NextGen Take - The Callisto Protocol

Hard time just got a whole lot harder



By Paul Hunter

For the past two years, there's one game that has consistently ranked high on my 'most anticipated game' list, and that's The Callisto Protocol. Announced at The Game Awards 2020, this brand new IP is by the newly formed development team at Striking Distance Studios, led by Dead Space and Call of Duty franchise veteran Glen Schofield. The Callisto Protocol, which is published by Krafton, was originally intended to be part of the company's PUBG: Battlegrounds world, but the game later grew to have its own unique story and universe.

In a year jam-packed with absolutely phenomenal horror games like Dying Light 2, The Quarry and Ghostwire: Tokyo, the question is: Should The Callisto Protocol be the next horror title on your playlist? Now that I've had the chance to play through the game's eight chapters it's time to give my take. Here are three things I liked about the game...and two I didn't.

Liked: Intriguing Story

New IPs are generally exciting moments since we get a chance to explore a brand new game world and learn about its history, characters and lore. The Callisto Protocol delivers for the most part in this regard, as its world is brimming with intrigue and potential.

The game takes place on Jupiter's dead moon Callisto in the year 2320, a time when humans have achieved interplanetary travel, at least within our own solar system. You assume the role of Jacob Lee (Josh Duhamel, Transformers), a cargo pilot en route delivering fresh goods to Callisto. After the voyage goes sour, Jacob winds up getting incarcerated at Black Iron Prison controlled by United Jupiter Company and run by Warden Cole (James C Mathis III, best known as the voice actor for Black Panther).

Of course, soon thereafter the prison goes to hell in a handbasket when Biophage mutants turn the facility into a deadly, out-of-control hive. While it's not the most original plot, I was still captivated by the mysterious prison setting that's clearly hiding dark secrets. Why was Jacob imprisoned while seemingly doing nothing wrong? What role did the United Jupiter Company play in this outbreak? Those were just some of the larger questions on my mind as I explored the oppressive and macabre corridors of this intimidating iron prison.

Early in the adventure you also meet Dani Nakamura (Karen Fukuhara, The Boys), who I actually think is the most captivating character of the entire story, and certainly has more layers than the rather flat personality of Jacob. Dani grew up on Europa, another planet affected by a sudden outbreak, which she believes the United Jupiter Company may be behind. Her mission to uncover the truth also leads to her getting locked up at Black Iron Prison. She's a capable fighter with elite survival skills and that naturally drew me to her character, but it's her knowledge of the situation that made her the most fascinating. Throughout the story, she clearly knows more than she lets on, and even after the credits rolled I still have many unanswered questions about her past and future motivations.

In all, The Callisto Protocol features eight chapters but the story pacing leaves much to be desired as you only really start unearthing the juicy details of the outbreak in chapter seven. And even worse, the environmental storytelling doesn't pick up until the final couple of chapters. Games like BioShock, Scorn and anything FromSoftware's made all do a much better job at environmental storytelling—a real missed opportunity, no doubt. Thankfully, there are audio and written logs scattered all around Black Iron Prison that do an excellent job of fleshing out the characters, factions and events within the game. It's a shame though that the audio logs don't auto-play after you pick them up; instead, you need to manually listen to them by going into the menu, disrupting the game's flow.

Overall, I was satisfied with the game's story beats, even if the middle part is narratively almost silent. And the tantalizing ending gives me hope this won't be the only excursion we take in this deadly, futuristic world.

Liked: Classic Horror Approach

As a spiritual successor of sorts to EA's Dead Space series, The Callisto Protocol does a great job of sticking to the survival horror fundamentals. Supplies, including healing injectors and ammo, are in very short supply, so much so that your main offensive weapon is a stun baton you acquire moments after the outbreak. That means you'll often have to get much closer to enemies than you'd like to bash their fleshy skulls in.

