Decarnation is a psychological horror adventure with a pixel art style that looks to take heavy inspiration from the obscure horror titles you’d find on RPG Maker. Like those games, Decarnation isn’t afraid to dive into their topics head first, so with that is a warning. I won’t be giving away all of the plot, but to further detail my thoughts I’m going to divulge into the mature themes the game portrays. A trigger warning front faces the game before you play, so it’s well worth looking into it before picking it up.
Decarnation proudly wears its influences on its sleeve. Namely Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Both examples are very cerebral, often blurring the line between what’s real and what’s conjured by trauma. The game is a similarly spiralling trip into the mind, but how deep does it pierce the cortex? Let’s get into it.
No Business, Like Show Business
The game follows Gloria, a 29-year-old cabaret dancer who’s become aware of the fragility of age. Her day starts off with meeting her retired dancer mother Victoria, who berates Gloria for her decisions in life. During her shift at the Black Swan, her manager mentions how she could instead teach younger dancers. However, the piece de resistance is visiting the exhibition where a nude sculpture of Gloria is displayed and seeing a man groping it. Gloria and her girlfriend Joy leave the exhibition, and back at her apartment, Gloria is unceremoniously dumped.
She’s alone in her apartment, the smile on her face literally falling on the floor as a goop. An affluent supporter calls and offers Gloria her own worldwide show and wants to meet to discuss plans. Gloria accepts but along the way is kidnapped and wakes up in a basement. The man at the exhibition is on the other side of the gate. The rest of the game transpires in Gloria’s internal journey in a twisted dream world as she goes through the stages of trauma. Stockholm Syndrome, overeating, rage, it’s an unrelenting journey that doesn’t pull its punches. The threat of violence against her is omnipresent and that unease permeates throughout, making it a difficult story.
By the end of Decarnation there is a conclusion to events, though I feel the messaging is muddled. Gloria definitely learns to believe in herself, and have hope no matter the horror. Though there is an attitude that seems to target the player. As well as the medium of video games being punched down on, souring the inner progress made. This happened in earlier parts of the game where it felt like a meta-pot shot at whatever the team have a chip on their shoulder about, rather than telling a woman’s story.
A Dance Through Hell
This didn’t result in Decarnation feeling egregious or “torture porn”, as there’s a considerable amount of respect for the topics it explores. There’s just something unsatisfactory about the direction I thought the game was going in which instead felt more surface-level. This is similar to the gameplay as the 6 hours I spent with the game I didn’t do as much playing as I did watching the story unfold.
The game plays from the isometric view and features contextual puzzles, rhythm minigames and an absolutely frustrating Simon Says. Whilst they’re not difficult nor complex, they’re perfectly befitting the narrative. The way Atelier QDB introduce the different aspects of the gameplay but then subverts expectations with them works so well with the storytelling. It mirrors Gloria’s mind state whilst also elevating the horrors of the dream world you wade through, even if they’re very easy and infallible.
During the rhythm mini-games, I often felt like I was nailing the timing of the button presses. However, the game had other plans and wasn’t registering my prompts. This isn’t a huge problem as there’s no fail state, but with games like Simon Says where there’s no visual prompt, this made repeating the action difficult and whilst I couldn’t fail, I wasn’t progressing either. For the rest of the game, you’ll be walking around this parallel world of France, often interacting with the environments to gather further context, but that’s the extent of what you do. It comes across as very focused and woven nicely with the narrative, even if those moments are few and far between.
The shining star in this cabaret from hell is the audio/visuals. Atelier QDB has gone for a grounded pixel art style. Heads are enlarged showing off character emotions; it’s uncanny and eerie but works to convey the story outside of the dialogue. The dichotomy of the colour palette from the “happier” moments and the hell world fully transports you into Gloria’s mind. Not to mention the grim, slimy and fantastical monster designs. They have a very Cronenberg body horror look, amongst the environments looking Lovecraftian. With that said, all the influences that seep out of Decarnation don’t make it feel like a knock-off from the sum of its parts, but rather a brilliantly designed game that stands on its own.
There are a few variations of environments, but you’ll be seeing them repeat throughout your hours. However, there’s so much detail in each design, on top of them changing depending on Gloria’s mental state, it never really feels like it’s repetitive. A highlight would be the town centre, as the stairs spiral, NPCs have an unnerving wrapping over their heads and off-kilter posters scatter across the gothic architecture floating on a black sea.
All soundtracked by the legendary Akira Yamoaka (composer of Silent Hill) who’s provided 10 original tracks. They’re low-fi, haunting and add a grizzly layer to the already dark game. Pianos dance solemnly on a grungy and scratchy drone doubling down on the unease of the often tense moments. On the inverse is more original music from the alt-pop duo Fleur & Bleu. Their synthy pop anthems juxtapose the game’s moments as you’ll often hear the music when Gloria is in her happy place, or an interpretation of it. Basically, both artists soundtracking Decarnation are phenomenal examples of music elevating the game.
So much care and detail have been put into Decarnation that I could have read the game wrong, but even the overt messaging in the game can’t even tear me away from the subversive themes I got out of it. In real life, humans don’t necessarily learn lessons from the worst moments. However, in media most satisfactory works bring to the table a lesson learned, but Gloria didn’t learn much after it all and neither did I.
With that said, the gameplay as light as it is does forge a unique and twisted journey that if anyone who likes their psychological horrors should look into Decarnation. The environmental and monster designs are spectacularly horrifying. The music from both Akira Yamoaka and Fleur & Bleu is excellently executed making the overall package a painful delight to experience. It’s not perfect, nor it is Gloria’s swan song but it’s an impactful experience and I respect what Atelier QDB set out to achieve, but it could have been a better game.
Decarnation flirts the line of pretension but ultimately handles the subject matter decently. The gameplay is too on the light side, and sometimes frustrating when it doesn’t work how it should. However, the audio/visuals are stellar making it a decent psychological horror that should please fans of the genre.
Decarnation is available now for Nintendo Switch (review platform) and PC via Steam.
Developer: Atelier QDB
Publisher: Shiro Unlimited
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
If you enjoyed this article or any more of our content, please consider our Patreon.