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  • Writer's pictureNate Hermanson

REVIEW: Decarnation's horrors come from the painful realities women face

Over the last few weeks, we've found ourselves in the middle of a little horror run, so we've been thinking a lot about what makes horror games good. We've been discussing the merits and validity of jump scares, the power of developing a deeply unnerving atmosphere, and how establishing powerful stakes in horror can make up for lacking in any of those other fields.

Decarnation shows how all those fictional tools are enhanced when you simply shine the light on the darkest parts of reality. With a story that focuses on the horrors inflicted on women by the world, primarily men, Decarnation's greatest horrors are its all-too-real explorations of Gloria's experiences as a woman in the spotlight.

An in-game screenshot of Decarnation, a psychological horror game from Atelier QDB. The main character Gloria, dressed in a simple blue nightgown, descends a set of stairs into a gloomy basement full of piles of flesh, hanging meat, and cages. In the back of the room is a giant creature made of flesh, with various heads in cages around it, and its main head at the top in a cage. The basement has simple chalk drawings everywhere.

​Just the Facts

Developer: Atelier QDB

Publisher: Shiro Unlimited, East2West Games (China)

Platform(s): PC*, Nintendo Switch *denotes platform reviewed on

Price: $14.99

Release Date: May 31, 2023

Review key provided by publisher.

Sometimes horrifying is enough

Decarnation tells the story of Gloria, a cabaret dancer in Paris in 1990, and her struggles with her identity and purpose — both ingrained in her by society and by the horrible men she encounters throughout her career. While she's passionate about her craft, Gloria abruptly has her life and career thrown into disarray. She's belittled by an artist who encases her nude form in bronze (and doesn't pay her). Her boss asks her to step offstage and into a coaching role because it's time for "the young and hip" to replace her. She experiences a breakup with her girlfriend, Joy. And her mother clearly still fails to see the value of her work.

Gloria finds herself spiraling out of control. And that's when the dreams start.

Dreams where the stage that once brought her confidence collapses under her feet, where her face sloughs off in piles leaving a once smiling face a mess of tears and smeared makeup, and where the man she finds fondling her statue helps turn that art into a literal monster. And just when she thought the horrors in her mind couldn't match her waking life... the phone rings. Gloria receives a strange phone call with a job offer from a famously reclusive billionaire. He is offering the dream: full creative control, freedom from the terrible people in her life, no financial worries for the rest of her life. Feeling vulnerable with her life's spiral in full swing, and the extreme promises of the offer swaying her, Gloria accepts. And what awaits her is a living hell worse than the terrible monsters that creep into her dreams. Across the game's six acts, Gloria finds herself regularly slipping between reality and her unnerving psyche, struggling to break through in both realms as her situation worsens on both sides.

Without spoiling much more, Decarnation tells an extremely heavy story and does so incredibly effectively — both with powerful (if not lightly clichéd) writing and a fascinating filmic presentation. Its scenes smoothly transition into one another with theatric flourish, leaving you wondering which version of reality Gloria finds herself in as the story goes along.

The bits of Junji Ito and Satoshi Kon-inspired body horror, along with the continually deteriorating mental state of Gloria's psychological state certainly do a lot of work in creating the game's scares. It employs a surprising amount of well-executed jump scares, but it's the skin-crawlingly "realistic" premise that's even scarier. Decarnation explores what it means to be a prisoner, both in your mind and in other ways. It explores painfully relatable issues of body dysmorphia, issues of self-worth, and how that all takes on an extra layer of importance from a woman's perspective.

As the kids say, you definitely feel the ick as you watch some of these sequences unfold.

What makes me feel weirdest about this game, though, is I'm not 100% sure what the message of all of it is. Gloria faces some difficult, urgent hardships, but it almost feels like the game at times is saying that just believing in yourself and overcoming the obstacles in your mind can get you through the darkest trials. That's fine... for a game that doesn't go as deep and as dark as Decarnation does. You can't optimism your way out of the very real and frightening dangers that Gloria faces.

There are a few moments toward the end that truly damaged my overall feel on what the story is going for and my image of Gloria as a protagonist, someone I rooted for so strongly just hours before.

Decarnation's weaker ending doesn't take away from the power of its spine-chilling moments all throughout. But failing to understand why Gloria was put through all this and what it's all ultimately trying to say about its myriad topics of artistry, identity, and trauma does weaken my perspective on it. And that's a shame, because it's otherwise a pretty well-crafted story.

An animated GIF depicting a dancing minigame in the psychological horror game Decarnation. The main character Gloria sways her hips as notes fly above her. As the player hits the appropriate buttons as they reach centerstage. A crowd in the shadows shows their love by throwing coins on stage and with little hearts coming out of them. The stage has a simple red curtain and a swan just above her head.

