There was a moment towards the end of The Callisto Protocol where I thought I had nailed it.
One of the game’s monsters, or Biophages as they’re called, had jumped up through a vent in the floor. It swung for me, and I instantly dodged, smashed it in the face with my electric baton, pulled out my hand cannon and blasted its head off. At that exact moment, another came for me and I immediately, using my GRP device, grabbed it and flung it into a set of conveniently placed spikes.
I felt invincible. I had mastered the main forms of combat. Nothing could hinder my escape from Black Iron Prison now. Ten minutes later, I was overwhelmed by a particularly vicious pack of enemies that ripped my head in two. Never mind.
The Callisto Protocol is Dead Space. From the way your health is displayed on the character’s suit, to the need to stamp on enemies to bring forth whatever loot they were carrying. It’s set in a space prison rather than a space mining ship, and instead of ‘Cut off Their Limbs’ scrawled on the walls you’ve got ‘Shoot The Tentacles’.
The Callisto Protocol - Official Launch Trailer
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But it’s a spiritual successor in every sense of the word. A pastiche, even, albeit it’s a pastiche made by some of the people who created Dead Space in the first place.
So it’s not an especially original game. Nor is the story going to throw up many surprises. Protagonist Jacob Lee has crashed landed on Callisto, one of Jupiter’s moons, after his trade ship is attacked. He’s rescued and thrown into Black Iron Prison, which has been built there.
Almost immediately, an outbreak has turned the inmates into relentless, vicious creatures hellbent on ripping people to shreds. Jacob tries to escape the prison before becoming caught up in events. Was the outbreak done on purpose? Is there a shady organisation involved? Isn’t this just Resident Evil?
It’s in the combat where things differ slightly from the Dead Space template. There’s still plenty of dismemberment and stamping on things, but there’s a lot more of a focus on aggressive, in-your-face, close combat fighting. The ability to dodge and hit things is the first thing the game teaches you, and for good reason. There’s a reason the developer has named itself ‘Striking Distance’.
And then there’s the GRP, a gravity weapon you’ll get about two hours in where you can pick things up from a distance – explosives, random bits of furniture and the Biophages themselves – and then throw them around the environment.
Mastering all the forms of combat is essential for survival in The Callisto Protocol, because this is a hard game. You will die, a lot, even if you play on the easiest settings with all the accessibility features turned on. You never have enough ammo for your guns, the battery life on your GRP is pathetic, and although you can always dodge and hit things, that only really works when you’re not having to fend off multiple Biophages all coming at you from different angles.
Renewing your health in the middle of battle is also a real challenge. The Health Injector sequence is painfully slow and your enemies will still attack you during it. So you have to make a call before going into battle as to whether you should risk using one of your valuable injectors or not.
“Mastering all the forms of combat is essential for survival in The Callisto Protocol, because this is a hard game. You will die, a lot, even if you play on the easiest settings with all the accessibility features turned on.”
All of this makes for a very strategic combat experience. Players will often venture into an area just to see where the enemies are, who they’re facing, and whether there are any environmental elements they can use to their advantage, before dying and starting over.
The various Biophage also demand different approaches. There are those that attack from a distance or frequently scurry away, so the GRP is ideal for bringing them back to you and your baton. There are those that rush you and explode, which is where your guns come in. Later in the game, you’ll encounter enemies who hunt through sound – think the clickers from The Last of Us – and this is the one area where stealth is certainly the best form of attack.
Sadly, the result of all this combat focus means that The Callisto Protocol isn’t an especially scary game. Consistently facing these threats up close, rather than at a distance, eliminates the terror somewhat. And it’s the same with the gore. The blood and viscera on display is overwhelming.
There’s a particular focus on your own death sequences. You’ll have half your face ripped off, your neck twisted, your head stomped… you’ll be punched to death and impaled and every limb removed. It’s gratuitous to an extreme, akin to Mortal Kombat fatalities, and they soon lose their shock value as you’re desensitised to the game’s horror.
That’s not to say it’s not a horrific, tense and panic-inducing game. And if you’re playing on PlayStation 5, the DualSense and 3D audio really add to the experience. In fact, if you don’t have a 3D audio headset, we’d recommend getting one for The Callisto Protocol.
There is always the sense that something is around the corner, or behind you, or in the pipes… is that shuffling coming from the darkness or the room next door? Is that a grate sliding open? Coupled with a tense soundtrack, you’ll find yourself continually looking over your shoulder as you push further through Black Iron.
“Sadly, the result of all this combat focus means that The Callisto Protocol isn’t an especially scary game. Consistently facing these threats up close, rather than at a distance, eliminates the terror somewhat.”
Not that the entire game is set within Black Iron. After a while you do break from the confines of the prison to explore the surface of Callisto, before descending deep below the prison in the latter stages. I say explore, because although there are secret areas to uncover and a few open spaces to play around in, this is still a linear game. There’s rarely more than one option for you to head off in.
Overall, I enjoyed my time with The Callisto Protocol, but it isn’t without its frustrations. There’s far too much time spent very slowly crawling through ducts and gaps in walls. You can’t hit or dodge anything in these spaces, so you know you’re safe, even if the game does introduce elements – such as the sound of something moving or an arm bursting through a wall – to try and convince you otherwise.
Another cinematic element that didn’t quite work are the on-rails sections. There are two moments where Jacob is helplessly hurled forwards, or downwards, and players have to dodge obstacles by moving him left or right. The Striking Distance team is made up of numerous people who spent years making Call of Duty games, and these moments felt like they were ripped directly from those titles. As a result, they feel a little out-of-place.
But the biggest disappointment comes at the end. The climax feels a little rushed, with set pieces being repeated in quick succession. One boss fight even uses repeated dialogue from a previous one. We finished the game in just over 10 hours, which is a perfectly adequate length for a horror game, but it was surprising how hurried those final 30 minutes were.
Ultimately, however, The Callisto Protocol delivers on its promise of more Dead Space. It looks like Dead Space, sounds like Dead Space and plays mostly like Dead Space. It’s unfortunate, really, that it arrives just over a month before EA’s Dead Space remake. The real-life horror twist is that the dev team’s biggest competitor is a remake of its own game.
Of course, the fans won’t mind. It’s been ten years since the disappointing Dead Space 3, and to have two gory sci-fi monster horror games coming out at the same time must feel like Christmas.
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Fans will find a lot to like, but for everyone else, The Callisto Protocol is a game with one foot in the past. Horror games have come a long way since the original Dead Space. We’ve had Alien Isolation, The Last of Us, Until Dawn, Outlast and the Resident Evil 2 remake.
We’ve had the dolls house in Resident Evil Village, Capcom’s Kitchen demo, Hideo Kojima’s P.T. and even Slender Man and his eight pages. Horror games have evolved, or perhaps mutated, into something new, while The Callisto Protocol is a throwback to a simpler time.
Striking Distance has done what it needed to do with its first game and recaptured a bit of that Dead Space spirit. We just hope for its next adventure, the team takes a few more risks, moves beyond the nostalgia, and gives horror fans something new to be frightened about.
The Callisto Protocol delivers the violence, intensity and horror that lives up to its Dead Space predecessor, but with deeper strategic combat. However, a clichéd story and lack of original ideas means that it has one tentacle stuck in the past.
- Compelling strategic combat
- Excellent use of 3D Audio
- Varied enemies and locations
- Rushed end game
- Not as frightening as it should be