The shadow of sci-fi survival horror classic Dead Space looms heavily over The Callisto Protocol (as does its remake in the new year) – but developer Striking Distance sure does its damnedest to step out swinging.
It bucks the trend for psychological horror, where your character can only run helplessly away from danger, in favour of facing those nightmares lurking in the shadows head-on. A lean, mean, ten-hour campaign is somehow almost old-school in 2022.
But frightening, photorealistic visuals and creepy immersive audio aside, does The Callisto Protocol bring anything new to the genre – or have we seen it all before?
Outbreak during a prison break
You play as Jacob Lee, a space cargo pilot in the wrong place at the wrong time who finds himself imprisoned at the Black Iron prison colony located on Callisto, Jupiter’s dead moon. But before you’ve even had time for orientation, all hell breaks loose and the prison is overrun by an alien virus. Both prison officers and prisoners alike are transformed into horrible monstrosities, referred to simply as Biophages.
While a prison might sound one-note, the taut campaign takes you through a variety of locales. It might be a linear route but the lack of an in-game map makes for an isolating experience, even with a handful of characters to meet along the way. A lot is carried by Josh Duhamel’s brilliantly understated performance (whose last video game role was in 2017’s Call of Duty: WWII – which was also helmed by Striking Distance founder and Dead Space creator Glen Schofield).
Jacob’s a relatable guy who isn’t afraid of a fight, but is far from a super soldier. The many sadistically gruesome ways he can meet his demise at the hand of a Biophage or the prison’s hazardous environments remind you he’s still very much vulnerable flesh and blood. He still has the habit of a modern video game protagonist of muttering things to signpost what you’re meant to do but much of his performance comes from his physicality. Compared to AAA games’ tendency to get too chatty, there’s a refreshing comfort – albeit in a grim dark prison colony where everything’s out to kill you – of having some quiet time as you make your way through Black Iron.
Within striking distance
The most obvious Dead Space comparison is the emphasis on non-diegetic UI, notably from Jacob’s prison neck collar that indicates health and available ammunition. But when it comes to combat, there’s not a weapon that quite rivals the iconic plasma cutter in clean precision.
Biophages like to quickly get up in your face, and the game also likes to indulge in cheap jump scares where you’re suddenly grabbed by something from out of the darkness. Although you get access to a number of firearms, you’ll more likely be getting stuck into The Callisto Protocol’s scrappy melee combat, bashing enemies to a pulp with a stun baton.
To contend with the frequent close quarters encounters, you’re also able to dodge attacks by simply holding the left stick left or right, alternating directions to avoid combos. Fortunately timing isn’t factored in, although it’s trickier to execute if you’re surrounded by multiple enemies. Alternatively, you can sometimes sneak around and take out an enemy with a stealthy stab of your shiv.
More interesting is the GRP gravity glove acquired early on, which can grab objects or enemies and then throw them back. Explosive canisters lying around are perfect ammo for lobbing at oncoming enemies, though these depend on what environment you find yourself in. There’s always a fiendish delight in being in a room with large spinning machinery that you can push a Biophage into – just be careful not to get caught in them yourself.
Indeed, making quick work of enemies is a core tactic to staying alive, especially when you start encountering Biophages that suddenly sprout tentacles – your cue to shoot them off before they mutate into an even deadlier form.
The challenge ramps up as the campaign unfolds, even after you acquire a suit that increases Jacob’s health, but the auto-save function has a tendency to be stingy with checkpointing your progress. There were moments in “safe” areas where we’d be upgrading our gear via a 3D printing machine, only to die in an unexpected combat encounter, and discover the previous bit hadn’t saved.
Also, as immersive as the non-diegetic UI is, discerning how much battery is left in the GRP is also tricky. It’s annoying to pick up an enemy but run out of charge as you’re about to fling it into some spikes. Jacob’s supposed to automatically use spare batteries during combat, but that isn’t always the case, forcing a trip into the inventory – which doesn’t pause the game.
Small but necessary actions, like reloading your weapon or using a healing injector, all have very lengthy animations. That’s far from ideal when enemies move fast and won’t hesitate to to flatten you, tear you to pieces, gouge out your eyes, or… you get the idea. Even trying to switch weapons during a tense combat sequence is fiddly. This all ratchets up the tension, but can also frustrate in prolonged combat encounters. We’d not blame anyone for turning the difficulty down once a particular enemy type (one that’s both very spongy and can one-shot kill you) starts showing up.
Upgrading your equipment evens the odds a little, though in-game credits are finite and new gear gets exponentially more expensive. It seemed impossible to max everything out in a single playthrough – yet there’s no new game plus option to carry your progress over. Perhaps that’ll be something you’ll need to pay for through the game’s upcoming season pass, which is also set to include more grisly death animations for poor Jacob.
The Callisto Protocol verdict
The Callisto Protocol is a refreshing return to the action-oriented survival horror almost perfected by Dead Space almost 15 years ago. The greater focus on very graphic and gruesome body horror, by way of Biophage mutations and all the ways you can meet your demise certainly brings the formula bang up to date.
The story is a human one, about taking responsibility for your actions, and is anchored by Josh Duhamel’s performance as Jacob. Lore is also plentiful, which opens up the potential for more stories in this universe. There’s already a podcast series called The Callisto Protocol: Helix Station, voiced by Gwendoline Christie and Michael Ironside, which serves as a prequel.
But while there’s a strong sense of place in this oppressive world, some annoyances do get in the way of the gameplay. There’s also not quite enough in the combat to make it stand out from its peers. Don’t get us wrong, the GRP is a fun tool, but any gravity-based weapon is forever doomed once compared with Half Life 2’s gravity gun. Nonetheless, this is still a decent, taut campaign that’ll have you screaming into the holidays.
Not quite a Dead Space killer but still a welcome return to old-school action survival horror
Creepy enemies and environmental design
Grip gun is fun to use
Occasionally stingy checkpointing
Using items and reloading too slow in the thick of action
No new game plus