Gaming

The Callisto Protocol review: more than a Dead Space throwback


The Callisto Protocol

MSRP $69.99

“Despite some cumbersome combat systems and performance issues, The Callisto Protocol successfully builds on Dead Space’s legacy”

Pros

  • Excellent atmosphere
  • Memorable setting
  • Visceral combat
  • Fantastic visuals

Cons

  • Derivative story
  • Awkward dodging system
  • Inconsistent performance

It’s a testament to how much games have changed in the last 15 years that I’d describe The Callisto Protocol as a throwback. Though the third-person horror game is a technical powerhouse that pushes my Xbox Series X to its limits, it brings me back to a much simpler time before the days of massive open worlds and complex narratives. I’m transported to the Xbox 360 days when I play it — an era where the best games were eight-hour single-player adventures and where the bar for video game stories was only starting to rise out of rock bottom. Ah, memories.

That nostalgia is unavoidable given that The Callisto Protocol immediately looks and feels like a spiritual successor to 2008’s Dead Space (no coincidence considering that both are the brain-child of Dead Space co-creator Glen Schofield). What’s important, though, is that developer Striking Distance Studios isn’t so precious about the past that it forgets to innovate on top of an established framework. After all, what made the most beloved late 2000s games so special was their willingness to try something new, even if they didn’t always stick the landing on the first try.

The Callisto Protocol does more than enough to scratch the Dead Space itch that’s been lingering for a decade. It’s familiar without feeling like a rehash, putting its own creative stamp on the horror genre. It’s not without its fleshy weak spots though, as overworked combat and performance instability leave room for the new IP to mutate into something more powerful down the line.

Checking the right boxes

On a surface level, The Callisto Protocol has just about everything a fan could want from a Dead Space revival (minus the plasma cutter). It’s a succinct sci-fi horror game cut from the same cloth as late 2000s linear action-adventure hits full of claustrophobic corridors, grotesque space monsters, and gnarly death animations. When it comes to crafting the kind of uncomfortable atmosphere you can’t look away from, no box is left unchecked here.

I’m easily placed in Jacob’s shoes as I helplessly try to search for a way out of an oppressive space designed to keep people in.

The story centers around Jacob Lee, a space freighter pilot tasked with transporting mysterious cargo between planets. After a sudden crash landing on the planet Callisto, home to the dreaded Black Iron Prison, Jacob is arrested without explanation and tossed into a cell. You can probably guess exactly where this is going because The Callisto Protocol doesn’t have many narrative ambitions beyond its commitment to genre tropes. Mutated monsters take over the prison and Jacob must fight his way out. Why are people being mysteriously abducted? Where did those creatures come from? Read Resident Evil For Dummies and you’ll piece it all together by page two.

The derivative story is surprising considering that Striking Distance Studios went out of its way to book actors like Josh Duhamel and Karen Fukuhara, even going so far as to perfectly recreate their likenesses. Those talents wind up feeling wasted, but the story is more functional than it is engrossing. It’s just a good excuse to create an effective haunted house in the lineage of great game locations like the Spencer Mansion of the USG Ishimura.

Ambiance is more important than story in a horror game like this and it’s clear that there’s an expert at the helm of the project who understands that. Black Iron Prison’s sterile halls are bathed in eerie darkness, hiding the infected inmates that lurk within. I always had a gun drawn when cautiously walking around, just so I could use my flashlight to carve a path through the shadows. With no map to cross-check, I’m easily placed in Jacob’s shoes as I helplessly try to search for a way out of an oppressive space designed to keep people in.

Jacob Lee stands in a dark hallway in The Callisto Protocol.

A disorienting soundscape ratchets up that tension even more. In one combat encounter, I accidentally stumble into a room full of monsters. I run back and hide in a corner as they begin to hunt for me. Suddenly, I hear the clattering of feet inside a metal vent. I frantically begin aiming my flashlight to find the source of the sound — only for a monster to pop out of a vent directly next to me, forcing me to swing my melee baton wildly like a scared grandma with a frying pan.

Those moments make for The Callisto Protocol’s best horror sequences, though it delivers some good old-fashioned jump scares too. Some of those are simple, but effective tricks like dropping a parasitic worm in a chest instead of goodies, which springs out like a Jack-in-the-box when opened. Striking Distance Studios overuses a handful of scares like that by the end of the game (you can only spook me so many times while crawling through a vent), but those surprises make sure that no part of Black Iron Prison feels like a safe room. It’s escape or, most assuredly, die.

Dodgy combat

Both my favorite quality of The Callisto Protocol and my biggest gripe with it revolve around its unique take on combat. Going in, I assumed it would just copy Dead Space’s notes by giving Jacob some knockoff plasma cutter that could strategically slice off limbs. Instead, Striking Distance Studios creates an original system that feels much more desperate, emphasizing that Jacob is a caged animal lashing out on instinct to survive. Combat revolves around a mix of melee attacks and gunplay, but the former is the main focus. Early in the game, Jacob picks a heavy baton off a dead guard that he can use to fend off monsters. When he swings it, I can feel him putting his entire body into it as if his life depends on it. Each smack lands with a satisfying thud; I can feel the weight of the metal connecting with the skeletal structure keeping these decaying flesh monsters upright.

