The Thing is easily one of my favourite films of all time. The isolation, the creeping paranoia, the weirdness of the alien monster when it’s eventually revealed, Kurt Russel’s fabulous hair and John Carpenter’s iconic soundtrack. It all adds up to an iconic horror film. Carrion takes that film as inspiration and flips it on its head. Now you’re the monster, a mass of flesh, teeth and tentacles, and you’re hungry.
Your monster of unknown origin starts off the game locked in a small capsule, at the mercy of the human scientists presumably conducting some devious experiments on you. It doesn’t take much to smash your way out of the capsule and go on the run. Just a single mouth, a few tentacles, just a little baby horror.
That doesn’t last long. Even at this stage, your tentacles can rip open grates and doors, bursting out to grab humans, slap them into the scenery and chow down on them, splattering the room in grisly gore. Their consumed flesh is added to your own, growing your body and adding further mouths to feed.
Luckily for you, there’s no sign of a Kurt Russell type here, with all of the enemies being relatively easy to take down. You can’t just barrel your way through, as even a simply handgun will knock several chunks off your health in a few quickfire shots, but each little area has ways for you to hide out of sight and then strike when the humans let their guard down and look the wrong way for a few moments. You’ll learn even more caution once soldiers toting machine guns, flamethrowers and more start to appear. I’d have liked a shade more challenge and intelligence from the enemy AI, instead of soldiers having energy shields that can be flicked on at a moment’s notice.
It still plays to every Hollywood monster’s power fantasy of stalking human prey from the shadows. This horrible, convoluted and decaying facility is nonsensical, but just plays into horror film tropes with its moody lighting. That’s only amplified by the soundtrack which is notable mainly for how well it captures the 80s and general horror film vibes, not to mention the excellent sounds of the monster, with the rapid, incessant thwip of lashing tentacles as you move around or menacingly press yourself up against a door. And then there’s the screaming. So much screaming that soon becomes little more than part of the ambient sound design as you’re desensitised to the carnage. It’s worth putting on some headphones, if only to avoid some confused and concerned looks from your partner.
Eating people will only let you get so big. You need to find further containment capsules, smash them and crawl inside to learn more abilities and be able to grow further in size. Earning things like the spider-like webshot and lunging charge ability are useful in combat, but play more into how you get through the facility. In an interesting twist, your abilities are tied to how big you are at that time, with several stages of growth. You’ll often have to find pools where you can deposit biomass and shrink down in size to access different abilities, shifting how resilient you are through the game.
You could, if you really wanted to, call this a Metroidvania, but Carrion takes this inspiration quite lightly, instead having more of a hub and spoke structure. While your alien monstrosity picks up new powers and grows along the way, allowing it to overcome new obstacles and situations, any backtracking is limited to that immediate area.
You absolutely have to learn the game’s muted and subdued design language, picking out the dull grey doors and grates that you can latch onto and rip open, the dull brown wood that you can charge up and crash through. It can sometimes be tricky to spot these elements against the similarly muted general colour palette of the game, but I can appreciate a developer avoiding highlighting everything that’s interactive in a glowing outline. There’s still plenty of visual highlights, but they’re tied into the game’s aesthetic and a cohesive design language.
Still, there were a few times where I felt unsure of where to go next. There’s a continual forward momentum through the game, but as the hub and spoke design becomes clearer and my path crossed back over itself, I found myself unsure of where to go next. There’s no world map for you to consult, and you have to think back 20-30 minutes or aimlessly explore to find whatever it is your latest ability now lets you overcome. I’d end up backtracking too far, getting a touch frustrated at how lost I was feeling.
Another mild frustration is that, as you grow bigger and bigger, you become more and more unwieldy and less suited to squeezing through the confines of the facility. By the third stage of growth in particular, it’s a struggle to figure out which part of this ridiculous tentacle blob you’re meant to try and steer toward your intended goal, as tentacles try to predict and start heading down pipes, the wrong way around walls, and then suddenly it turns out that they’re the tentacles that are now leading the way.