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Carrion opens on a glass tank. A blood-red lump lurks inside, twitching, and above it, on the wall, is the biohazard symbol, stamped in queasy green. Nudging the left stick causes the tank to wobble and crack, and thus the twist is sprung: rather than being cast as a scientist, worrying along corridors in a white coat, or a trigger-wild marine dropped into all hell, you assume the role of all hell, just as it breaks loose.
The game is described, on its Steam page, as a “reverse horror,” and I’m all for this new development. Bring on the wave of long-overdue turnarounds: I want the next Forza Motorsport to feature a playable road, fed up of being ran roughshod over; and why not, in lieu of delivering the usual crop of boringly bipedal athletes, have the next FIFA let us finally be the ball? On the face of it, Carrion isn’t offering anything new; the prospect of becoming the villain is a proud video game tradition—stretching back through the thuggish ranks of Grand Theft Auto and observed most recently with the shark-powered Maneater, in which you prowled coastal waters, picking off sunburnt tourists for lunch. However, you soon realise that its charm lies not in subversion but, rather, in the rightful honouring of cliché.
You play as a wet mass of mouths and tentacles, squeezing through vents like a vengeful plate of spaghetti and meatballs sucked into a vacuum cleaner. In its movement—a whipping flurry of wall-sticking tendrils that tug you aloft—there is more than a hint of the thing from The Thing, John Carpenter’s icebound horror. The setting meanwhile, mirrors the Alien franchise; barren prairies of rock, and junkyards under dusty cream skies drift past in parallax. And if you should brush past a web of rattling chains, echoing the hangars of the Nostromo, so much the better. Your goal is to escape the sprawling laboratory, gorging on any humans you find and growing to room-clogging size. Your victims are scrubbed of detail—faceless and mute, save for the moans of dread as you approach. Could that be how they would seem to a jobbing xenomorph? Let out a growl (which also doubles as a handy sonar, highlighting the nearest save point) from behind a wall, and watch them turn, spooked and scrabbling.
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Carrion abounds with the thrills of being the monster, then, but, less common and more cosy, with the kick of being in a monster movie—of slithering in celebration over the tropes of the genre. The good news is that, for a while, it works. Take your primary weapon, for example, a barbed vine, good for grabbing at your surroundings: wrenching doors from walls, grates from above and below, and for tearing bodies asunder. Beyond mere functionality (flipping levers to lower blast doors, etc.), this is an excellent tool for toying with your meals; dangling them above your spiralling teeth or presenting them, in all their flailing panic, to their nearby colleagues, before crunching them into a paste of red pixels. While on your merry spree, you absorb new powers, brimming with potential movie moments. Consider the ability to cloak yourself into a light-bending shimmer, the better to slip past security lasers; I had far more fun materialising in front of my prey, like the jungle-dwelling beast in Predator, than I did oozing through the puzzles of the environment.
At around the half-way mark, I felt the action begin to sag. The problem is one of imprecision. Some of the facility’s chambers teem with soldiers toting flamethrowers and machine guns, and your combat capabilities, while ideal for tormenting a few lowly boffins, feel clumsy against better-prepared foes. These clashes have a twanging, ragdoll quality, as you attempt to thrash your enemies into submission with sheer elasticated malice. (Far more advisable is the skulking approach; you eventually learn how to possess people, plugging a slimy chord into their spine and having them scout, and shoot, ahead.) Elsewhere, the overall structure—a Metroidvania without a map—is reliant on your muddling through on instinct, groping about for the nearest nest, to checkpoint your progress and replenish your health. (In a stomach-turning touch, these resemble the dark veins that snake outwards from an infection, and they bring to mind the hives of glistening ingress that spread through the Alien films.) It’s testament to the developer, Phobia Game Studio, that the level design is such that you’re never lost for long.
So why was I left, at the end, with the feeling of dislocation? It could be the world, which has the pungent aroma of the hodgepodge: the base you’re in somehow manages to mingle dripping jungle ruins, huddled blue cityscapes, deep-sea laboratories, and military caverns of grey. But I think it runs deeper than that, to the core of the game’s premise. To say that the monster is the real star of the movie is the sort of praise that has special-effects teams beaming with pride, but it misses the mark. Without the steady presence of a Sigourney Weaver or a Kurt Russell, peering out from his frosted beard, the initial buzz wears thin. The monster is better thought of as a dark star: a void, against which we catch the glimmer of heroism. Nonetheless, Carrion should be experienced, if only for the grim mischief of its early hours, and you may find yourself, as I did, left with an unsettling thought: maybe the merciless, unkowable creatures that stalk our screens are motivated not by evil but by play, tinged with faint boredom.
Developer: Phobia Game Studio
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Available on: Xbox One [reviewed on], Nintendo Switch, PC
Release date: July 23, 2020
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