The Callisto Protocol starts off strong. The first half an hour of the game serves as an explosive introduction, setting up the story and establishing the stakes quite effectively, while throwing you into a nightmarish setting that feels ripe for some unforgettable scares. From its stellar production values to its grisly sci-fi horror setting, the game makes a promising first impression. It’s a shame that it never quite makes good on its potential. There’s fun to be had here, and one could make the case for The Callisto Protocol being a decent way to kickstart a new IP that might potentially improve significantly in the future, but ultimately, Striking Distance Studios’ sci-fi horror title fails to live up to expectations in too many crucial ways. In the end, it’s hard not to walk away disappointed.
The Callisto Protocol kicks off with protagonist Jacob Lee on a routine transportation run between two of Jupiter’s moons, Europa and Callisto, which quickly turns sour when a surprise attack by the terrorist group known as Outer Way forces him to crash-land on Callisto. Things quickly go from bad to worse when rather than being rescued and aided, Jacob is taken captive and transported to Black Iron Prison, where in spite of his loud protests, he’s thrown into a cell- which, in turn, is followed by a mass outbreak of nightmarish monstrosities throughout the prison. With the facility crumbling, many of the inmates dead, others still having turned into undead nightmares, and him being completely alone and unarmed, Jacob’s odds of survival are low- though he knows that escaping from Black Iron and leaving Callisto is his only option.
"There’s fun to be had here, and one could make the case for The Callisto Protocol being a decent way to kickstart a new IP that might potentially improve significantly in the future, but ultimately, Striking Distance Studios’ sci-fi horror title fails to live up to expectations in too many crucial ways. In the end, it’s hard not to walk away disappointed."
As fascinating a setting as a claustrophobic max security prison on Jupiter’s dead moon is (and it is fascinating, there’s no two ways about it), The Callisto Protocol never does much with its story that ever really leverages that in any meaningful way. Part of that is down to the fact that this is, by and large, not a very story-heavy game. Sizeable narrative-driven reveals and exposition dumps do bookend the experience, but the bulk of that middle section – the part that’s the actual game (or most of it anyway) – is full of insignificant developments and annoying macguffins.
More often than not, the game strings you along with short-term objectives and meaningless tasks, and by the time you do get to the meat of the story towards the tail-end of the game, it feels like it’s too little, too late. It doesn’t help, of course, that so much of the story relies on well-worn tropes of the genre, from conspiracies and buried secrets to people in power using their positions for nefarious means and more. It all feels very routine, and the stilted writing and bland characters do absolutely nothing to lift any of it up beyond its mediocrity. It’s a real shame, too, because The Callisto Protocol’s setting is conceptually fantastic, and deserving of a far better and much more engaging story.
Of course, the drip-feed of story content is something that the survival horror genre has often gone hand-in-hand with, but though the more accomplished games in that space tend to offset any potential issues with that storytelling style through compelling gameplay, that’s not quite the case with The Callisto Protocol. A lot of that is down to how dated its design feels, from its excessively linear level design to its uninteresting ancillary systems- like the too-straightforward and unengaging progression mechanics.
Exploration is almost nonexistent, with the majority of levels being linear corridors that occasionally have short branching paths or optional rooms, but always keep you on a straight and narrow path without much room for anything else. Linear design can be a huge boon for games when done right, as we’ve seen more than a few times even in recent years, but The Callisto Protocol goes too far with it- it feels too focused, too narrow, almost like it’s trying to play things a little too safe. It doesn’t help that there isn’t much variation to the moment-to-moment gameplay either- when you’re not slowly shuffling through tight corridors and crawling through vents (and boy, does this game have a lot of vents), you’re engaging in combat… and that’s pretty much it. On top of the aforementioned almost-complete lack of exploration, The Callisto Protocol doesn’t have much in the way of puzzles, hunting down collectibles, backtracking, or anything else that might mix things up.
"Linear design can be a huge boon for games when done right, as we’ve seen more than a few times even in recent years, but The Callisto Protocol goes too far with it- it feels too focused, too narrow, almost like it’s trying to play things a little too safe."
The good thing – at least in my case – is that for the most part, combat tends to be quite a lot of fun. The Callisto Protocol has received plenty of criticism for its focus on melee combat and its dodging mechanics, and while I do partly agree with those criticisms, I also think there’s plenty of fun to be had here. Attacks feel brutal and weighty, and you feel the impact of each hit, thanks to the crunching audio and visual feedback of each of your attacks, not to mention how gleefully gory and grisly the game is. Bashing enemies open and watching their skulls and limbs explode is never not fun, and The Callisto Protocol emphasizes that visceral pleasure to great effect.