Guns are more useful as a follow-up attack that can be chained in with striking combos, allowing Jacob to instant-aim amid an attack string and let out a powerful blast. There’s a strong rhythm to a successful encounter, with Jacob slapping a monster around and peppering in a shot when the time is right like a drummer waiting for the right second to smash a crash cymbal. While players can choose to run and gun, ammo conservation is critical. Sometimes during battles, a monster will start sprouting tentacles on its chest, signaling that it’s about to mutate into a much tougher foe. A well-aimed gunshot will nip that problem in the bud, making guns feel more like a valuable counter tool.

While those core ideas make for a strong backbone, problems arise when paired with The Callisto Protocol’s more original dodging system.

As a pièce de résistance, Jacob also has a gravity pull that yanks enemies forward. That allows players to bring in some violent slapstick comedy, as Jacob can toss enemies into spinning blades or throw them into an abyss. When all three of these tools are working together, battles feel symphonic. In my most memorable encounter, I pulled an enemy towards a spike wall and thwacked him with my baton so hard that it knocked him into it. Then I turned around and hit another monster with a shotgun blast so powerful that it sent it flying into a fan. Morbid, disgusting, beautiful.

While those core ideas make for a strong backbone, problems arise when paired with The Callisto Protocol’s more original dodging system. When Jacob gets close to an attacking enemy, the stick that controls his movement suddenly becomes a dodge stick. Pressing it left or right will let him evade an oncoming strike while pressing back blocks it. It’s an interesting concept, which almost feels like a way to seamlessly integrate what would usually be quick-time actions into combat. It’s a bit of a mess in practice, though.

Jacob Lee aims a gun at an enemy in The Callisto Protocol

I’d often find myself trying to back away from an enemy, only to have my expected movement turned into a dodge instead. That was fine for one-on-one encounters, but it created chaos anytime there were more enemies on screen. I’d find myself suddenly surrounded by enemies that would just get free hits on me from behind while I struggled to disengage from whatever was directly in front of me. That’s especially frustrating when trapped in a tight corridor (a common setting), causing the camera to wildly swing into any position it can fit into amid the mosh pit.

Combat is further complicated by a cumbersome weapon-swapping system. Jacob can collect a small arsenal of guns by the end of the game, but only two are equipped at once. Pressing the left D-pad will switch weapons, but only after a long, delayed animation. Miniscule UI makes it difficult to tell which weapon is equipped at a glance (especially when half of the weapons are handguns with a similar look), which often left me unclear on whether or not I’d successfully switched weapons in a tense encounter. Similarly, the right D-pad opens a weapon select menu that’s so tiny you need a microscope to make out which guns are which. It seems like Striking Distance was going for total immersion by reducing as much UI as possible, but it tosses out practical considerations with that bathwater.

All of those issues come to a head in the game’s absolutely miserable final boss fight, which had me dying dozens of times as I struggled to juggle weapons, manage smaller monsters in the arena, and dodge attacks that could kill me in one shot if I wasn’t facing the boss. It’s a common horror game problem that has plagued the Resident Evil series for decades. The combat system is perfect for intimate, one-on-one survival horror struggles; it does not map onto the full-on action game The Callisto Protocol becomes at a moment’s notice.

Pushing the limits

By the end of the game, I’m left feeling like Striking Distance Studios may have bitten off just a bit more than it could chew for its debut. Case in point: its technical performance. The Callisto Protocol is one of the most astonishing games I’ve seen from this newer generation of consoles, getting the most out of devices like the Xbox Series X. Faces are photorealistic, death animations are gruesomely detailed, and there are particle effects galore. I especially appreciate that it doesn’t trade in style for realism, still finding sensible places to bring in color splashes that keep the game from falling into a grim-dark muck trap.

It seems like more patches will be needed to get it fully optimized.

That incredible artistry does come at a cost, though its hard to fully speak to how it’ll run at launch. During my playthrough less than week ago, The Callisto Protocol struggled to run at a consistent frame rate on Xbox Series X. When I say that, I don’t mean that it dipped a few frames here and there. I encountered an entire hour-plus stretch where the framerate tanked below 30 frames per second and remained there until I got to a less visually busy chapter. Striking Distance implemented multiple emergency patches throughout the week, which addressed that issue and an especially egregious hard-lock bug. It’s hard to say for sure if the game will be fully optimized when it launches, as the version you download today will likely run much differently. All I can offer for now is a fair warning, as the issues I encountered mere days ago are not generally the norm for review builds.

Note that I have not seen how the game runs on PS4 and Xbox One yet, but the last minute dash to fix problems on current tech raises some red flags. If you’re planning to buy on one of those platforms, I’d recommend waiting to see how performance holds up there, as the issues I mentioned here were all seen on Xbox Series S and X.

A female character stares off to the side in The Callisto Protocol.

While issues like that are disappointing, I find myself willing to forgive The Callisto Protocol when looking at the work as a whole. This is an ambitious project for a new studio of this scale and, for the most part, the developer rises to meet the challenge with a horror game that feels both classic and original. It’s clear that a lot of care — and unfortunately a lot of crunch, which is worth reading up on before making a buying decision — went into creating a game that wouldn’t just imitate Dead Space, but bring its legacy forwards. Though parts of it feel overworked as a result of that goal, there’s a strong foundation here which I expect to be overflowing with gore next time around.

We all know Dead Space 2 was the best one anyway, right?

The Callisto Protocol was tested on Xbox Series S and Xbox Series X, with the latter hooked up to a TCL 6-Series R635.

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