You'll love it if:
- You’ve never played Dead Space
- You’re a fan of sci-fi horror media
- You’re looking for a puzzle-free experience
- You want a great-looking and sounding game
Not for you if:
- You’ve played Dead Space before
- You hate one-shot-kill enemies
- You can’t tolerate technical bugs
- You want replayability from your games
Despite aiming to revitalize the survival horror genre, The Callisto Protocol falls short of its promise by over-relying on gory violence instead of subtle frights. It’s very much worth your time and clocking in at around 10 hours, it’s a sci-fi ride worth taking if you’re looking to scratch that Dead Space itch.
Resident Evil 4 truly revolutionized survival horror when it hit Nintendo GameCube back in 2005. Since then, the over-the-shoulder third-person perspective has become a genre staple. Dead Space iterated on its gameplay mechanics quite successfully in 2008, switching gears and taking survival horror to outer space.
The game was a brainchild of Glen A. Schofield, then vice-president of Visceral Games which continued to develop the franchise after he departed from the studio. In 2019, Schofield joined Krafton (publisher of PUBG), as the CEO of Striking Distance Studios. The studio’s goal was to create narrative experiences as spinoffs of PUBG, which is where The Callisto Protocol comes into play.
Production on The Callisto Protocol began in 2019, with the game officially separating itself (narratively) from PUBG only recently. It was officially released on December 2nd, allowing gamers worldwide to experience the next step in the Dead Space creator’s evolution as a game director. So, how revolutionary is The Callisto Protocol, and how does it inevitably compare to its spiritual predecessor?
Story – Crash Landing on Callisto
The Callisto Protocol shares a lot of similarities with Dead Space (1) when it comes to its opening hour. Players assume control of Jacob, a freelancer/smuggler who is on his way to Callisto. Jacob and his partner Max are shipping goods between Callisto and Europa to make ends meet when their ship is attacked by a terrorist cell known as The Outer Way.
A clash between Jacob, Max, and the intruders results in their ship crashing on Callisto, where Jacob becomes an inmate of a penal colony dubbed Black Iron Prison. As he wakes up in his cell shortly after being imprisoned, he realizes that things have gone wrong and that it’s time to escape the planet. The game’s setup is very simple but effectively immerses the player in its world and the dire situation Jacob found himself in. However, The Callisto Protocol doesn’t fully capitalize on its setup and instead settles for familiar, expected beats.
Playing It Too Safe
Despite its promising setting, The Callisto Protocol doesn’t try to do anything unexpected with its story. The goal of ultimately escaping Callisto never really changes during the game’s 8-10-hour runtime, and its twists, while welcome, are the things we’ve already seen before. It’s not as complex as something like Arkane Studios’ Prey because it’s not trying to be. It’s designed to be a brisk, action-packed experience with a note of survival horror sprinkled in for good measure.
The game initially feels like The Chronicles of Riddick in video game form, which is an exciting and not-often-seen prospect. Escaping a penal colony in outer space is an idea brimming with potential, but at the halfway mark, the game shifts gears and abandons its survival horror elements almost entirely. Without giving anything away, its atmosphere and pacing become closer to James Cameron’s Aliens.
When the end credits roll, you’ll feel satisfied with the journey you’ve undertaken with Jacob, but you’ll likely forget about most of it soon thereafter. The fact that The Callisto Protocol is set up as the first entry in a longer series suggests that story iteration and evolution are still on the horizon. It’s unfortunate, however, as a game should stand on its own two feet before asking the players to commit to a potential, not-yet-set-in-stone continuation, pending the success of the first game.
Gameplay – Dead Space Lite
If you’ve ever seen gameplay footage of Dead Space, or even modern third-person Resident Evil titles, you’ll feel right at home with The Callisto Protocol. The game’s movement, shooting mechanics, inventory, and upgrade management are lifted straight from Dead Space. This isn’t surprising given the game director’s involvement with EA’s dormant franchise, which is now slated for a remake.
