Platforms: PC (reviewed) PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S
Price: $60 - $70
Release Date: December 2, 2022
The Callisto Protocol proves that you should be careful what you wish for. A spiritual successor to Dead Space from one the original creators sounds like a winning idea. Unfortunately, the final product is less a dream come true and more of a nightmare — and not the good kind of nightmare that the Dead Space games conjured up. The Callisto Protocol is scary, but for the wrong reasons.
It’s a shame, because there are some interesting ideas here. A survival/horror game with a heavy emphasis on melee combat is unconventional. And even if it’s not wholly original, the Alien-inspired science-fiction setting is intriguing enough for fans of the genre. The stunning Unreal Engine 4-powered graphics are another selling point.
As a fan of Dead Space, I really wanted to like The Callisto Protocol. And while it’s not a disaster like Babylon’s Fall, The Callisto Protocol stands alongside Saints Row as a title that left me disappointed.
The Callisto Protocol review: Story
The Callisto Protocol takes place roughly two-hundred years in the future. You play as Jacob Lee, a freight transporter who hauls cargo between the Jovian moons on behalf of the United Jupiter Company. During a delivery run to Callisto’s Black Iron prison, terrorists called the Outer Way board Jacob’s spaceship. In the chaos that follows, the ship crash-lands on the moon, and you’re taken prisoner for unknown reasons.
Things get worse for Jacob when Black Iron’s prisoners begin mutating into crazed monsters. Jacob escapes his prison cell and has only one goal in mind: to leave Callisto alive. But given all the monstrosities in his path, this task won’t be easy.
The Callisto Protocol’s narrative takes cues from classic sci-fi horror films, such as Alien, The Thing and Event Horizon. Video games such as Resident Evil and, of course, Dead Space, are also big inspirations. Even when the gameplay loop becomes tiresome, the plot, as thin as it is, keeps pushing you forward — if only to learn what caused the prisoners to mutate.
I’d say something about the characters, but there isn’t much to delve into. While the acting and performances are generally good, all of the characters are surface-level at best, and lack complex motivations. But since everyone serves their part, I can’t ding this game for not featuring nuanced characters, such as those in God of War Ragnarök.
The Callisto Protocol review: Gameplay
At its core, The Callisto Protocol is a third-person survival/horror game, similar to Dead Space and many Resident Evil titles. Just as in those games, you’ll explore various environments and scavenge for limited resources, such as healing items and ammo. As the game progresses, you’ll gain access to several firearms that you can upgrade at 3D printing terminals.
Melee combat is normally an afterthought in this genre, but it’s a central mechanic here. You’ll pummel enemies with an upgradable stun baton that you receive early on. Shattering limbs and crushing skulls with this weapon is extremely satisfying. You can also dodge attacks by holding right or left on the left analog stick. For good or ill, weaving left and right to avoid blows reminded me of performing the same action in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out on the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Melee combat works well enough against a single foe, but falls apart once additional baddies show up. Even if you successfully avoid one enemy’s attack, you’ll end up getting hit by another creature. The tight camera angle doesn’t help matters. But even if the camera were further away, fighting multiple foes wouldn’t be much easier since Jacob moves so slowly. This is frustrating, considering how you’ll engage in melee encounters all the way up to the finale. In short, melee combat is extremely clunky.
You’ll also get a tool called the GRP, which is a glove that lets you pull and push objects. Though it’s useful for bringing otherwise-inaccessible items toward you, you’ll mostly use the GRP to push enemies into the numerous spiked walls conveniently placed around the environments. I found this mechanic practical, especially when surrounded by dozens of foes. It’s only useful in combat, however, since the game has no puzzles.
Enemy types are what you’d expect from the horror genre, or action games in general. You’ll find a host of fast runners, big bruisers, small crawlers and powerful bosses. Seeing the same enemies over and over can get tiresome, especially in boss battles. During one three-hour play session, I went up against the same boss type four times! Killing the mutated inmates is fun, but I wish they weren’t all so similar. Aside from a handful of security robots, the enemies can feel repetitive.
Black Iron prison and Callisto’s surface are great settings. Unfortunately, their linear design prevents you from fully exploring the world. There’s some backtracking and a limited amount of optional rooms to explore, but that’s it. For the most part, the game funnels you from one location to the next. The rigid progression is sure to frustrate some players.
The Callisto Protocol review: Visuals and sound
The Callisto Protocol has glaring flaws, but its presentation isn’t one of them. This is, without a doubt, one of the best-looking games of 2022. Environments and characters alike contain a terrifying level of detail that helps them feel believable. Each environment you explore — whether it’s Black Iron’s dark halls or Callisto’s snow-covered wastes — feels appropriately frightening due to clever lighting and particle effects.
The game's sound design is as impressive as the graphics. The unnerving sounds of pained groans and industrial machines serve to keep you on edge and alert at all times. You’ll want to wear one of the best gaming headsets while playing The Callisto Protocol to get a better sense of immersion.
The Callisto Protocol review: Verdict
The Callisto Protocol isn’t a bad game. It has a cool sci-fi setting, amazing graphics and a relatively compelling mystery plot. However, its frustrating melee combat, limited enemy variety and linear design will alienate (no pun intended) many players. It also doesn't fully deliver as a Dead Space spiritual successor, since it's nowhere near as frightening or as well-structured. In fact, there wasn’t a single time when the game scared me. If a survival/horror game isn’t scary, then it has a big problem.
I’m not sure what the future holds for The Callisto Protocol. The ending leaves the door open for further entries. However, Striking Distance Studios' inaugural title hasn’t exactly given me confidence we’ll see further installments. I hope I’m wrong, and that the company has a chance to deliver something better in the future. And if not, at least we'll have the upcoming Dead Space remake.
You can also read about how my colleague Rory Mellon, almost rage-quit The Callisto Protocol — until he changed this one setting.