Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Survival bore game The Callisto Protocol only wishes it was the new Dead Space

Irritating and dull, The Callisto Protocol does itself no favors by inviting comparisons to a sci-fi horror classic

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
The Callisto Protocol
The Callisto Protocol
Image: Krafton

My hands shake as I face down the mutant abomination. My breathing goes shallow, as it swings another meaty fist at my oh-so-fragile face. As I scramble for my gun, I’m in an elevated state, hoping to fend off the monstrous horror before it can land a killing blow. One shot … two … another dodge … a swing of my stun baton … And the beast goes down at last. My heart is racing.

I am playing The Callisto Protocol. And I am so. Goddamned. Annoyed.

The first game from Striking Distance Studios, The Callisto Protocol is not shy about pointing big-ass spotlights toward its connections to studio founder Glen Schofield’s earlier space-horror franchise, Dead Space. There are numerous little touches here pulled wholesale from Visceral Games’ highly successful series of spooky shooters, from a general emphasis on gnarly creature designs and hyper-gory deaths, to more specific lifts—like the fact that hapless player character Jacob Lee has a bright green health bar jammed into the back of his neck during the game’s opening minutes for the player’s viewing pleasure.

The Callisto Protocol - State of Play June 2022 Trailer | PS5 & PS4 Games

The result is to evoke H.P. Lovecraft—not the eldritch horror stuff, but that old line about not calling up that which you cannot put down. Because even if The Callisto Protocol was not, on its own merits, a deathly dull, unoriginal, and profoundly irritating game—which, to be clear, it very much is—invoking so many comparisons to a game as crowd-pleasingly smooth as the original Dead Space would still probably be a bad idea. As is, it’s lethal.

Advertisement

Our plot sees Jacob, a cargo pilot portrayed with sometimes as many as three different emotions (frustrated, angry, and angrier) by actor Josh Duhamel, get himself unjustly tossed into space prison by a corrupt space warden. Jacob’s incarceration is abruptly interrupted, though, when the prison is hit with a massive outbreak of one of those sci-fi diseases that turns people into different kinds of mutants, depending on how hard a fight the game designer needs to put into any given area of their game.

Advertisement

Would it shock you to learn that this viral epidemic was planned by an ancient conspiracy? That the warden is a megalomaniacal fanatic with delusions of harnessing humanity’s evolution for his own dark ends? That Jacob is haunted by his past failures in a way that allows Schofield and his team to add cheap jump scares into even the most boring of story scenes? And especially to learn that there are, as far as I could tell, precisely zero original story ideas in The Callisto Protocol, a game ultimately far more haunted by the specter of other, better games than by its haunted house pretensions to horror?

But horror games have had lousy and derivative stories before, and come out little worse for wear. Where The Callisto Protocol truly falls apart is in its play, which is awkward and joyless with a relentlessness the game can’t muster for any of the creatures pursuing Jacob on his quest for escape. The problems start almost immediately: Given the whole “escaped prisoner” thing, Jacob spends much of the game’s early runtime armed with nothing more than a makeshift club—and then later, a guard’s stun baton—as his primary way to fight off enemies. Even after guns listlessly enter the equation, The Callisto Protocol puts a huge emphasis on its melee combat system.

Advertisement
Image for article titled Survival bore game The Callisto Protocol only wishes it was the new Dead Space
Image: Krafton

Which is, frankly, a mess, at least in part due to the game’s devotion (also stolen outright from Dead Space) to presenting its interface completely diegetically. (That is, you only ever see those things Jacob himself sees, including holographic menus he projects into the environment to manage his limited inventory space.) But the thing is that The Callisto Protocol’s hand-to-hand fighting could really use a little more information on the screen; as-is, you’ll likely find yourself endlessly circling around enemies, holding the dodge command (irritatingly mapped to left and right on your basic movement controls) to avoid hits, or occasionally blocking. Hitting back feels particularly luck-based: Maybe the enemy will do an uninterruptible swing in the midst of Jacob’s attack, and maybe it won’t. The aim here, clearly, has been to create visually cinematic combat—something supported by the game’s genuinely appealing looks, the one place it carves out a bit of space from the horror game pack. But the net result instead veers wildly between rote and unpredictability. It didn’t take long before I was desperately looking for any way to not engage with the hand-to-hand fighting system.

