I love the honesty of a video game where you play the villain. So many games revolve around killing everything in sight, and at some point, we should admit that turtle-slaying plumbers and mass-murdering treasure hunters aren’t as “good” as we’re led to believe.
With their murderous intent laid bare, the best “monster” games lean into sheer power. Classics like Rampage World Tour and Destroy All Monsters let you wreak explosive, hilarious havoc, then pile on the ramped-up efforts by humanity to stop your villainy.
Devolver Digital’s new game Carrion, out this week on PC and consoles, follows that tyrannical tradition, albeit with a different tack. Instead of resembling a schlocky monster movie, Carrion goes full H.R. Giger with its slinking, wall-clinging, tentacles-and-teeth monstrosity. Its mix of atmosphere, mechanics, and darkly hilarious traversal makes it one of the freshest 2D games we’ve seen in years.
Screaming mozzarella sticks
The new game’s idea of a “plot” starts out thinly: you’re an amorphous, crimson-red monster, made mostly of tentacles that can reach, cling, and crawl along nearby surfaces. They can also grab and fling debris, doors, and nearby people, and your blobby center is characterized by a massive, tooth-lined mouth, the better to eat humans with. When you emerge from captivity, some nearby staffers shoot pistols, and the primary way to heal these wounds is to kill and eat anyone in your way. So you’ll do that a lot.
Or you can grab and fling them, letting collision physics do the damage while they flail about as if they were screaming mozzarella sticks. Or you can tap a “growl” button, meant primarily as an echolocation tool, to scare the ever-living bejeezus out of whomever you’ve left uneaten. It’s that kind of game.
This core of movement and combat runs smoothly on both gamepad and mouse-and-keyboard, though the latter is about mouse-clicking, not WASD—and, gosh, it feels good to aim your movement path with a mouse pointer and see your creature instinctively grab every relevant surface to propel itself in a smooth-and-dangerous lurch. (In particular, it’s lovely to watch some of the tentacles nimbly whip across the entire screen, while others cling to nearer surfaces to establish a surprisingly natural-looking balance.) The animation routines needed to keep so many tentacles moving, spiraling, and aiming the exact way you want, whether for movement, puzzle-solving, or combat, are among the most impressive stuff I’ve seen in a 2D video game. This quality will quickly disarm any negative impression you might have about the game’s pixelated designs.
Speaking of: any “Metroidvania” vibes you may get from peeking at the game are well placed. Your progress from one zone to the next is typically gated by new types of barriers, such as bulky doors or tricky laser-grid security systems, and you’ll move between combat rooms and mild puzzles to find the right crawling path to your next traversal upgrade. Carrion is clever about this been-there-done-that fare in a few cases. One example is an omnipresent “biomass” option. At a certain point, your monster can double its health and enjoy a “battering ram” attack, propelling your entire mass of tentacles toward foes and barriers. But when this is equipped, you can’t use certain abilities, such as a “projectile launch” attack, which you’ll need to solve certain puzzles.
Your monster gets around this by being able to dump its health bonus into any standing pools of water, thus enabling certain abilities—at the cost of health and the aforementioned ram attack. This is a clever risk-reward trade-off not only in terms of reducing health at key difficulty spikes, but also because you never have to switch abilities by pausing and flipping through an “inventory” menu.
Terror can emerge from any air vent
As a result, Carrion‘s developers keep players within the action at all times, instead of making them jump into and out of game-like pause menus. This is likely the same reason the game doesn’t include a built-in map, despite the fact that you’ll criss-cross through previously explored zones to move ahead. A few times, I wished I’d had a map to retrace my steps through repetitive corridors, but for the most part, it’s not necessary thanks to a mix of clear signage and one-way tunnels propelling you forward as needed.
Carrion also deftly weaves combat into your progression from one zone to the next, aided by the sci-fi trope of your monster escaping a Weyland-Yutani-style industrial-military complex. In general, these foes emphasize directional attacks and shields, like a guard who aims an electric shield in whatever direction it’s looking, and this routinely forces you to notice every air vent, narrow passageway, and alternate crawling path in a given combat room. Do you sneak around the back to grab-and-eat an enemy? Drop from above, while using a spare tentacle to throw a wrested-off door at a guard to stun it? Studying a particular zone becomes crucial once enemies start using elemental attacks, as well; you need to know where a pool of water might be, for example, once enemies’ flamethrowers enter the mix.
As a grab-and-throw monster, you either have to create your own projectiles or think carefully about what you’re grabbing and why. Later-game enemy designs do well to emphasize this, like an apparently invincible clone of RoboCop‘s ED-209; you can’t kill it, but with careful maneuvering, you can pry its cockpit open and pick its pilot out like a cherry pit.
Short, bloody, and sweet
I’m leaving a few of the game’s clever tweaks to the Metroidvania formula unspoiled, since the powers in question are delightful surprises. Suffice it to say, getting from point A to point X had me cackling like a mad scientist at times. The same goes for combat encounters that push your limits as a hell-bent monster. These emphasize that your creature can die as quickly as it can kill and force you to map out a given battleground before pouncing from a hidden passageway.
My biggest beef came from the unwieldy nature of crowded combat. One-on-one encounters are clear and manageable, but when a few people stand next to each other, it’s impossible to grab-and-chomp them all in one fell swoop; even the battering ram fails to sweep crowds consistently. Additionally, Carrion is careful not to wear out its welcome, so you’ll only need roughly five hours to complete your first run-through.
But in terms of tense, unique 2D traversal, Carrion‘s execution has no peer. The closest thing I can think of is 2015’s experimental goo-platformer Mushroom 11, but that game’s puzzle potential has nothing on Carrion‘s memorable, corridor-stalking combat and environmental-puzzle delights. It’s a pretty easy recommendation for $20—and one helluva coup for the paid Xbox Game Pass subscription service.
Honestly, if you’ve ever wanted to fake like a xenomorph in a video game, Carrion offers a better facsimile than any officially licensed Alien game.
- Slithering, pouncing, and devouring as this game’s grotesque monster has no peer in 2D gaming.
- Detailed animation techniques make the monster’s beastly movement all the more enticing.
- Environmental effects like blood, flame, and eerie lighting boost an already handsome assortment of sci-fi interiors.
- Crunches, screams, drips, and explosions: Sound design really helps for this monster game.
- Clever twists on the usual Metroidvania formula keep players moving forward while progressing through solid environmental puzzles.
- Combat ramps up with solid enemy design, meant to emphasize your monster’s grab-and-throw powers.
- No map system to help when you inevitably get a bit lost.
- Crowded combat can get unwieldy.
- The game doesn’t overstay its welcome, but be prepared for a short game at five-ish hours.
- I dunno, man. This game’s pretty great while sticking to a modest scope.
Verdict: Buy (or claim on Xbox Game Pass for either console or PC).