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The Callisto Protocol seemed so promising: Dead Space-style sci-fi horror set in a prison with grotesque monsters popping out of every dark, damp corner. You, a prisoner of ambiguous innocence, must fight and claw your way out and find a way to get away from the cold, dark moon. It’s a great starting point. Too bad the game doesn’t go much further than its elevator pitch.
Callisto Protocol is marketed as, and seems to think it is, a horror game. There are times when it’s creepy and disturbing, but expecting it to play like a horror game would be a mistake. The game is actually more of an action-horror hybrid, focusing 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 into Callisto after a routine delivery, only to be thrown into maximum security prison without explanation. Shortly after his arrival, a mysterious disease called the biophage breaks out and mutates the guards and prisoners into hideous monsters. As one of the few uninfected humans, Jacob is determined to escape prison and the moon.
As mentioned above, the gameplay is more action packed than you might expect. The primary mechanic is dodging, where Jacob can dodge enemy attacks through the player holding the move stick on the left or right. Jacob also carries a reliable melee weapon and a variety of weapons to face the biophage-infected enemies. He also gets a glove that gives him very famous telekinetic abilities to evade his opponents.
While the concept is not unworkable, the Callisto protocol is an unpolished and unimpressive piece of work. I don’t believe it stands out as much in the zeitgeist as its predecessors. In addition, it suffers from some technical issues. Can’t say I enjoyed it, though it might still be fun for those hungry for space horror.
Welcome to Hell: What’s Fun About It
The opening story hook of Callisto Protocol is truly intriguing. Jacob is thrown into prison without explanation after crashing into the moon, despite his innocence. He also has a run-in with known disgruntled Dani Nakamura and teams up with long-convict Elias Porter to escape. I suspect developer Striking Distance had a slightly meatier story before it had to scrub the game’s ties to PUBG, but what’s left is good enough for me.
The design of the environment is also excellent. Jacob begins in the grim, sterile prison environment, which becomes increasingly fractured and gross as the biophage infection spreads. He puts on a suit and takes a walk on the icy surface of Callisto. He explores the depths of an ancient, eerily silent colony. The last stretch of the game takes place in the pristine, pristine area of the prison, and it’s almost more disturbing than all the others combined.
I also have 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 soft noises of flesh monsters moving just out of sight. It’s especially troubling if you’re walking in an area with pipes or vents. You can hear the creatures waiting to jump at you, but you can’t tell exactly where they are.
I also loved the performances of the lead actors. While they don’t really have much to work with, I was interested in their stories and wanted to see things through to the end. It’s not a complicated story, but it doesn’t have to be. Murderous troubles in the neighbourhood. GTFO’, is the only story I ever need from a horror game. Callisto Protocol has that, with some interesting twists about the larger in-game world later in the story.
Callisto calamity: What’s not to like
I liked Callisto Protocol for much of the runtime. But there comes a point in the game where you realize it’s not going to get better or escalate further. I remember the exact moment in the game where I thought, “I’ve been playing this game for hours and it feels like I’ve only just begun.” In hindsight, that was actually two-thirds of the game’s runtime. And then it never escalates again. It doesn’t get any more challenging or terrifying. Everything 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 ghastly faces that will bite Jacob’s head off if given the chance – and it’s always the head, as Jacob only has one in-game damage model. Jacob himself is so obscure that he could be any loud-voiced hero in a jumpsuit. The health and stamina readouts on the back of his neck are so small that they don’t offer much color contrast. That’s disappointing because both major supporting characters, Elias and Dani, are much more interesting people, both story-wise and design-wise.
Also, the animations for swapping weapons are painfully slow. Jacob technically only has two weapons. The variation comes from him exchanging different attachments – which he does in real time. This may sound like a minor 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 do it as Jacob slow exchanges his weapons. It’s a hassle, especially during the boss fights.
Space zombies all over again
The enemies are all bullet sponges whether you play on medium or hard, and no matter how well equipped your weapons are, you can hit them all. And while 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 boss fight in the middle of the game where for the first time I couldn’t use my melee or telekinesis against an enemy. The only way to beat the boss was bullets, bullets and more bullets. Thankfully I had upgraded two of my weapons, but imagine if I had put those spikes into my baton instead?
Even the action gameplay has its drawbacks. First, the dodge mechanic locks you in combat with a single enemy. If you’re dealing with more than one, you won’t be able to dodge the attacks of the enemies you’re not locked into. So you could do the side-to-side shuffle with one enemy while another thrashes you around. Also, the game occasionally flashes a teal sight on an enemy, prompting the player to draw their gun and shoot at these weak spots. However, doing this often makes the camera so dizzy that it made me slightly seasick.
The Callisto protocol is so married to its action gameplay that when it adds stealth gameplay it feels out of place. In a middle chapter, Jacob encounters super-mutated blind creatures that will attack if he makes too much noise. However, their attacks are dodgeable and they are no more menacing than the game’s average monster. They’re also supposed to have hypersensitive hearing, but Jacob can messily and loudly “stealth” them side by side (or telekinetically impale them on nail walls side by side) and not make them explode.
Save me now
When the game launched, it clearly had some major technical issues. I waited for these to be patched before continuing to play. I wanted to give the game a fair shot – and it was also nearly 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 frame rate to plunge into Tartarus.
One of my biggest technical problems was the savings system. The autosave checkpoints are confusingly placed. For example, the game automatically saves to a safe room on a regular basis, which is fine, except it happens at a point where the player has to redo their in-game upgrade. This is especially frustrating if you’re preparing for a big fight and have to do it over and over again before the fight can even begin. And then the game has a mid-battle checkpoint where you’re stuck with an empty gun and have to swap it out via the aforementioned slow animations.
But the real problem is that the game seems to ignore manual saves. Maybe this was just an issue with me as I haven’t seen anyone else talk about it. But this is what happened to me. I struggled to get past a large boss area, and the checkpoint was in a safe room – meaning every time I reloaded I had to buy my upgrades and ammo again and go all the way to the boss area again. So I got my gear right where I wanted it and kept it by the door to the boss. 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 up at the boss’s door, I was back at the checkpoint. The game completely ignored my manual saves.
Take me back to Callisto
If only a little Lake, then I would love the Callisto protocol. Perhaps if it were more dedicated to existence as an action game or a horror game, it would feel a lot 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 when I started, and that’s disappointing.
I hope there is a horror game or Dead Space fan out there who gets more out of this game than I do. As it stands I can’t really recommend it. I think it will probably disappoint both the horror game enthusiast and the Dead Space fan. I know I walked away from it feeling unfulfilled.
Krafton provided GamesBeat with a copy of this game for 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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