The Callisto Protocol seemed like it had such promise: Dead Space-style sci-fi horror set in a prison with grotesque monsters leaping out from every dark, dank corner. You, a prisoner of ambiguous innocence, must fight and claw your way out and find some way off of the cold, dark moon. It’s a great premise. Too bad the game isn’t much beyond its elevator pitch.
Callisto Protocol is marketed as, and seems to think it is, a horror game. There are moments where it’s creepy and unsettling, but expecting it to play like a horror game would be a mistake. The game is actually more like an action-horror hybrid, with emphasis on the former in gameplay and the latter in design.
Who am I, and why am I on this moon?
The Callisto Protocol follows the story of Jacob Lee, a cargo pilot who crashes on Callisto after a routine delivery, only to be thrown into its maximum security prison with no explanation. Shortly after his arrival, a mysterious sickness called the biophage breaks out, mutating the guards and prisoners into hideous monsters. As one of the few non-infected people left, Jacob is determined to escape the prison and the moon.
As stated above, the gameplay is more action-heavy than you’d expect. The primary mechanic is dodging, where Jacob can avoid enemy attacks by means of the player holding left or right on the movement stick. Jacob also carries a reliable melee weapon and a variety of guns to deal with the biophage-infected enemies. He also obtains a glove that gives him very familiar telekinetic abilities to throw around his opponents.
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While the concept is not unworkable, The Callisto Protocol is an unpolished and unimpressive piece of work. I don’t believe it’ll stand out in the zeitgeist quite like its predecessors. On top of that, it suffers from some technical problems. I can’t say I enjoyed my time with it, though it might still be fun for those hungry for space horror.
Welcome to hell: What’s to like
The opening story hook of Callisto Protocol is genuinely intriguing. Jacob is summarily tossed into prison with no explanation after he crashes into the moon, despite protesting his innocence. He also has a run-in with known malcontent Dani Nakamura and partners with longtime convict Elias Porter to make his escape. I suspect developer Striking Distance had a slightly more meaty story before it had to scrub the game’s ties to PUBG, but what’s left is good enough for me.
The environment design is also excellent. Jacob starts in the grim, sterile prison environment, which gets progressively more broken and gross as the biophage infection spreads. He dons a suit and takes a walk on Callisto’s freezing surface. He explores the depths of an old, eerily quiet colony. The final stretch of the game is set in the pristine, untouched area of the prison, and it’s almost more unsettling than all the others combined.
I also need to give props to Callisto Protocol’s sound design. Throughout the game, Jacob is treated to a constant chorus of monster shrieks, metallic bangs and squishy sounds of flesh monsters moving just out of sight. It’s especially unsettling when you’re walking in an area with pipes or vents. You can hear the creatures waiting to jump out at you but can’t quite tell where they are.
I also liked the performances of the main actors. While they don’t exactly have much to work with, I was invested in their stories and wanted to see things through to the end. It’s not a complicated narrative, but it doesn’t need to be. “Murderous nasties around. GTFO,” is all the story I ever need from a horror game. Callisto Protocol has that, with a few interesting twists about the larger in-game world later in the story.
Callisto calamity: What’s not to like
I liked Callisto Protocol for a large part of its runtime. But there comes a certain point in the game when you realize it’s not going to get better or escalate further. I remember the precise moment in-game when I thought, “I’ve been playing this game for hours, and it feels like I’ve barely started.” In retrospect, that was actually two-thirds through the game’s runtime. And it never really escalates after that. It doesn’t get more challenging or more frightening. All it promises is more of the same — and that’s a letdown.
First of all, the character design is one-note. The enemies are all two-legged humanoids with nasty faces who will bite Jacob’s head off given half a chance — and it’s always the head, because Jacob only has one in-game damage model. Jacob himself is so indistinct he could be any gravel-voiced hero in a jumpsuit. The health and stamina readouts on the back of his neck are so small that they don’t provide much color contrast. That’s disappointing because both of the major supporting characters, Elias and Dani, are much more interesting people, both in story and design.
