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I’m a stickler for finishing video games. As a general rule, I always try to at least roll credits on the majority of games I start just to give them every possible chance of winning me over. But The Callisto Protocol really tested my resolve.
The Callisto Protocol is a spiritual successor to Dead Space — one of my favorite gaming franchises of all time — so naturally, my pre-release anticipation was sizeable. But after just a couple of hours trudging through Black Iron Prison, I was seriously considering quitting the game early. While the atmosphere was pleasantly spooky, and the visuals downright stunning on PS5, the clunky and ill-convinced combat was pushing me to my limit.
However, just when I was about to hit a breaking point and go play something more deserving of my limited free time, I decided to switch the game down to easy mode as a last Hail Mary to save my playthrough. And I quickly discovered The Callisto Protocol is vastly improved when the odds are tipped more substantially in your favor.
A fundamentally flawed experience
The Callisto Protocol does a fair amount of things right. As noted, it’s got a wonderful sense of atmosphere — playing in the dark with a good pair of headphones is strongly encouraged — and it’s a great showcase for the power of next-gen consoles. But, unfortunately, while it looks and sounds great, its core gameplay loop can be generously described as ill-judged.
Unlike its clear inspiration Dead Space, where the focus is on maintaining distance from your mutated enemies so you can strategically remove their limbs with a variety of weapons, in The Callisto Protocol melee is the name of the game. While you do unlock an assortment of firearms, your primary weapon for the majority of the game is an electrified stun baton.
Especially in the early game, where ranged weapons and ammunition are in short supply, dispatching the horrific zombie-like enemies you encounter requires you to get up close and personal. The core combat of The Callisto Protocol feels strangely reminiscent of Ubisoft’s medieval action game For Honor as you trade melee blows with foes. Holding the left stick in either direction as an enemy swipes at you will initiate a dodge move, and then you can follow up with a strike of your own.
When fighting enemies one-on-one this system is functional, if rather clunky. Animations don’t flow particularly well (and switching weapons is horribly cumbersome), but the lack of a timing window on your dodge makes avoiding attacks pretty routine after just a few minutes of practice. The real problems come when encounters with multiple enemies are introduced. At this point, the entire system collapses as you try to avoid attacks that you can’t even see coming and your protagonist swings wildly at enemies off-screen.
The focus on melee combat felt ill-judged to me from the very start, but once things ratcheted up and I was facing three, four or even five enemies at once, an initially clunky combat system became downright game-ruining. After around four hours my frustration levels were raised to such a considerable degree that I was on the verge of uninstalling the game out of blind rage — a feeling I’ve not had since my ill-fated attempt to complete Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice on PS4.
Embracing easy mode
With my patience running thin, I decided to take drastic measures. Up till this point, I had been playing The Callisto Protocol on the default difficulty setting, but as I felt the game wasn’t fighting fair, it seems reasonable for me to even the odds by making myself stronger and the enemies weaker.
I should stress I wasn’t originally looking for an easy experience from The Callisto Protocol. I love challenging games. Elden Ring is my personal game of the year by a sizable margin. But unlike FromSoftware's latest masterpiece, Callisto’s difficulty feels artificial, brought about by poor combat design rather than intentional choice. In Elden Ring whenever I die, I always feel like it’s because I made a mistake, whereas in The Callisto Protocol deaths regularly come about due to the game’s clunky design letting the player down.
Mercifully, after switching the game down to “Minimum Security” mode the entire experience became a lot more tolerable. My frustrations with the stiff melee combat remained, but at least now I could take a lot more damage, and enemies weren’t able to swarm me to the same effect. My quest to escape Jupiter's dead moon wasn't entirely smooth but I was able to basically brute force my way through as standard enemies struggled to deplete my increased health bar.
Did this switch to easy mode ruin the feeling of tension that most survival horror games thrive on? To be honest, yes it sort of did. Whereas in a game like Dead Space or Resident Evil you’re constantly terrified about what is lurking around the corner, now in The Callisto Protocol I was unphased by practically every single enemy encounter. Any fear factor was gone, but it was a trade-off I was willing to make to be able to take at least some enjoyment from The Callisto Protocol.
But it’s not a perfect fix
Sadly, switching to easy mode isn't a perfect fix for all the game's problems. Not only does it greatly impact The Callisto Protocol's ability to build effective tension, but some of the game’s most frustrating encounters aren’t impacted by a switch in difficulty.
The perfect example is the game’s final boss. No spoilers here, but the game’s most fearsome foe has the ability to one-shot you on all difficulty levels. Even on easy he’s still got the means to put you down in seconds if you make a mistake. The fight is made all the more enraging by the appearance of exploding enemies that can quickly overwhelm. It took me around 30 minutes to overcome the game’s final challenge, and to be honest I didn’t enjoy a single moment of the fight.
And perhaps that’s the most disappointing thing about The Callisto Protocol; so often it feels like you’re fighting with the game itself rather than the mutated monsters on screen. Switching down to easy mode definitely made my playthrough more tolerable, but I can’t say it fully made up for the numerous flaws in the game’s core design. Hopefully next year’s Dead Space remake will give me the sci-fi horror fix I’m craving — and I certainly have no intention of playing that game on easy mode.