REVIEW – Brutal, bloody and shocking. These three words best describe The Callisto Protocol. Led by Glen Schofield, Striking Distance Studios has created a beastly game like few others, but can this stunningly spectacular PlayStation 5 game live up to the original Dead Space, its “spiritual heir”? We tested the highly anticipated horror game on Sony’s latest generation console.
We didn’t emphasize platform in the introduction for anything because this time The Callisto Protocol is clearly optimized for PlayStation consoles: it’s unplayable on PC even on better machines, and while it’s not nearly as bad on Xbox, even the top-of-the-range Series X lacks the reflection effect of PS5, as you can see in this picture:
Without getting ahead of the test, I’d like to point out that on other platforms (PC in particular) The Callisto Protocol would have received a much lower rating, and this time our final review is for PlayStation 5 only.
The bastard child of Dead Space
The Callisto Protocol is the brainchild of one of the creators of Dead Space, and revives some of the ideas that were abandoned in the first episode. It is therefore easy to compare it to the space survival horror gem developed by Visceral Games.
While there are similarities, it is important to note that Striking Distance’s game tries to offer a different feel. They are both space horror games, but Dead Space focuses on terror and making you feel small, while The Callisto Protocol goes for action and brutality. This is not Dead Space 4, Dead Space 0.5 or anything like it.
This is partly not a good thing, as we will see later, but it also leads to a very important success: The Callisto Protocol has its own identity. It was indeed feared that this would be a Dead Space clone, especially with the upcoming remake. So it was refreshing to experience a game with its own personality but isn’t afraid to show the influences of the old classic trilogy.
A pretty bad day for poor Jacob
In The Callisto Protocol, you control Jacob, a pilot with a mysterious past who, after an attack and subsequent horrific accident, ends up as a prisoner of the Black Iron in one of the most brutal and restrictive prison facilities on one of Jupiter’s satellites. Think of it as the Alien 3 prison planet on steroids. But if all that wasn’t enough, things soon take an even worse turn for our hero, and the prisoners are transformed into creepy mutants with no other purpose but to kill.
As one of the few survivors, you must break out of your cell to find your way to freedom. Little by little, you discover that there is more to things than first meets the eye, and you must uncover the mystery behind the prison, the accident and the mutants.
As soon as you take control of Jacob, you’ll notice one of the first huge positives of The Callisto Protocol: the setting is absolutely stunning. The prison planet of Black Iron is a real-life nightmare for our hero, long before the mutants have taken over the place. Each new zone plants nightmares in your mind as it shows you just how cruel, bloodthirsty and horrible humanity is.
The essence of hand-to-hand combat
Of course, the environment is not the only thing that will make you shudder. Every zone is full of creatures that you’ll have to defeat if you don’t want to get your head mauled in an incredibly brutal way, or slaughtered in other equally horrific ways. For self-defense, you’ll soon be given a melee weapon, a pistol and a gravity glove to throw at enemies, but you’ll often still be lucky to just survive the encounters.
Thanks to these weapons and a simplified skill system, Jacob will soon be very powerful, but the monsters are even more so. Much of the combat consists of dodging enemy attacks just before they come at you. As soon as a gap opens up, you’ll engage in a brutal combo in which every hit and every shot will slice up the creature that’s trying to take your life. The combo can end with a punch, a bullet or the enemy being dismembered by an environment element.
The combat carries a lot of weight thanks to quality animations and impeccable sound design. After every hit, you’ll hear the sound of your weapon as you struggle to pull it out of the mutants disgusting skin. You’ll feel like spiders crawling on your back when you hear an enemy approaching from the ventilation area. It’s phenomenal and immersive. Do yourself a favor and play it with a good pair of headphones.
The horror experience of The Callisto Protocol is also brought to life thanks to the stunning visuals. The character models are some of the best we’ve seen, thanks to a near photo-realistic quality where every drop of sweat looks real. The characters and enemies are also rendered with incredible detail, and it feels like we’re looking at the future of the video game world.
The control is clumsy as Hell
We said the fight is brutal, and we’re sure you’ll love watching your punches slice up the biophages. The problem is that this fighting style hardly fits perfectly with the horror experience that many expect from The Callisto Protocol.
We won’t lie to you: The Callisto Protocol will have your mouth thoroughly smeared by monsters. You’ll die over and over again, and you’ll see the main character’s gruesome death over and over again, filled with incredibly gruesome violence and blood. That’s to be expected from a horror game, the problem is that the poor control and camera angles mean that you die so many times and have to watch these executions so many times that after a while it’s the frustration of it all that makes you feel ‘horror’ and not the genre of the game.