Also, the animations for swapping guns are painfully slow. Jacob technically only has two guns. The variation comes with him swapping out different attachments — which he does in real time. This might sound like a small complaint, but it’s something that builds up over time. There’s also no way to shorten the animations via an upgrade or anything like that, so you just have to deal as Jacob sloooowly swaps out his guns. It’s a hassle, especially during the boss battles.
Space zombies all over again
The enemies are all bullet-sponges if you’re playing on medium or hard difficulty, tanking hits no matter how well-appointed your weaponry. And even though the game’s design and combat encourage you to invest in melee or your telekinetic abilities, there are some points where you can’t use them at all. For example, there’s a mid-game boss fight where, for the first time, I could not use my melee or telekinesis against an enemy. The only way to defeat the boss was bullets, bullets and more bullets. Fortunately, I had upgraded two of my guns, but imagine if I had put those points into my baton instead?
Even the action gameplay has its drawbacks. For one, the dodge mechanic locks you into combat with a single enemy. When you’re facing more than one, you can’t dodge the attacks of the enemies you’re not locked into. So you could be doing the side-to-side shuffle with one enemy while another smacks you around. Also, the game occasionally flashes teal crosshairs on a foe, prompting the player to draw their gun and fire on these weak spots. However, doing so frequently repositions the camera in a manner so dizzying it made me mildly seasick.
The Callisto Protocol is so married to its action gameplay that, when it does throw in stealth gameplay, it feels out of place. In a middle chapter, Jacob encounters super-mutated blind creatures who will attack if he makes too much noise. However, their attacks are dodge-able, and they aren’t any more menacing than the game’s average monster. Also, they’re supposed to have hyper-sensitive hearing, but Jacob can messily and loudly “stealth” kill them right next to each other (or telekinetically impale them on spike walls right next to each other) and not set them off.
Save me now
When the game launched, it obviously had some major technical issues. I waited until these were patched before I continued my playthrough. I wanted to give the game a fair shot — and also it was almost unplayable on Xbox Series X before the patch. But somehow, even after the patch, there are still problems. The boss fights in particular caused my framerate to dive into Tartarus.
One of my major technical headaches was the saving system. The autosave checkpoints are confusingly placed. For example, the game will frequently autosave in a safe room, which is fine, except it’ll do so at a point that necessitates the player to redo their in-game upgrading. This is especially frustrating when you’re prepping for a major fight and have to do so over and over before the fight can even begin. And then, the game will have a mid-fight checkpoint where you’re stuck holding an empty gun and must swap it out via the aforementioned slow animations.
But the real problem is that the game seems to disregard manual saves. Perhaps this was just an issue with me, as I’ve not seen anyone else talk about it. But here’s what happened to me. I was having trouble getting past a major boss area, and the checkpoint was in a safe room — meaning, every time I reloaded, I had to rebuy my upgrades and ammo and go all the way to the boss area again. So I got my kit exactly where I wanted it and saved at the door to the boss area. I lost, waited for the reload . . . and arrived at the autosave checkpoint. Thinking this was a fluke, I reloaded my manual save. Instead of loading in at the boss door, I was back at the checkpoint. The game straight-up ignored my manual save entirely.
Take me back to Callisto
If it had just a bit more, then I would adore The Callisto Protocol. If it maybe committed more to existing as an action game or a horror game, it would feel much more fun. I also wish it had a more in-depth story for its heroes. It feels like I ended the game knowing little more than I did when I started, and that’s disappointing.
I hope there’s a horror game or Dead Space fan out there who gets more out of this game than I did. As it stands, I can’t really recommend it. I feel it would probably disappoint both the horror game aficionado and the Dead Space fan. I know I walked away from it feeling unfulfilled.
Krafton provided GamesBeat with a copy of this game for the purposes of this review. The Callisto Protocol is currently available for PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.
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