The Callisto Protocol review: In space jail, no one can hear you scream
If it looks like Dead Space and sounds like Dead Space, but isn’t called Dead Space, what do you have? The Callisto Protocol, as it turns out, but whether it adds up to the sum of its parts is another question.
Dead Space co-creator Glen Schofield is back and he’s staying firmly in his lane with another third-person space horror game, but we can’t help but feel that The Callisto Protocol could have done with a more forward-looking approach on the gameplay side of things. Here’s how we found it.
A grim, dark world
The Callisto Protocol opens up on a somewhat familiar scene – our protagonist Jacob Lee is aboard his shipping vessel, making a run between bioweapon-hit Europa and the prison moon of Callisto.
After a quick walk around his under-lit creepy cargo hold, Jacob’s boarded by insurgents and crash-lands on Callisto only to find himself brought in as an inmate instead of a victim.
Things immediately unravel as Callisto is overtaken by a wave of creepy zombies, and Jacob’s soon working his way slowly up to safety with the help of a few other inmates.
The story told here isn’t revolutionary by any stretch – its twists are far from jaw-dropping and character motivations are pretty much highlighted for you, but it makes up for this with brisk pacing.
It only takes a short while to get going, and things pretty much keep going for the span of its 10-12 hour playtime (admittedly, by the end, you’ll be gagging for a plan that doesn’t fall through and require you to go fix something before it can work).
Still, there’s a feeling of familiarity to it all, and it must be said that the central conceit from Dead Space – that your character is so competent because he’s a literal engineer – isn’t replicated here and feels absent. Jacob’s willingness to stomp on dead zombie bodies within five minutes of coming around in his cell is more than a little puzzling.
There are little logical gaps like that all through The Callisto Protocol, and while it hardly undermines the whole experience, it does speak to its slightly second-rate impact.
Chop it up
The Callisto Protocol’s gameplay is actually even more of a direct homage to Dead Space than its story and characters – you’re again a slow-moving guy on a creepy space base dismembering weird zombies.
Again, you have a health-bar superimposed in-world onto the back of your dude’s head and can aim at specific body parts to slow the aforementioned zombies more effectively. It even lets you stomp on those corpses to inexplicably have them spurt up item drops with no adequate explanation.
This is all well and good, but thankfully things are a little smoother and more modern than Dead Space, including movement that’s less tank-like and shooting that feels more controlled.
That said, with weaponry that’s more martial and less practical (think more guns, less plasma cutters), another bit of unique world-building lies by the wayside, and The Callisto Protocol’s combat is a thoroughly mixed bag.
It has a dodging and blocking system that underlines its focus on melee engagements, and while this can work fairly well in contained encounters where you have time to square off against one enemy, it gets fiddly and frustrating quickly when multiple foes approach.
That’s a shame, because the game throws gangs of enemies at you all the time, from a very early stage. This had us wondering whether we were meant to be sprinting past them at one point, but no – it’s just an unforgiving combat system that we had to learn properly.
Player onboarding and difficulty curves are hard to finesse, but you know when they’re not quite right, and that’s the case here. Some combination of tutorialising and early encounter design doesn’t come together, making for annoying moments.
The addition of a telekinetic glove after around an hour (called a GRP) makes things miles better, giving you the ability to grab objects and enemies to chuck them around into hazards and each other. It opens up new possibilities and is fun to play with, albeit with a short number of uses.
The bleeding edge
From a story and gameplay perspective, then, The Callisto Protocol feels a little bit like a re-run of Dead Space with some new bells and whistles.
Thankfully, its visual presentation amps things up by a huge margin, with designs and environments that are really quite something to behold.
Playing on PlayStation 5, this is a world of dripping, dank corridors and creepy tight spaces, full of chopped-up corpses and horrific crime scenes.
It’s one that might be a little bit non-descript in terms of visual character (beyond simply being grim and industrialist) but, my word, it’s realised impressively.
A 30FPS quality mode is rarely worth it in our eyes compared to a 60FPS option but here we chose the former, opting for ray-traced graphical whizzbangs that made scenes simply pop with realism and lighting.
Characters look incredibly real, all the more so when they’re having their faces torn open or heads twisted off – because this game features death animations significantly more disgusting than we were ready for, something that may put some gamers off.
The game also sounds great, using next-gen tech to ensure that echoes and clanks are more echo-located than ever, pranging you out as you move around and reminding you that you’re basically always very far from safe.
It’s just a disappointment that the scares and jumps that these teases culminate in are often pedestrian, with something just a little lacking if you’re looking for real terror.
We’ve been more scared recently playing retro titles like Signalis than we were here, and we’d chalk that up as something to disappoint Striking Distance Studios.
Viewed from another angle, though, this is clearly an accomplished debut from a new studio that has just this single game under its belt – that’s swings and roundabouts stuff, though.