Though Metroidvania games are plentiful on Switch, it’s frankly a rare sight for a truly magnificent one to grace our screens. Billed by publisher Devolver Digital as a “reverse horror” game, Carrion is actually steeped in Metroidvania goodness despite its rather grotesque look on the surface. While there are a few minor technical inconveniences to be found, Carrion is greater than the sum of its parts and truly stands out as one of the best indie titles of 2020.
Developer Phobia Game Studio the player nothing—ZERO—in terms of background or narrative in Carrion…at least directly. The player, an amorphous tentacle blob with rows of teeth, bursts free of its containment vessel and attacks all living creatures in sight. You’re then turned loose into the laboratory, tasked with wreaking havoc on all biological mass in your path. The thing is, Carrion offers the player none of this—and, through exploration, the player can piece together their interpretation of how this creature came to be and what this place is. The lack of an explicit narrative isn’t missed here—in fact, environmental storytelling works to Carrion’s benefit. Rather than telling a story, make the player figure it out for themselves. Yet, the most interesting prospect Carrion offers is that it turns the tables and makes the player the villain—though, after coming into contact with humans who shoot, burn, and otherwise try to obliterate you, you may begin wondering who the real villains are.
In terms of gameplay, Carrion has the most interesting movement I’ve seen in a 2D Metroidvania. As you use the left stick to move, tentacles spring forth and attach themselves to any surface to propel you forward, backward, and any other direction. The right stick is used to aim the action button used to interact with enemies and objects, as well as other offensive moves. The shoulder and some of the face buttons will use certain abilities you unlock as you progress, which can open up previously inaccessible areas—in true Metroidvania fashion. Some of these abilities, like a full-bodied charge and a Spider-Man-like web shooter attack, really open up the offensive possibilities against different enemy types—and you’ll need your full arsenal to take on enemies with shields and flamethrowers, or giant mechs who can target your flesh, among many others.
As you progress through the game and feed on enemies after killing them, your biological mass will increase. The results of this mechanic are two-fold: on one hand, increasing your biomass opens up new abilities—in the late game, you end up with three separate health bars, with each level of health being tied to a different set of usable abilities; on the other hand, increasing your biomass also increases the total real estate you take up on screen, which means more surface area for you to be seen and take damage. These end results are what ultimately make Carrion so complex—and equally rewarding—when you encounter and overcome a particularly tricky area. At full health, the monster is massive and can take out several enemies at once, but is more difficult to maneuver and control, especially around multiple enemies placed strategically. As your health lowers, so too does your mass—which isn’t always a bad thing. Though your health may be declining, you take up less surface area and can therefore hide more easily—plus, the smaller versions of the monster have more quick and nimble abilities, which are great for taking out lone enemies. Fortunately, there are several spots throughout the game where you can deposit biomass if you need the smaller monster’s abilities to take out a particular enemy or to solve a certain environmental puzzle, and you can re-integrate the deposited mass back into your monster if needed. Otherwise, returning to the generously-placed save areas also heal you as well as replenish biomass.
Though I, at times, felt overwhelmed by all the different abilities and the changes in movement at the different biomass sizes, once I got into a rhythm of how all the game’s systems integrate with one another, Carrion truly flowed. Before long, I was slithering through pipes, tearing through grates, and snapping up human enemies whole while also ramming into other enemies and avoiding the flamethrower of another. While things do get chaotic—and it can be easy to die if cocky or careless—I never felt any part of the game was unduly difficult or unfair in any way. After a while, I learned to enter an area with caution, case my surroundings, and pick off my enemies strategically. Of course, you can bum-rush enemies if that’s your style, but enemy AI will coordinate with one another to a degree, so be ready.
As you progress, not only do you find new combat abilities, but other abilities, like passing through certain barriers or being able to remove them entirely, open up previously inaccessible areas that you’ll inevitably be backtracking through. One good thing to report is that enemies do not respawn once you return to a previous area—they all remain dead, so you can glide to your objective with relative ease. The lack of any kind of map does make exploration tedious at times, but I never ended up stuck for too long—I was always able to find my way to the next objective. Plus, how can a monster read a map, anyway?
Visually, Carrion uses a pixel art style, and though most of the game is dark and grim, it is vibrant, though with mostly (blood) red overtones. Though I’m admittedly no expert when it comes to audio design, I think the development team knocked it out of the park here—music was never overbearing, but it is haunting. As for the player monster, the echolocation ability sounds pleasantly horrifying, and the screams of enemies as you devour them are likewise terrifying—though, admittedly, the cacophony of gurgles and screams felt oddly satisfying as I was ripping through enemies and destroying all around me.
As far as the performance goes on Switch, the game runs just as well in handheld as it does docked. Aside from the lack of an in-game map, the only other complaint I would levy against Carrion is that the right stick aiming never felt precise enough. That is, the game’s cursor needs to very precisely hover over the object you want to interact with—whether it be a lever, a door you need to open, or an enemy to devour—and I never felt like the Switch’s Joy-Con was precise enough for me to slightly tilt the right stick to hover over my target. More often than not, I would have to move the player monster to a different location, slightly further or nearer, and try again. I had a little better control using the Switch Pro Controller while docked, but it still never felt as precise as I’d liked. Admittedly, this is a very minor gripe in the grand scheme of things, but the game could have benefitted from a bit more fine-tuning of the right stick control.
Carrion is absolutely the surprise “reverse horror” Metroidvania hit of 2020 that I never anticipated. Though there are a couple very minor technical shortcomings, they don’t diminish the fact this is a standout title for Phobia Game Studio and Devolver. It might prove off-putting for some due to its grotesque approach, but if you can stomach being the big bad, this is definitely a title you won’t want to miss.
Disclaimer: a review copy of Carrion was provided by the game’s publisher.