Callisto is the second largest moon on the planet Jupiter. It is also home to the Black Iron Prisonm, in which the science fiction game The Callisto Protocol takes place. This sure isn’t the USG Ishimura, but instead, a fresh rendition of outer space horror. Ever since Dead Space producer Glen Schofield and his newly found Striking Distance Studios announced this project back at the tail end of 2020, I’ve been waiting in eager anticipation to set foot on this infected penal colony. Now that it’s finally out, The Callisto Protocol sets the bar high for a truly terrifying triple-A horror experience that dazzles in its world building and art direction but is regrettably dragged down by frustratingly questionable design choices.
The Callisto Protocol is a third person survival horror game where you play as cargo transporter Jacob Lee, played by Josh Duhamel. A series of unfortunate events causes you to become Black Iron Prison’s newest incarcerated inmate, who just so happens to be suffering from a contagious outbreak. Now it’s up to you to escape this hell and figure out some dark secrets.
One of the biggest reveals during promotional trailers prior to the game’s release was the involvement of Karen Fukuhara from The Boys as a prominent character in the game. Fukuhara and Duhamel, along with the rest of the cast, put on stellar performances in a high stakes narrative filled with dramatic twists and turns. I especially enjoyed Sam Witwer’s role as the antagonistic prison captain Leon Ferris.
The Callisto Protocol feels like a true next generation experience with stunning animations, an unparalleled environment setting, and tense sound effects. The immersion is further enhanced by the game’s usage of the Apprehension Engine which elevates audio design by utilizing a cacophony of otherworldly sounds. The work done by the team at Sony’s Visual Arts Services Group truly shows how graphically polished and beautiful this game really is. And I always appreciate the haptic feedback on the DualSense controller along with radio communication in the game outputting on the controller itself. It’s a small detail that goes a long way.
It’s sort of impossible not to compare The Callisto Protocol to the series that influenced it to begin with: Dead Space. You have similar science fiction disaster premises and equally brutal and gory death animation sequences. That being said, this game is not Dead Space as Glen Schofield and his team have crafted a unique-enough survival horror to call their own. The game’s emphasis on dodge timings and melee strikes, and gun fights later in the game, make the game feel like a great mix of action and horror. We’ll have to wait until January 2023 to see how the Dead Space Remake holds up to this incredible debut project of a game. The Callisto Protocol isn’t without its flaws but Striking Distance Studios has created a solid foundation to work on for future projects.
It wouldn’t be a true survival horror game without inventory management and limited resources. You have finite pockets to store health injectors, battery packs, and ammo in so you’ll have to make a judgment call when your backpack is full. You start off with absolutely nothing, and are required to sneak through sections stealthily in order to progress. Along the way, you get your hands on a wide arsenal of weapons and tools, including a shiv, an extremely satisfying stun baton, a gravity glove, a shotgun, and eventually an assault rifle. Most weapons are actually found as schematics that you then use a cool 3D printer to print out.
As you would probably expect, ammo is extremely scarce and the price of upgrading weapons is costly. Instead, the game heavily promotes melee combat over ranged. The weighty electrified stick combined with the GRP (Gravity Restraint Projector) gauntlet allows for some incredibly sick combos as you can unleash a melee combo then grab the enemy and throw them into environmental hazards. Being able to see a demented infected getting ground up by a turbine is just chef’s kiss. There’s also this cool mechanic that allows you to chain a gunshot to an enemy’s weak spot after you stagger them with your melee attack. I can clearly see the creativity that has gone into making gameplay more colorful and dynamic. The glove runs out of battery pretty fast so you better stock up on those when you find them lying around. You do have the option to execute enemies via stealth but most enemy encounters are head on and intense.
Traversal and combat are easily the most terrifying parts of the game, as you are constantly on edge, kept in fear of having to come face to face with another infected. The lights that flicker, the panels that creak, and the pipes that squeak effortlessly build up that anticipation for something lurking around the corner, only for you to find nothing. Dead bodies and infected pus sacks on the floor may or may not reanimate. This game pushes the boundaries of inducing trepidation with its immaculate atmosphere building. And yes, there are still jump scares from time to time for good measure.
When you do have to whip out your baton and bash some zombie skulls, fighting is adrenaline inducing and desperate. Every single enemy in this game poses an immense threat, and the visceral feedback from each bullet fired or baton hit makes combat much more intentional and deliberate. As you progress, you come across increasingly deformed enemies, ranging from two headed acid spitters and long necked bloodworms to wall crawlers and exploders. I do wish there were more epic mutated boss encounters though, as there are only two total.
The Callisto Protocol’s dodge mechanic, however, is a perfect example of don’t fix what ain’t broke. While most other games have a dodge ability mapped to the press of a single button or key, Striking Distance Studios decided to think outside the box and tie it to the left analog stick. You have to move the stick left or right before an enemy attacks in order to dodge it. There’s not even perfect timing required as long as you hold it in a certain direction. Easy and intuitive, because that’s also how you move your character right? Completely wrong, because this half-baked “creative” approach is hands down the worst experience I have had with a video game. I’ll admit that you get somewhat used to it after trial and error and getting over the initial learning curve, but only when you are facing a singular enemy. Melee combat completely breaks down and becomes mind numbingly frustrating when multiple enemies swarm you in a tight space.
How can you lean the analog stick left when you also have to move your character around? You can’t! You can choose to not bother to dodge at all by running away but Jacob runs slower than every enemy type so you get hit anyways. The situation gets even worse when the camera works against you. Sometimes you can’t see where the next strike will come from, due to how zoomed in you are on Jacob’s body. Combined with enemies off screen and behind you that can also attack you, there’s close to nothing you can do on your end to prevent it. Heck, even the block mechanic is tied to the analog stick, requiring you to lean it backwards in order to perform the action. I understand where the developers were trying to go with this idea, and I commend them for their effort and creativity. Unfortunately, it’s just straight up bad game design. It’s a complete shame that a core mechanic is botched so hard in a game where melee combat is so stressed and emphasized.
There’s been a lot of discourse on the technical polish of this game or lack thereof, especially on PC, regarding stuttering and frame drops. While I can’t speak for the PC version specifically, I am happy to say that I experienced a pretty optimized runthrough of the game on the PlayStation 5. Load times are, of course, near instantaneous thanks to the console’s SSD. There were a few frame drops here and there during intense sequences but nothing game breaking. The Callisto Protocol offers both a quality mode at 30 fps and a performance mode at 60 fps. The latter is obviously the one to go with and makes gameplay much more engaging and fluid. Even in performance mode, the game boasts some extremely impressive visual fidelity. Striking Distance Studios have been very communicative about further improving the game and listening to player feedback, so I have no doubt all the kinks will be ironed out in no time.
Even though the game ends on a never-satisfying cliffhanger, I can’t help but eagerly wait for what’s next in this game’s inevitable sequel. I have a lot of love for The Callisto Protocol, there’s no doubt about it, but it’s that dodge mechanic that's dragging down my appreciation for it. Hey, that whole system might work for you. It didn’t for me and that’s okay. I’ll even look past the minor technical hiccups because those can be patched up. Regardless, Striking Distance Studios has done an exemplary job with their debut project with a genuine survival horror experience that sets up the premise for what might be a whole slew of future sequels and spinoffs.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.