You’ll control Jacob from an over-the-shoulder perspective and guide him down linear levels without much in terms of side paths. The game is a linear affair, a corridor shooter hankering back to the 360/PS3 era. Some would categorize this as redundant or simplistic, others would say it’s a refinement of the survival horror genre. Regardless, The Callisto Protocol separates itself from its influences with two important gameplay elements – stealth and melee combat.
Jacob will almost always be outnumbered and surrounded by enemies, low on ammo, and only a step away from being overwhelmed. Crouching allows you to sneak past enemies, perform takedowns, and crawl through tight spaces such as vents. Stealth combat is encouraged thanks to Jacob’s improvised prison shiv, which you’ll also use to open chests and unlock doors.
Beating Enemies to a Pulp
The Callisto Protocol’s melee combat is the one truly innovative element which deserves praise, but also raises some questions. You’ll dodge enemy attacks by moving left and right regardless of the enemy’s attack direction. Moving backward automatically blocks incoming attacks. In one-on-one encounters, this system works flawlessly and you’ll start to feel in control of the situation when facing melee enemies. However, it quickly falls apart when Jacob faces more than one enemy – because the system is built around one-on-one encounters. While dodging and focusing on one enemy, you won’t be able to react to another enemy’s moves, leading to frequent stun locks and instant-death scenarios.
Its weapon-based combat is what one would expect from a third-person shooter heavily inspired by Dead Space. Jacob will use a variety of prison guard weapons to shoot his way through Black Iron Prison and you’ll be able to upgrade each one with additional firepower, magazine size, etc. Most enemies are however very susceptible to melee attacks, so using firearms shouldn’t be prioritized. You’ll always deal with these encounters on your own and without any NPCs to assist you, despite several characters joining you on your path to freedom.
Frustrating Difficulty Balancing
Playing The Callisto Protocol shows how revolutionary the original Dead Space was when it came out nearly 15 years ago. The game does its utmost to transplant a lot of its gameplay mechanics without them seeming out of place. Dead Space’s RIG system (health display) is lifted verbatim, with the Kinesis ability (telekinesis) now being dubbed “grip”, or GRP.
This isn’t to say that The Callisto Protocol is derivative – Schofield valiantly attempts to revolutionize his game design ideas in a new franchise untethered from Electronic Arts. However, the game doesn’t do enough to separate itself from its spiritual predecessor. Everything it does, it does worse than Dead Space did.
A Crisis of Genre Identity
Combat is very restrictive and lacks any freedom for creativity. Without any limb separation mechanics, it’s just not fun fighting bullet-spongy enemies which can stun-lock you in a few seconds. Many of its enemies are of the one-hit-kill variety and the game is heavily reliant on QTEs, a gameplay mechanic that many franchises have moved away from over the years.
The latter half of The Callisto Protocol ramps up the action but its gameplay systems weren’t built for massive combat encounters with a dozen enemies at a time. This leads to frustrating deaths which, paired with infrequent and sporadic checkpoints, lead to some annoyance. Paired with the fact that the game recycles the same, solitary boss encounter on five separate occasions (each being a one-hit-kill affair), it’s clear that the game needed a bit more refinement from the gameplay perspective.
Visual Presentation – Gorgeous Yet Troublesome
The Callisto Protocol is beautiful to look at. Striking Distance Studios used Unreal Engine 4 and motion capture to bring the planet of Callisto and its characters to life with striking results, pun intended. Whether you’re crawling through tunnels and vents or taking a stroll through snow-covered valleys and outposts, the game will mesmerize you with its visuals. Character models are especially impressive, with the studio opting to use real-world actors akin to an actual movie. The results are very impressive, with facial expressions, sweat, eye movement, and other minor details being implemented very professionally.
The same cannot be said for environmental effects like fog and fire which are static and not rendered in real time. There are quite a few low-resolution textures interspersed throughout the environments you’ll move through. Likewise, while the game does feature Ray Tracing, it’s still buggy and requires a few patches before it’s in a praiseworthy state. The Callisto Protocol suffers quite a bit because of how pretty it is to look at.