Context is important

Early on, what intrigued me the most about Decarnation was its use of interesting contextual minigames. As a narrative-driven experience, reminiscent of RPG Maker horror classics Ib and Witch's House, there are only so many things to be done to keep the player involved in the action. In my coverage from last year's Steam Next Fest demo, I equated their approach to a 2D Quantic Dream game, where flicks of the stick guide you throw the actions of showering or pushing down mental projections. Balancing minigames get Gloria through yoga and a simple rhythm minigame accompanies Gloria's dance routines.

Each of the game's six acts comes with some core gameplay gimmick, one minigame style that anchors it, with a few of those smaller contextual actions sprinkled throughout. Games of hide and seek, dancing, or boss fights where you dodge giant cakes. It fits a surprising amount of variety across its six- to seven-hour story, and each one is super fun to decipher as they pop up the first time, but the appeal wears off quickly.

Particularly in the back half, the game stops pulling out new tricks and instead repeats itself again and again and leans into a weak stealth element to close out its story. What's sold in the early going, and what I saw in that preview last year, is not the game it ends up ultimately being.

After that opening act, the Quantic Dream comparison quickly evaporates and those little nuanced contextual minigames and gameplay moments dry up. Additionally, there are minigames where the outcome, your success or failure, doesn't matter one way or the other. These features left me slightly disappointed with the interactivity.

Games like these lean on story above all else. Story and slow-paced puzzles that, while effective, certainly are better fits for a particular type of gamer. Decarnation has a few really fun puzzles but doesn't employ them nearly as much as the "minigame" experience, which wear off in their repetition.

But the ways its cinematic presentation blends with the gameplay helped make up for the lacking interactivity. For example, entering a safe space that the game had established as safe, only to have it interrupted by a painful jump scare. Or playing a memorized minigame would devolve into some hellscape whose rules would suddenly change. The developers did the most they could with the gameplay tools they chose to employ, even if the toolbox was a little less inventive than it sets itself up to be.

An in-game screenshot of Decarnation, a psychological horror game from Atelier QDB. It depicts one of the dancing minigame sequences... but with a dark twist. The room around the character is distorted by floating purple orbs and floating eyes. The buttons in the minigame have faces  that reflect the broken smile on the character's face as she dances below. Her face seems to be melting off in some way. It's horrifying.

Squishy flesh, French pop, and Akira Yamaoka make the horror bearable

If Decarnation has one thing I love without reservation, it's all the artistry it pulls off in the visual and sound design departments.

With a dense pixel art style, Atelier QDB delivers incredibly detailed scenes of flesh mounds; messy broken mental landscapes full of hints about Gloria's past, present, and future; and the simplistic but expressive character models whose emotions are key to keep note of amidst all the chaos they're going through.

On both the micro and macro level, Atelier QDB's artists go the extra mile to help tell this psychological horror story. And when we're dealing with something that relies so heavily on visuals — ones that are inspired by the likes of visual masterminds David Lynch and Satoshi Kon — they've really got to pull off some magic. And for the most part, they do.

Decarnation's soundtrack is beautifully eclectic, bouncing just as quickly from a bouncy French pop dance track to a horrifying droning song with stabs of soft instrumentation that perfectly accentuate a broken mind.

The French pop from band fleur et bleue is so good. It's easy to jam out just as hard as Gloria does on stage when you hear some of these tracks pop up. Consider me a new fan. And even with the assistance of horror legend Akira Yamaoka, known most for his work on Silent Hill, the work by the game's core composer, Corentin Brasart, certainly pulls its own weight, too.

An in-game screenshot of Decarnation, a psychological horror game from Atelier QDB. It depicts a tattered street in front of a large apartment building. Giant statue heads are in pieces on the street, alongside a giant hand broken up and various litter. A woman in a nightgown stands just in front of a grate at the bottom of the building. She's talking to a voice coming out of it that says: "Head..."

Decarnation is a game I really wanted to love more. It has an undeniable style. Its grounded and painfully real horrors are genuinely spine-chilling, and the flair of its cinematic presentation is top-notch. It's just a shame that some clichéd writing, a flawed ending, and a generally repetitive gameplay experience (especially in the back half) hold it back from glory.

Decarnation is still a game worth experiencing, especially for fans of horror and the inspirations Decarnation wears on its sleeve. But tread lightly. You never know who might be watching...

Video Games Are Good and Decarnation is . . . GOOD. (7/10)

+ a heavy story with a horrifically realistic premise that is handled well, some enjoyable contextual minigames, and an impressive pixel art style that evokes some amazing artists

- lightly clichéd writing that doesn't convey its message clearly, the appeal of the minigames wears off with repetition, final act drags some of the best bits down

The key art for Decarnation depicts a woman clutching a small box to her chest and with an explosion of flesh and guts out of the back of her head. A swan, some mushrooms, a few butterflies, and eyeballs can be seen in the mass of flesh.

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