This review contains images of blood and dismembered bodies.
It’s a familiar scene: A lone soldier, the last survivor of their unit through luck or happenstance, creeps through a dark tunnel. The atmosphere is choked with fear. Shadows give way to pulsing tendrils of flesh that creep up the wall and disappear into shattered vents. They exude a stench of mold and death. A muffled clank comes from behind the wall, then a snarling growl. The soldier freezes. He grips a flamethrower in his hands. His fingers are slick with sweat and twitching with nerves. Fuel is scarce, but the flamethrower makes short work of the fearsome creatures that stalk him. A few minutes of survival for a few ounces of fuel seems like a fair trade.
There is another crash. The soldier points his weapon at the nearest grate, his finger closing on the trigger—but before he can fire, he feels something wrap around his leg with ravenous speed. The creature appears behind the soldier, whipping him through the air with a powerful tentacle. He slams into the wall with a crunch, falling down onto the creature’s fleshy, shapeless torso where he is devoured by endlessly-gnashing mouths.
The soldier has failed. Status as a player character confers mighty powers on the most unlikely protagonist. Unfortunately for this soldier, he is not a player character. In Carrion, the player character is the monster.
Carrion’s player character is a creature called The Bioform. From the moment it breaks out of its containment unit in the bowels of a subterranean lab, it already possesses impressive speed and bottomless hunger. The unarmed scientists studying it prove easy practice meals, but their colleagues in the next room see the containment breach warning and arm themselves with handguns.
Guided by my joystick, The Bioform moves by using its innumerable tentacles to pull itself through the air. This movement feels so smooth and natural that The Bioform seems to fly. It’s simple work to hide around corners and in shafts then charge when the scientists’ backs are turned, grabbing them with a tentacle and dragging them screaming into The Bioform’s many mouths. If I’m feeling playful, I can roar to scare the scientists; this makes them face The Bioform’s location, but a few seconds notice won’t save them. What gunfire it does take is quickly healed by devouring a human body, and it leaves its victims’ bottom halves lying on the ground if I need a healing boost later on.
Even as terrified scientists are replaced by facility guards and mechanized armor, sneaking into safe hiding places then devouring every human in the room when their back is exposed dominates most of my playtime.
Carrion has me totally inhabit The Bioform by eschewing some videogame interface elements like destination markers and expository mission descriptions. I am made to feel The Bioform’s goals through its own instincts, reacting to the world as a monster would. When The Bioform emerges from its containment unit it is greeted by fleeing, screaming scientists, who will soon die as I experiment with The Bioform’s abilities. In the next room, I must use those lessons to defend The Bioform from the pistol-armed scientists.
As I guide The Bioform through the facility, it feels less like “exploration” and more like “penetration,” racing through rooms and hallways with no obvious intention. Its intelligence feels bestial, moving with purpose but not with motivation beyond pure survival. By forgoing objective markers typical to exploration-heavy videogames I am immersed in its instinctual mindset.
But this conceit is soon stripped away. After clearing The Bioform’s containment lab, I guide it through a tunnel and into a new area. In some corners here I find cracks where The Bioform can leave an infestation that covers the wall in writhing viscera. When I plant these infestations I see part of a distant door pried open by a tentacle. If I can guide The Bioform to infest every crack in an area then the exit will open all the way. When it goes through this door it finds a cave that connects every lab section. Upon finding another hole, it slithers inside to another lab section where more cracks can be infested.
Carrion’s broad goal is laid bare: Sneak into all lab sections and find the infestation points which opens a door leading back to the hub. Repeat until the lab is fully infested, working from bottom to the top until The Bioform can escape. As clever as Carrion’s immersion is, it cannot avoid that it is set in an unimaginatively designed videogame world.
While infesting the lab, The Bioform discovers other creatures captured by the scientists. It absorbs these creatures’ DNA, granting it new abilities which let it bypass more powerful security systems. Security cameras that seal doors can be crept past when The Bioform learns to become invisible; just-out-of-reach levers behind gratings can be reached when it learns to sling globs of sticky webbing. These powers also make The Bioform even more deadly to the humans in the lab.
The more DNA it consumes, the more The Bioform increases in mass, evolving from a clever hunter that stalks its prey from around corners and under floors into a ravenous mass that rampages through the lab without fear or subtlety. The larger form can take more punishment, while the smaller form is easier to move and hide. Certain abilities are restricted to certain form sizes, but I can change The Bioform’s mass by dropping segments of its body in infested water pools. This ensures I continue using the small, vulnerable form even after The Bioform has evolved into a hulking brute.
In typical adventure fashion, I can take these abilities back to areas I have already infested to explore areas that were previously inaccessible. These side areas offer some of Carrion’s most devious puzzles, but the rewards don’t feel worth the effort. Most increase The Bioform’s energy level, allowing it to sustain some powers for longer periods, but energy drains so fast that even an upgraded meter doesn’t feel like it makes a difference. Other abilities, such as extra grabbing tentacles so I can devour multiple victims at once, are nice but the monster already feels unstoppable without them.
By casting me as the ravenous monster in a Survival Horror plot, Carrion becomes an exercise in power. The Bioform moves with a grace and dispatches enemies with an ease that would make other player characters jealous. This keeps Carrion from becoming boring during its four to five hour length; it just feels good to play. But this cannot overcome its rote level and scenario design and its predictable sci-fi horror twists and ending. I believe horror buffs will find a lot to love here but Carrion needs a more substantial world to complement its incredible monster.