Technical Hiccups Galore
On launch day, the game was almost unplayable due to how messy its optimization was across all platforms. The Callisto Protocol averaged 25-40 FPS on Series X, with stutters and dips in performance happening in and out of combat. Combined with the nature of melee combat, it was extremely difficult to make any progress in the game due to how Unreal Engine 4 compiled its assets in the back-end.
On day two, Striking Distance Studios delivered massive patches to all platforms (12GB for Series X), bringing the performance closer to what it envisioned initially. The Callisto Protocol is now in a playable state, but it still suffers from stutters, long load times after death, and even crashes on startup.
It’s positive that the studio is proactively working on fixing these issues, but it’s telling that the game is launching a mere month before the Dead Space remake. Whether the decision to release The Callisto Protocol in December was made by Krafton or by its developers, it’s clear that the game is technically imperfect. The problems are especially prevalent on PC, where gamers have reported issues regardless of how powerful their PCs are.
Audio Presentation – Nail-Biting Immersion
The Callisto Protocol features truly immersive audio design, bringing the game’s world to life and complementing its high-fidelity visuals. Environmental sound effects are effective at making sure that you’re always on your toes and know exactly where the enemies are coming from. However, the game does fall into the typical horror trope of announcing every enemy encounter with a jump scare sound cue which will startle you and jolt you into alertness.
Each weapon you’ll use, including melee weapons, sound punchy and punishing. Paired with weapon impact sounds of hitting enemies successfully, The Callisto Protocol’s audio design will make you appreciate its atmosphere even more. The game’s music is kept to a minimum and is only reserved for striking emotional cords or moments of action during cut-scenes and set pieces.
Most of the time, it’ll be just you, your surroundings, and the footsteps of approaching enemies – and it’s something to behold. The Callisto Protocol’s audio design extends to audio logs which you’ll find scattered throughout Black Iron Prison. These will help you understand the game’s lore and character motivations and are excellently produced, with sound queues and voice filtering very similar to Dead Space’s audio logs. Overall, you’ll enjoy the game even more if you have a good surround sound system to rely on.
A Stellar Cast of Actors
Similar to its contemporaries like The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes, The Callisto Protocol opts for a full cast of Hollywood actors. Josh Duhamel (Transformers) plays Jacob, the main character, with Karen Fukuhara (The Boys) and Sam Witwer (Star Wars) also filling the ranks of The Callisto Protocol. Joining them are Louise Barnes (Black Sails) and James C. Mathis III who is a well-known, long-time voice actor in both video games and animation.
This results in very professional performances across the board, and paired with the game’s motion capture, in very believable, movie-like cut-scenes. Each actor delivers a great rendition of their character and elevates the game’s otherwise bog-standard story to a higher level. It’s an interesting choice, one which would be expected from the likes of Hideo Kojima or David Cage, but it’s a welcome choice nonetheless.
Final Verdict – Should You Play The Callisto Protocol?
The Callisto Protocol’s biggest flaw is that it simply isn’t scary – it’s just gory and violent. It’s a shame because due to its visual fidelity, Striking Distance Studios could have pulled off something noteworthy in terms of raw survival horror. The recently released Signalis did a lot more with far fewer polygons to work with, which is a testament to the fact that psychological survival horror is a refined art form.
The Callisto Protocol is a fun ride, a third-person shooter set on an ice planet, and with a penal colony to boot. If you’re looking for an engaging action game to spend 8-10 hours on, you could do far worse than The Callisto Protocol. Just don’t expect a horror genre revolution or an experience with rich replayability.
Currently, the game lacks any form of New Game+ or an incentive to replay it beyond collecting all the achievements. However, the studio has promised a slew of DLC coming in 2023 (under a separate Season Pass price tag, of course). The Callisto Protocol is worth your time, albeit on a discount, especially once the DLC drops – as it stands, its value for money may not be to everyone’s liking. The game is available on PS and Xbox consoles, as well as PC, with the latter in need of several patches to bring it up to a playable state as of the writing of this review.
Huge thanks to CD Media for providing us with the review copy!