Decarnation is an adventure horror game that leads with its story first. Developed by Atelier QDB and published by Shiro Games and East2West Games, Decarnation puts the player into Gloria’s life as you deal with some of the ugliest moments of her life in cathartic ways. You solve cryptic puzzles, fight disturbing enemies with your screams and explore a world of dreams and nightmares described as “phantasmagorical” by the developers.
The story is set in a pixel art rendered Paris in 1990. You play as Gloria, a woman at the absolute end of her rope and struggling to stay above water as traumas of her past begin to mount. A cabaret dancer by trade, she’s waiting for her big break. Then, she meets Hervé Saint-Louis. A patron of the arts, he offers to turn Gloria into a star, and like every time a man has made this promise to a woman in a story, it goes wrong. Her manager is pushing her to the wings, and Hervé presents an out, a way to hold onto the beauty she longs for and the excitement of a career she loves. However, this promise comes with an obsession when she’s kidnapped by her new employer.
As she deals with this, her relationships begin to fray, and her self-esteem begins to crash as her career becomes harder to hold onto. A survival story with layered psychological stakes, Decarnation explores the contrast between battling limitations in the physical realm and the subconscious landscapes you can’t escape easily. Using emotion as a primary mechanic, the story-driven experience keeps you invested and engaged.
I’m not the biggest fan of pixel art. In fact, I tend to avoid it when I get the chance. But for some reason, Decarnation was a game that I couldn’t ignore, and once I started playing, I understood the detail and emotional depth you can still evoke with pixel art. Handling sensitive subject matter like sexual threats, stalking, depression, Stockholm syndrome, and more, it would have been easy for Decarnation to use all of those elements for shock. It doesn’t.
Instead, Atelier QDB is focused on putting the players into Gloria’s life and experiencing how she tries to cope with it all. At the same time, her relationships throughout the game are strained reflections of where she is at in her own journey reflected as the nightmares become more grotesque and intense. This is thanks to the dynamic sprint movements and the amount of detail put into environments. The scale of the horrors that Gloria sees and performs for are detailed enough to conjure some nightmares.
The art style pulls the player in, and even in its pixel art, the details of the horror come through fantastically. When coupled with a score by horror composing master Akira Yamaoka, every bit of the game comes to life. Decarnation’s visual elements hold you there while the score pulls you in. Yamoaka’s work is spirited when necessary, eerie when called for, and it drives the horror and tension in pace with the story beats.
Still, for all of its narrative visual designs, the gameplay elements sometimes throw off otherwise excellently paced stories. The game boasts 15 types of gameplay, but it’s honestly too much to hold the game together. In trying to make a unique gameplay experience for Gloria’s shifting situations and her reactions to them, there is something last in translation. In fact, keeping the game as a pure visual novel could have served the game’s emotionally packed better than oscillating between different gameplay focuses. This is particularly true for the story’s puzzle elements and reaction moments, often without a real sense of dread if you fail. The diversity of playstyle is what keeps this atmosphere away from perfection.
Unfortunately, the gameplay elements become bloated at times and haphazardly thrown in. While some pieces like screaming at monsters offer a continuous cathartic experience, other elements feel added on as if just to keep the game from being a visual and interactive novel. The player has to react to button inputs to interact with the environment, even though you’re never given choices to shape the course of the story.
That said, The grotesque and equally beautiful nightmare environments are a part of Decarnation’s unique experience. The game wears its inspiration on its sleeves and is stronger for it. There are clear elements of Satoshi Kon‘s Perfect Blue, existential dread fit any David Lynch film, and body horror that evokes Junji Ito and Cronenberg in equal measure. It’s all there. Only, Decarnation embodying the heart of those elements without lifting them one for one. To evoke the greats while still managing to tell your own story and maintain your own aesthetic is a hard task and one that absolutely sets Decarnation apart from other horror games using horror icons as their base.
Decarnation isn’t a bad game, the mechanics just fail the beauty of the sprites. In fact, the game’s narrative is immersive, thoughtful, and frustrating in a way that a good horror story can be. While the topics the game broaches can be complicated, specifically as Gloria confronts traumatic moments in vicious shivering nightmares, they’re all handled with care. Decarnation’s story is thrilling and unsettling, and every point the game gets is because of how well-crafted the winding nightmares are pulled into the progression of Gloria’s life.
Decarnation is out now on PC via Steam and Nintendo Switch.
Decarnation’s story is thrilling and unsettling, and every point the game gets is because of how well-crafted the winding nightmares are in relation to the overall progression of Gloria’s life.