Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Carrion (Switch)

Of the titles revealed during Devolver Digital’s Devolver Direct during E3 2019, Carrion stuck out. The concept of a reverse-horror game intrigued me and the gameplay that I saw explored that in an interesting way. Such was my interest that I pre-ordered a physical Switch copy through Limited Run Games on release day. To my surprise, however, pre-ordering this game also gave me a digital code, meaning that I wouldn’t actually need to wait a few months to play it, which enabled a quicker turnaround time for this review. Though the experience itself is pretty short, I fully enjoyed my time with this unique indie title.

Carrion’s story has a minimalist presentation, which actually works in the game’s favor. It’s highly reminiscent of The Thing (1982), with a monster trying to escape a research facility and take over humanity, except you experience it from the monster’s point of view. Though there are flashback sequences where you get to play as a human and learn the origins of the monster, these are short and don’t disrupt the flow of the action. As there is no dialogue, the game tells its story purely through visuals and gameplay, allowing its narrative design to really shine and reveal more about the environment while giving the player the proper room to put two and two together.

The minimalist story is presented visually through flashacks.

At its core, Carrion is a Metroidvania, meaning you get to go back and explore different areas of the facility, Relith Science, as the monster’s abilities grow stronger. Fortunately, in this case, I never really felt lost, since the game keeps a good sense of momentum with where to go next. Over the course of four to five hours, the monster gains a wide range of abilities by absorbing fragments of its DNA in containment units, including more powerful or altered versions of those previously acquired. For instance, gaining a dash move to break through certain barriers and then, later, the power to skewer multiple targets at once and pull them in. There are also nine optional containment units that improve the monster’s inherent abilities, like reaching out with two tentacles at once. As the monster grows more powerful, it also gains Biomass and visibly grows larger.

Biomass is important for navigation and puzzle solving, since not all of the monster’s abilities are accessible at once. As the monster takes damage, it will lose Biomass, as well as access to some of its powers. Naturally, the most effective way to regain health and Biomass is to eat the many humans it comes across, provided they are edible, though interacting with certain save points can restore a large amount of Biomass as well. Some puzzles also require the monster to use certain abilities, so the player can deposit Biomass in a nearby pool and then go back to retrieve it once the puzzle is solved.

The puzzles themselves aren’t too difficult to figure out. Once you gain new abilities, you quickly learn how to use them based on what’s in the immediate environment. This makes it a lot easier for things to click as your brain makes the connection between your newfound powers and that one area you couldn’t quite reach just moments prior. You also feel an increasing sense of power over the humans that trapped the monster and the facility gradually feels more open, like there’s almost nothing that can stop you.

Of course, you’re not invincible, as the humans have access to bullets and, later, fire, mech suits and drone-based security. The monster’s vulnerabilities mean that although you could theoretically take on the humans head-on, it pays to be stealthy and the environments are constructed with a hybrid approach in mind. As such, combat can feel like a puzzle in itself and it feels satisfying to clear a difficult room after failing at least a couple times. For the most part, however, the game does have a consistent difficulty curve, remaining challenging without feeling overwhelming.

Though powerful, the monster isn't invincible.

My only issue is that, although the monster controls very smoothly and naturally, it’s sometimes hard to maneuver it into small spaces once it has enough Biomass. For the same reason, aiming at a specific object among many can take a little more effort than it should, especially if you’re trying to heal yourself enough to survive the next screen. I also didn’t know about a specific application of one ability until after I had already beaten the campaign, since the game doesn’t tell you anywhere that you can do it.

Once you play, it’s immediately noticeable that the game opts for a 16-bit graphical style. Though this was likely an effort to save money during production, the game takes full advantage of it for an immersive and effective horror atmosphere without feeling like it’s trying too hard. The monster looks amorphous and otherworldly, humans can bleed or get ripped in half and a lot of care clearly went into the monster’s animations and movements. No two areas of the facility look alike, especially once it turns partially organic from the monster, and everything is very clearly defined. Just by looking at different objects, you already know how you can interact with it and formulate a strategy around them. The lighting effects are also better than they have any right to be, with an attention to detail that even includes how shadows change as light bulbs swing from the ceiling.

The 16-bit style is used to great effect.

As I mentioned earlier, the game is primarily visual, so there’s no voice acting apart from vocal effects and screams of terror, of which there’s a large enough pool to not feel too repetitive. Of course, music is an important element of a horror atmosphere and I applaud Cris Velasco’s score for delivering. Each track sets the right mood and is good at keeping you in the moment without overtaking the gameplay. I don’t know how much of it I’ll remember later, but I still appreciate the effort.

Although Carrion could possibly have explored its gameplay concepts a bit further, the feeling of playing as a monster akin to The Thing is enough to keep players invested. The short length isn’t too much of an issue either, since it would arguably feel bloated if stretched too much further than it already is. If you’re looking for a horror game with an interesting twist, then Carrion is certainly a good pick.

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