The other is that even if you learn to control the extremely annoyingly clumsy camera views in tight spaces, the game simply gives up trying to follow the action. Either you can’t see the monsters because of some bad camera view or landmark, or you can’t see where the mutant grabbed by the gravity glove is and how and where you can throw it without it getting stuck in something. This gameplay mechanic and the associated poor camera was particularly annoying in a highly scripted section where you had to use the glove to throw them into a giant grinder one after the other. Here, the game wanted to teach us how well this part worked, but the monsters coming too fast were not seen normally due to the camera clowning around in tight spaces, so that’s why my hero was slaughtered and not because this part would otherwise be difficult if the camera and control combo had worked well.
But anyway, I wasn’t too thrilled that the fighting in The Callisto Protocol was so focused on melee attacks. This turns the fighting into a dance with the mutants, where your job is to dodge, find an attack opportunity, and repeat the process until you defeat them. I understand that the creators wanted something quite unique in the combat system for the game, but this forced design decision was more to the detriment of the game than the benefit. In the Dead Space episodes the controls were simply perfect in The Callisto Protocol this “avant garde” melee control was far more frustrating than enjoyable.
Design decisions not sufficiently thought through
Striking Distance Studios has clearly implemented gameplay concepts and ideas that are somehow not well thought out and executed. It’s as if they were just put there because they were in other games, not because they added anything to the horror experience they wanted to present. An example is the aforementioned gravity glove “throwing” combat system, the likes of which we’ve seen in many other games with psychotic abilities or spells (Star Wars titles, Controls, various fantasy titles, etc.), but almost everywhere else it worked much better.
Another example is stealth. From the start of the game, you are given the alternative of attacking from the front, or waiting until they turn their backs so you can approach and take them out in one fell swoop. The big flaw is that the game is designed in such a way that there are few options for silent killing (unlike classic titles with similar gameplay such as The Last of Us). So, instead of getting an actual alternative throughout the game, it seems like they just packed this in to tick off the “stealth” feature.
Time delays, so-so story
The problem with the length of The Callisto Protocol is that the pacing of the second half of the game is awkward, with dull narrative tricks and moments where the story moves in a rush.
In fact, the narrative left us with a bittersweet taste. Relax, we won’t go into details that would ruin the experience. We will say up front that it has a well-constructed and compelling universe, but it has a clumsy, predictable and clichéd narrative. Does that make the story bad? No, it’ll pass with a soda, but it certainly won’t be nominated for “Best Story” at this year’s Game Awards.
We’ve barely got used to the horrors of Jupiter when the story and mechanics move forward at breakneck speed and everything starts to settle down. Then suddenly, almost without realising it, the game is over and you’re looking at the credits. It’s a bittersweet experience, because although the universe was interesting, the characters were interesting, but I wanted so much more, so much more potential. A story about guilt, regret and humanity that could have been handled better.
No one in space can hear you sobbing
This was one of the games I was most looking forward to this year, but I have to admit that The Callisto Protocol, while a fantastic experience in many ways, is still a disappointment in some ways.
On the one hand, I really liked that The Callisto Protocol was born out of a few ideas thrown out of the first Dead Space, delivering a new quality franchise. It’s brutal, it’s violent, it sends chills down your spine, and the visuals are absolutely stunning – especially on PlayStation 5.
On the other hand, poor control, with too much focus on close combat, and poor camera angles in tight spaces cause a lot of frustration. Finally, it was also a bit disappointing that the survival horror style, which was well constructed in the first half of the game, turns into a simple grinding sci-fi action game, where the poor controls are really “deadly” (in every sense of the word).
So what Striking Distance Studios has done is far from perfect, but don’t let that put you off if you really like the game. The Callisto Protocol is a horror experience worth checking out for fans of the genre. Of course, don’t expect it to be a legend on par with Dead Space, but rather an “alternative” to the well-known franchise.
Fortunately, The Callisto Protocol is a franchise that is still in its infancy. Striking Distance Studios has already proven to deliver quality games, so we’ll see what the future holds for Schofield and his team. (This review is for the game’s PS5 version; take another 10-15 points off the PC version due to its terrible optimization.)
+ Amazing graphics and visuals
+ A superbly crafted universe
+ Exciting, brutal gameplay seasoned with horror elements
– Pretty poor melee controls and camera views
– The story collided from the second half of the game
– Halfway through the game, it is no longer a survival horror, but a sci-fi action game
Developer: Striking Distance Studios
Style: survival horror, sci-fi action
Release: December 2, 2022.