The Callisto Protocol - Not Quite Recapturing The Magic
PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC
EA’s Visceral Games stunned the world in 2008 with the launch of Dead Space, an ambitious, sci-fi horror title that succeeded in its genre in ways that the acclaimed horror franchises up to that point in Resident Evil and Silent Hill, had never done. As Isaac Clark, you were powerful. The plasma cutter was a weapon that granted immense power, dicing up threats at will, and yet, the environments, the threat of the Necromorphs, and the sensational sound design elevated the suspense and terror to unseen levels, leaving you quaking in your boots as a result. Dead Space 2 exceeded the efforts of the original game, before Dead Space 3, largely driven by some of EA’s dollar-chasing antics was sadly driven off the tracks. While the franchise was experiencing the highs and lows that come with game-development, one of the key personnel behind Dead Space had moved on following the original’s release. Glen Schofield defected and went to form Sledgehammer Games, a studio we all know for Call Of Duty, and while he loved that time, there was always an itch to return to sci-fi horror once again, and so, years on, The Callisto Protocol is now here. The question is now, can Scofield’s Striking Distance Studios harness the DNA of Dead Space, but make it feel fresh and new in 2022?
It’s 2320, and Jacob Lee as well as friend Max are in for the payday of their lives, one to allow them both to retire early, that is, until their vessel, a freight transporter for the United Jupiter Company is brought down in an attack by rebel group, The Outer Way. This attack leads Lee’s ship to crash land on the moon of Callisto where Lee, and one of the attackers, The Outer Way’s leader, Dani Nakamura are taken into Black Iron Prison without trial. Lee goes through some gruelling trials just as he transitions into the prison, however the worst is to come when, shortly after arriving in the prison and being taken to his cell than all hell breaks loose. Former inmates and guards have been consumed by a virus that infects nearly instantaneously, and its from here where Lee’s prison-breaking attempts begin.
The Callisto Protocol’s plot, despite being driven by some fairly ho-hum and quite dated scenario design at times, possesses a plot that is quite likely to engage. Lee’s interactions with Nakamura, fellow in-mate Elias, and the head of Black Iron Prison securty Leon Farris are nothing short of riveting, while his trials and tribulations as he is in search of an escape are soul wrenching. Just like the game whose DNA The Callisto Protocol shares, there is rarely a moment where the player will feel as though they can come up for air due to the truly oppressive, but equally impressive design of the game world, but also due to the nature of the infected and their lethality.
The environmental design of The Callisto Protocol will ensure that you are dreading what is around every corner, whether it be the mechanical remnants of the BIP security that you need to stealth by, or the greater threat of the infected inmates and prison guards who have rapidly morphed into disgusting creatures capable of tearing you limb from limb in unbelievably quick time. Where the environmental design exceeds expectations, it is simultaneously held back by the poorly implemented combat systems and scenario design of the game. There are numerous scenarios, where you, the player, will find yourself sandwiched between a group of 4-6 infected enemies who don’t take it in turns to attack, while your attack animations are frustratingly lenghtly. Much like Isaac Clark, Lee has a range of ranged abilities at his disposal, from his handgun to some telekinetic abilities as well as some limited melee techniques. You’ll have a large stun baton which grants more range than was available in Dead Space, however the enemies close in faster, and from more directions, leaving you feel even more powerless you than you were in the preceding franchise – and not in a way that feels good for a horror game either. This plagues the games opening chapters as it takes a while before you can accumulate enough Callisto Credits to upgrade your GRP or melee weapon in any way that makes you feel like you have an advantage, something that could ultimately serve as a put off to those looking to enjoy the game, but are otherwise frustrated by a fairly immediate difficulty curve. The game presents players with a dodging and blocking mechanic, which is an interesting mental battle to engage with as you have to entertain enemies at a closer range than you might prefer, but the system amounts to little more than a glorified quicktime event. These concerns all come to ahead when you find yourself in small, enclosed spaces with a swarming number of enemies, and rarely does the combat feel overly satisfying in these instances.
The greatest strength of The Callisto Protocol, much like Dead Space is in the game’s sound design. The echoes of a lonely space-ship, the gentle taps of something lurking in the overhead pipes or down below your feet, the disgusting grunts and groans of the dying or newly infected, and the heavy feet of the hulking metal BIP security robots serve as constant reminders of the threats that linger nearby at all times. Compounding the anxiety that stems from that sound design are the incredible visual effects and outstandingly real character models and environments. Everything looks and feels dead and decaying, while the few living things in the world, from Lee, and Nakamura, to the few others in the realm of the living are astoundingly detailed. The violence on display is incredibly graphic. The Callisto Protocol, like Dead Space is incredibly brutal, resulting in some cringeworthy deaths, and winces as Lee’s head is cleaved from his shoulders, his jaw ripped off, or his arm completely severed in gratuitous fashion, letalone the deaths that you or your victims could face when pierced, shaved, or severed by various environmental hazards as well. It’s effective each time, but did make me want to set down my controller and take a mental break when I’d found myself in one of those arenas where death would come quickly and easily, and the deaths were on the upper limits of disgusting.
The Callisto Protocol reaches for what Dead Space once achieved, and falls dishearteningly short. It re-creates all of the brutality and tension that drained the blood from our faces whilst playing Dead Space, but once you then find yourself actively fighting for your life, leaves you quickly frustrated and let down. The world of Callisto is wonderfully realised, and it’s threats are oh so right, but one of the game’s core pillars was left a little too wobbly, and so the foundations of the game are unfortunately unstable as a result.
The Callisto Protocol was reviewed on PS5 with a code kindly provided by the publisher.