Personally, I even appreciate the dodging- to some extent, at least. Rather than assigning the dodge and block actions to buttons, The Callisto Protocol puts them on the left stick, asking players to tilt the stick left or right in order to dodge, and quickly alternate back and forth in order to avoid getting hit by a flurry of swipes from an up-close enemy. It took me about half an hour to get used to the system, yes, but once I did, I quickly settled into its flow. I like the fact that it’s unique, and I like how it makes one-on-one fights as focused on the rhythm of your movements and dodges as they are on landing on your attacks. Combining melee attacks, dodges, guns, and the gravity-manipulating glove known as the GRP can make combat a fun, frantic, brutal ballad when the game is working as intended.
The problem arises when you face more than one enemy at a time. That happens a great deal throughout this game, and with increasing frequency as you get deeper into the experience, and each time it happens, it’s very easy to get frustrated by how clunky the combat suddenly becomes. The dodge mechanic is designed specifically and exclusively around mano-a-mano fights, which means taking on two aggressive foes at a time is night on impossible. That, combined with the narrow FoV (which is typical for a horror game), makes crowd combat something of a nightmare, and not in the fun way. Yes, I get that the system’s intent here is to push players to keep moving around the battlefield and find ways to isolate single foes from groups. The problem is that you move too slow, your enemies move too fast, and more often than not, the spaces you find yourself in are too cramped and tight. It doesn’t matter what the dodging system’s intent is for crowd combat, then, because the game’s own design is hardly ever on the same page.
"Bashing enemies open and watching their skulls and limbs explode is never not fun, and The Callisto Protocol emphasizes that visceral pleasure to great effect."
A lot of The Callisto Protocol’s issues would still be easy to forgive if the game lived up to one of its biggest and most exciting promises- delivering a truly frightening survival horror experience. Billed as a spiritual successor to Dead Space, The Callisto Protocol’s emphasis on pure, proper horror is something that developer Striking Distance Studios has talked up quite frequently over the course of several months. Disappointingly enough, it never even comes close to living up to those lofty promises.
That surprised me, because the first hour or so of the game does make it seem like it’s headed in the direction of delivering a tense horror experience brimming with palpable dread and atmosphere- though that never really goes anywhere. A lot of that is probably down to how heavily this game focuses on melee combat. Maybe it’s just me, but with that level of emphasis on brutal melee action, when you’re routinely unleashing bone-crunching attacks, it’s hard to feel too scared about anything. It almost ends up feeling more like a brawler than it does a survival horror experience.
That focus on melee combat also has other knock-on effects- like how little the game focuses on things such as ammo conservation and resource management. When melee attacks are your go-to move for the vast majority of the experience, ammo and guns automatically lose their value. While the likes of Resident Evil and Dead Space have me constantly worried about saving my ammo whenever possible or making smart use of my limited heals, in The Callisto Protocol, where crunching attacks using the stun baton is almost always my bread and butter, there’s very little reason to care about that stuff.
The impotence of The Callisto Protocol’s attempts at horror feel even more disappointing because from a visuals and art design perspective, the game does pull its weight. The game looks drop-dead gorgeous, to say the very least, and the excellent lighting, the claustrophobic environments, and even the excellent audio design contribute to the general atmosphere greatly. It’s just a shame that a lot of that ends up getting diluted by how the game actually plays. It feels like The Callisto Protocol the game and The Callisto Protocol the concept are pulling in two very different directions.
"The game looks drop-dead gorgeous, to say the very least, and the excellent lighting, the claustrophobic environments, and even the excellent audio design contribute to the general atmosphere greatly. It’s just a shame that a lot of that ends up getting diluted by how the game actually plays. It feels like The Callisto Protocol the game and The Callisto Protocol the concept are pulling in two very different directions."
It’s also worth mentioning that in my time with the game, I’ve had little to no technical issues. These have been reported widely by players, especially on PC and Xbox, but on the PS5, it seems to fare much better. I experienced almost no performance issues, and the few visual glitches I did come across were minor in nature, and easy to dismiss.
I’ve been very critical of The Callisto Protocol in this review, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have fun with the game. It’s straightforward, brutal, and frequently fun, it looks absolutely stunning, and its atmospheric sci-fi setting is not without its merits, especially if you’re a fan of something like Dead Space. Even so, this isn’t the game that so many of us wanted it to be. It’s rarely scary in any real way, its design its too focused and dated, and its emphasis on melee combat brings its own cavalcade of problems, from clunky and frustrating encounters when faced with multiple enemies to the disappointing dilution of the horror aspect. It’s not a game without merits, but when viewed in the context of its potential and what it was billed as by its developer, it’s hard to label The Callisto Protocol as anything but a disappointment.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 5.
Great, atmospheric setting; Looks absolutely stunning; Solid audio design; Brutal, crunching combat can be a lot of fun.
Uninteresting story and bland characters; Design is too linear and straightforward, to the point of feeling dated; Crowd combat is too clunky; Misguided focus on melee combat; Ineffective and impotent attempts at horror.
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