The comparisons to Dead Space don't stop there though, in fact in nearly all regards this game apes the gameplay mechanics of its spiritual predecessor. Combat is extremely brutal and gruesome, with the various types of Biophage enemies each having their own disgusting ways of beating you to a bloody, dismembered pulp. Not only can you stomp on defeated foes to acquire items—just like in Dead Space—but you also acquire a kinesis device, this time called a GRP (Gravity Restraint Projector) glove. The menu system is, as you might expect, a holographic overlay, and you even get a futuristic armoured suit just like a certain other survival horror game. The Callisto Protocol is so unafraid of wearing its influence on its sleeve, your health bar and GRP battery power meter appear directly on Jacob's neck, instead of flowing down his spine.

While it might sound like I'm complaining, and to a certain degree I am because I wish this game was more original, ultimately it being a Dead Space clone isn't a bad thing because let's face it: Dead Space is incredible. That constant feeling of familiarity playing The Callisto Protocol was amazing, especially considering EA abandoned its IP following 2013's Dead Space 3 (although thankfully a reboot of the series is slated for early 2023).

From a level design perspective, the game also takes a classic horror approach with long, dark abandoned hallways with flickering lights, plus, of course, blood, body parts and sticky hive goo coating virtually every surface. The best part about the level design, though, is how it's straight linear—always pushing you forward to the next haunting zone—with minimal backtracking. There were a lot of environmental similarities, you visit multiple medical and power generator rooms, for example, but at least the linear progression means you're constantly working your way through new locations.

Liked: Visceral Graphics and Terrifying Audio Effects

As good as the story and classic survival horror elements are, for me the best part of The Callisto Protocol is its killer presentation. You're given two graphics options to tailor the game exactly to your liking: Performance mode which runs at 60fps and Quality mode which has a locked 30fps with 4K resolution plus ray-traced lighting and shadows. I reviewed the game on PS5 in Quality mode and let me tell you, it is breathtaking.

From the high-quality textures to the pristine lighting effects to the impressive cutscene fidelity, few games can come close to this game's visuals. Way too many times I'd turn a corner to find yet another long hallway with an ominous red, blue or yellow neon light glowing at the end, hinting at looming dangers just steps away. Whenever you see a change in hallway lighting colour, usually that means danger and puts me in high alert mode. Every now and again you'll also see a single lonely enemy at the end of the hallway and you just know that's not the only one. That feeling of constant terror kept me on edge the whole way through. I must have spent half the game or more crouch walking because I was terrified of creating footstep noises with Jacob's regular walk.

I was not very impressed with the enemy variety—there are around eight variations of Biophage mutants in all—but I have to say, their character model quality is damn impressive. The mutants have oozing puss blisters, rotting flesh, creepy worm veins up and down their bodies and truly horrific faces. In classic Dead Space style you can also blast off their body parts, including their heads, arms and legs, yet oftentimes those damn creatures still come rushing (or crawling) toward you. There aren't many bosses in the game, but the few that are there look bloody disgusting, as intended.

Perhaps even better than the visuals is the use of 3D audio in the game. I absolutely recommend playing the game with headphones so you can hear with pinpoint precision exactly where the creatures are. The Biophage has a tendency of crawling through vents and it's those moments where 3D audio is invaluable for helping to keep you alive. Any time I heard vent scurrying I'd quickly scan the room for the exit vent, then beat that mutant to mush the second it pops out. The audio also ratchets up the intensity quite a bit, too, as it's hair-raising hearing the creatures crawling, croaking and screeching all through the zones you travel through.

If you happen to be playing the game on PS5, you'll surely appreciate the DualSense integrations that amplify the combat, traversal and environmental immersion. Using the DualSense's haptic feedback you'll feel Jacob's gentle footsteps as you creep along, and the rumbling vibrations of an elevator taking you up or down, plus you can actually feel the whirl of Black Iron Prison's large industrial fans should you stand near them. Nearly every action you take has a custom haptic shock to draw you into the world even further.

