UNLIKE most who are keen to play The Callisto Protocol, I’ve never played its inspiration Dead Space.
Despite this, over the last few years I’ve fallen in love with survival horror games, and from the moment I saw The Callisto Protocol, developed by Striking Distance Studios and published by Krafton it quickly catapulted to the top of my most anticipated games list.
Unfortunately The Callisto Protocol fumbles the ball quite badly, with its uninteresting protagonist, lack of exploration and bizarre combat mechanics resulting in a fine but far from great end product.
The Callisto Protocol quickly introduces you to its protagonist Jacob Lee (played by actor Josh Duhamel), as he and his colleague Max are transporting some mysterious cargo between Europa and the Black Iron prison facility on Callisto, both being moons of Jupiter.
After their ship is intercepted by a supposed terrorist organisation known as the Outer Way, the ship unceremoniously crashes to the surface of Callisto, killing Max in the process. As the only survivors of the crash, Jacob and Dani, the leader of the Outer Way, are made prisoners at the Black Iron facility, with the game chronicling their attempted escape, not only from the moon of Callisto, but the horrific mutated creatures that inhabit it.
As a story, things start out pretty strong, with the first hour and its events filling me with intrigue and anticipation for the events of the game to unfold.
Disappointingly, I came away from the roughly 12 hour experience let down by the narrative and its undercooked characters. Jacob Lee is well performed by Duhamel, but he falls flat as a character, serving more as just a vehicle for the player instead of being an interesting and developed character. The same sentiment regarding performance can be said for other characters like Dani and the prison warden Sam Ferris, who are played by Karen Fukahara and Sam Witwer respectively.
The performances are great, but there just isn’t enough time in the spotlight for them to feel like strong and well developed characters. The story is still fine enough overall, and I was definitely still invested throughout its more interesting patches, but ultimately it fails to amount to much. In its best moments it feels like a B-tier sci-fi horror film, and even then, I don’t feel like it’s particularly scary at all, other than a couple of instances.
Audio logs provided much needed additions to the world of The Callisto Protocol and its narrative, but the fact that you can’t listen to them while exploring the facility simultaneously is a laughably poor decision.
Another decision I also wasn’t the greatest fan of was the cliffhanger-style ending that feels like it was done to peddle the recently announced story content DLC. I still enjoyed the ending, don’t get me wrong, but it did leave a slight bad taste. I do come away with the feeling that the world of The Callisto Protocol is fascinating enough to tell a good story, however I can’t help but feel the execution wasn’t quite there in this entry.
Although the story isn’t much to write home about overall, the game is undeniably impressive on the eyes. The Black Iron facility is packed to the brim with detail, and the character models exhibit plenty of detail also. The over the top gorey death animations also look fantastic despite their brutal nature, and in a way reward you with an entertaining cinematic even though it’s the end result of a failed run. In saying that, I do wish they could be skipped however, as they get a tad annoying in moments where you’re stuck and being torn to shreds by the same monster over and over again.
I played the game on the PS5, trying things out in the default 30 fps and 60 fps performance modes. Both had their stability hiccups as I played through the game, however I gravitated towards the performance mode for the more sizable frame rate, which for the most part appeared to stick to its 60 fps goal.
The great soundtrack and audio pair well with the high fidelity visuals to provide an atmospheric hellscape to explore and escape from. Although I did say explore, the level of exploration afforded to players of The Callisto Protocol isn’t major, as the gameplay experience is a surprisingly linear one, making for an experience that feels dated. Linearity isn’t terrible of course, but it would have been nicer if the Black Iron facility and other locations offered up a tad more in the way of exploration.
While the atmosphere created by the music and the crisp visuals is appreciated in the moments where it’s present, you’ll quickly be ripped out of the experience by various issues that are present during the gameplay experience.
The most prominent issue by far is the frustrating to manoeuvre and initially difficult to comprehend dodge mechanics, which require you to hold the stick left or right to dodge enemy melee attacks, alternating dodge direction for each subsequent strike. It doesn’t sound the worst, and when you come to understand it, it isn’t actually too bad, however it is still a little awkward and jarring.
Whether you like it or not, it will be the reason for many otherwise avoidable deaths, and in an experience where you’re more reliant on melee attacks than ranged ones, it’s definitely a poorly designed mechanic, especially in moments where you’re fighting more than one enemy, and needing to dodge attacks from multiple angles.
Making matters worse is the particularly brutal and careless checkpointing system, a system so tight on autosaves you’d assume it’d run out of them. They’re so stringent that when upgrading at a printing station, which allows you to spend a collectible currency known as Callisto Credits in exchange for weapon upgrades and ammo,the game fails to save until reaching the next checkpoint, making for various moments where I had to keep repeating the upgrade process until I finally cleared a difficult segment.
It’s clear in moments like these that the game doesn’t respect your time, a sentiment I feel that rings through the game overall.
Enemy AI also doesn’t feel the smartest, especially when it comes to the blind, sound-reliant enemies that feature as The Callisto Protocol’s answer to the Clicker from The Last of Us as the foe that should be handled via a stealthy approach.
Unlike Clickers, these enemies have laughably abysmal intelligence, resulting in immersion shattering segments where you can freely crawl right into the unsuspecting creatures and stab them without threat. It feels cheap and devalues what could otherwise be tense and gripping moments.
Even though I’m sure it’s clear that plenty of The Callisto Protocol disappointed me, I did come away from the game with a decent amount of positive thoughts also. Despite quickly falling victim to its less than stellar design, melee combat does still feel satisfying for the most part, providing weighty punches that feel meaty and powerful.
Gunplay fares much better, allowing for you to murder foes from a safe distance. There are about a handful of different weapons to collect, each with their own upgrade paths present at the printing station, and they control well. I do feel though that their importance is somewhat undermined by the introduction of infected enemies in the latter half of the experience.
No matter how many bullets you fire into them prior to transformation, they’ll still attempt to mutate, meaning you’ll still need to fire off a shot to kill the sign of infection, or risk the reality of an infected and more powerful creature. This mechanic seemingly makes the gun less viable in the moments prior to infection, resulting in a monotonous and static gameplay loop of using melee to weaken the creature until its sign of infection appears, before shooting it and finally finishing off the enemy.
The GRP glove is a cool if not crazily overpowered ability that allows you to pick up items or enemies in the environment and fling them into objects till your heart’s content. The glove is truly a lifesaver in instances where you become overwhelmed by multiple enemies, and its ability to throw enemies into hazards such as bottomless pits or instant kill spike traps provides an undeniable thrill. It does run on batteries and can only be used sparingly though.
Exploration is sorely barebones as I stated earlier, however there is a welcome level of freedom and player choice available when upgrading weapons and abilities and the printing stations. You’re likely not going to be able to purchase every upgrade during a run, so it’s up to you to be strategic with how you spend your credits and what weapons you decide are best to upgrade. I for one invested heavily in the melee baton and the GRP gravity glove.
I enjoyed the handling of this currency, as well as the incentive to scope out your surroundings for resources that could be sold at the stations for more credits. If you’ve got more health injectors than you care to have on hand, then you call sell them for credits. It’s a good time and I hope to see it expanded upon if the assumed sequel ever comes to fruition.
2022 has been an undeniably great year for gaming, but The Callisto Protocol appears to have missed the memo, and it’s the biggest letdown for myself personally this year. It’s frustrating, laborious at times, and falls victim to various issues that could’ve so easily been fixed. I don’t doubt that a good game exists at its core, and there were plenty of aspects of the game that I did enjoy, but ultimately its various issues make it hard to recommend taking the trip to Callisto.
Written by: @GrumpyGoron