidvania. With such a rich atmosphere, it's a shame that there's no compelling reason to stay in its world.
At first, Carrion sucks you in with its perfectly creepy aesthetic but while the act of rushing through corridors and whipping hunks of metal around as you devour scientists is fun, it doesn't feel like a substantial gameplay formula. Navigating the map usually took so long that when I got to a puzzle room or boss encounter, I was anticipating a challenge. That said, the only times I failed were when I lost control of the monster due to unwieldy controls as I ran straight into a pack of soldiers with electric riot shields and assault rifles.
Flaws aside, Carrion has a few interesting moments that lend perspective to the genre. Every once in a while, you are given the opportunity to play as a human during dreamlike cutscenes. You and a team of scientists explore the laboratory in the wake of the monster's destruction while moving much more slowly and with less power than you have as the parasite. The cutscenes give you some perspective on what the map feels like for a person as opposed to the giant rubber band ball of eels and intestines that you otherwise control. I also enjoy the way humans look and feel. While they're designed slow and fragile with ragdoll physics and rotoscoped animation, your creature is an ultra-quick heavy ball of pain that contrasts with them well.
Carrion is a game that I would love to play through in one night with a group of friends as long as I'm not the one playing it. While it's not the best Metroidvania to navigate, it's a joy to watch. If you love horror, especially old monster movies, this is worth checking out for the atmosphere alone as it makes for a rather spook-tacular night.
- + A low-stress horror experience
- + Sound design and score create a fitting atmosphere for a scary movie night
- + It's short and respects your time
- - The map is obtuse and hard to navigate
- - Puzzles and combat are rarely challenging in a deliberate or satisfying way
- - The monster becomes unwieldy later on