Didn't Like: Clunky Combat

The Callisto Protocol would be a bonafide home run if it wasn't for one tragic flaw: combat is virtually busted the second you face more than one enemy at a time, which happens often. For the first chapter or so I really enjoyed the combat, which has you lean the analog left and right to dodge enemy combos, and then after you can retaliate with your own beatings. In the early goings, you mostly face enemies one-on-one and it's exciting and terrifying getting into the rhythm of dodging and blocking. It's quite satisfying, at least to start.

But the further you get into the game, the more enemies can attack you at once, sometimes five or more at a time, and that's where the combat just falls apart. For one thing, the dodge mechanic was clearly designed for one on one fights, so if you dodge during a group skirmish you'll more often than not dodge right into another creature's attack, making dodging useless. There are five guns you can acquire but enemies are bullet sponges and with limited ammo, your firearms only carry you so far. Plus, swapping weapons takes way too much time, particularly because some guns actually take a few seconds to assemble—seconds you don't have because the Biophage is rushing to maul your face.

It gets worse, too. Your health injectors actually require you to kneel for about five sections completely stationary. The fact that you can't walk and heal (like you can in Thymesia) is just absurd. In only a handful of the frantic battles I got myself in was I able to find a secure spot to recover health, so it's pretty clear you're rarely supposed to heal in combat by design. Seriously?

Believe it or not, there's another huge issue with combat as if all the above isn't bad enough. You can also utilize your GRP gravity glove in combat, but the amount of time it takes you to catch an enemy in your gravitation field and then position them correctly so they go flying into a spiked wall can quickly leave you exposed to other enemy attacks. Your GRP battery also completely drains within seconds and then takes three minutes to fully charge. Three minutes while in battle is a lifetime so yet again, it's clear you're not meant to use GRP much in combat. To help make the GRP a tad bit more useful you can upgrade the recharge rate and the maximum battery power, and you can hold GRP batteries in your paltry six-slot inventory (mercifully later upgraded to twelve), but even still, the GRP is only moderately useful at best.

When you add all these clumsy gameplay mechanics together (and that's not even mentioning other annoyances, like how there's no 'quick' turn like what Resident Evil has) the bottom line is either the multi-enemy combat was barely play tested, or it if was, the developers surely must actively hate their player base. If the graphics are 10/10, the story 8/10, then the combat is a 4/10 at max. It's just plain bad. The real stinger is that Dead Space, which The Callisto Protocol obviously tries to emulate, has great, satisfying combat. It makes me wonder what the heck happened here?

Didn't Like: Generic Protagonist

Jacob Lee, the game's protagonist, is about as interesting as a dry piece of Melba toast. He's entirely generic and easily forgettable, which is surprising given how memorable supporting characters like Elias Porter (another inmate Jacob befriends) and Dani Nakamura are. Even the two main antagonists, Warden Cole and Captain Leon Ferris, who only show up a handful of times during the campaign both have an air of mystery and intrigue surrounding them.

The problem is, we barely get to know Jacob over the ten-hour campaign giving you little reason to care about his survival. I was way more interested in saving Elias and Dani because at least they have depth to their personality. And those two carried most of the cutscenes, too, while Jacob just follows their commands without much input himself. If there ever is a follow-up title, let's hope it doesn't star Jacob Lee (which is likely inevitably will, sigh!).

The Verdict

The Callisto Protocol is an impressive first release from Striking Distance Studios with sublime visuals and immersive 3D audio, all set in a captivating new game world I just have to see more of. The performance on PS5 is exceptional: buttery-smooth frame rates, crisp 4K resolution and one of best implementations of ray tracing and DualSense features I've seen yet. If only the combat was better this would be a near-perfect outing, but alas that aspect needs some major reworking. Still, horror fans should absolutely give this game a go because it delivers on its promise of being a (mostly) faithful Dead Space spiritual successor.

Final Score: 8/10 - Great


The Callisto Protocol details

Platform: PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC
Developer: Striking Distance Studios
Publisher: Krafton
Genre: Survival Horror
Modes: Single-player
ESRB Rating: M (Mature)


A key was provided by the publisher.