Advertisement

Of which, The Callisto Protocol offers a few. The most satisfying is the GRP, a gravity-based weapon that lets you GRiP (get it?) enemies and hurl them into the thousand or so extraneous spiked walls that make up much of the architecture of Black Iron Prison. Silliness aside, these one-hit kills are extremely welcome, given how tight the game’s resources can get, and how inconsistent the damage that enemies take can feel. Ditto instant kills from shiv-ing unaware foes—even if a late-game area that introduces hordes of blind enemies who track you by sound makes its stealth gameplay feel less like an empowering ability and more like a decision between doing a series of chores or getting overwhelmed by health and bullet-devouring monsters. (And, yes, the heavy use of the tired “blind enemy tracks you by sound” trope is a good indicator of how little Schofield’s design principles have evolved over the last 14 years.)

And then there are the guns—the place, ironically, where The Callisto Protocol’s ceaseless need to remind you that a Dead Space guy made it most consistently shoots the game in the foot. That title, as you may recall, had some of the most delightfully inventive firearms in all of horror gaming: A set of re-purposed engineering tools that played perfectly with the game’s innovative limb-severing system. By contrast, players here will ultimately finds themselves armed with a whopping five whole guns. That’s two pistols, two shotguns, and an assault rifle, with minor differences between them, all of which may as well be fired center-of-mass for all the good that aiming seems to do. The gun gameplay in The Callisto Protocol isn’t as inconsistent as its hand-to-hand fighting, admittedly, but it’s still fundamentally inert.

Advertisement
Image for article titled Survival bore game The Callisto Protocol only wishes it was the new Dead Space
Image: Krafton

The best you can say about The Callisto Protocol’s combat, then, is that it occasionally creates interesting prioritization problems. There’s a genuine thrill in at least some of the sequences where the game tries to overwhelm you, forcing you to pick the most dangerous beast of the bunch to dispatch, hopefully in a way that buys you a bit of breathing room from the rest. Thrilling the first few times, at least—before the third or fourth instance in which you’ve been pushed into a corner and then subjected to one of the game’s much-hyped, overly detailed death animations depicting Jacob’s grisly demise.

Advertisement

Which dial in pretty perfectly to everything wrong with The Callisto Protocol’s approach to horror, which appears to have been crafted by someone confused by the difference between “scary” and simply “wet.” Yes, there’s a mild Mortal Kombat Fatality thrill to seeing Jacob slump over with half his face sliced off in a single blow from the game’s shockingly same-y crew of monsters. (I clocked exactly one monster design in the entire game that felt like it was genuinely, viscerally affecting.) But shock can only shock for so long; the death animations quickly take on the feel of watching a kid mutilate a He-Man action figure—with the added irritation that they only get longer and more elaborate as the game progresses, meaning the waiting period before a respawn only gets longer, too. (You know it’s bad when you’re deliberately dying to an attack that you know won’t trigger one, just to save yourself a little time.)

These little irritations are all over the place in The Callisto Protocol, steadily eroding what little fun there is at every turn. There’s the long wait time between checkpoints—because nothing screams “Spooky!” like repeating a five-minute section of gameplay for the fourth or fifth time, teeth grinding as you realize just how boring walking down these endless corridors can be. There’s the awkward weapon-switching mechanics, which make fumbling a different gun out of your inventory an exercise in annoyance. And there’s the endless low-grade frustration of thinking you’re properly dodging a hit, only to have a third of your health sliced off because of unclear signaling. It all adds together to make something that’s less than the sum of its parts—and significantly less than the sum of all the games whose legacy it ill-advisedly invokes. Have no doubt: The Callisto Protocol will get your blood pressure up. Just not in the way that Schofield and his team clearly intended.