We’ve had our eye on The Callisto Protocol for some time, not least because it’s been developed by a number of the original Dead Space team relocated to Striking Distance Studios, but also because it’s come from the PUBG universe. “What?!” we hear you ask, “PUBG?”. Yes, the daddy of all Battle Royale games spawned a space based survival horror as it was pitched to the Battlegrounds team as being part of that universe. Realising there was something more to be had from it, it was quickly spun off into its own IP and now the game has released to fanfare and derision alike. With mixed reviews hitting all the usual media channels, has there been too much hype put in around the game’s roots (and slightly scuppered by the fact EA are remaking the classic Dead Space for release in January 2023); or is it simply a case of over-promising and under-delivering? Whatever the ultimate verdict you can be sure of one thing… there’ll be plenty of blood and gore to wade through first.
Taking on the role of space trucker Jacob Lee, you’re thrown in at the deep end as your ship is boarded by terrorists and crash lands on Jupiter’s moon of Callisto, leaving your only safe haven the local maximum security prison – Black Iron. It might appear to be the best option, and considering you’ve just done a cargo run out of there you’d assume that getting them to shelter you wouldn’t be too hard, but you’d be sorely wrong. Before Jacob has time to stash anything in his prison pocket you’re whisked away to processing, forced to have a neck implant, and told that you’re getting banged up for the foreseeable future. Seeing as most of the guarding is done by oversized and overzealous robots, there’s no pleading your innocence so you better get ready to do some porridge. That is until things start to go badly wrong around the prison and mutated humans show up to smash and stomp everything that moves. The warden’s problem is your gain and it’s time to engineer an escape.
This is the core premise of The Callisto Protocol – escaping from Black Iron Prison during an outbreak of… err… whatever the hell is going on. There’s mutterings of hostile biophages caused by a virus, but Jacob isn’t too fussed about the semantics when all that’s keeping him from losing limbs is a stout piece of metal and his flimsy prisoner garb. Think too deeply about the info you do get early on (particularly Jacob’s transport’s name) and you’ll crack the story reveals wide open, so it’s best keeping the tale superficial until the end. Armed with just a shock stick and the support of another inmate, you set out to creep around the overrun prison, through the dilapidated facilities, across the surface and finally to call down a drop ship before nuking the site from orbit. Wait, sorry, got mixed up with another overrun facility there. There’s no tactical orbital strikes in here, but the rest still stands. Jacob and co must fight their way through tight dark corridor after tight dark corridor, scavenging supplies and hoping to stumble across health kits, whilst not being driven mad by the overwhelming odds. It’s got all the trappings of survival horror at its core, though I can’t shake the feeling that it wants to be more action focused than the original concept laid out.
Combat is the interesting part across the whole game because it blends melee with gun play quite well. In fact, the first 20% of the game is melee only, so you better get used to Jacob’s fighting style. Movement on the left stick incorporates a block and dodge mechanic where holding in a specific direction will either absorb a blow or duck out of its way, and for multiple swings you have to alternate the directions you’re pushing in. It works, sort of, and maybe that’s more about getting your head around the timings and that it won’t move you around as you expect it would. Finding the rhythm takes a while, but when you nail it there’s a good flow you can get into. There’s even a perfect dodge which The Callisto Protocol neglected to tell me about that slows time slightly and gives a window for a counter attack. Discovering that during the final boss fight was good, yet I’d have benefitted from knowing it much earlier on. Once you’ve mastered the hand-to-hand along come the firearms, and these change up the combat so that you don’t have to be as close to the horrific enemies, at least for a short while.
Shooting is the bog standard hold aim button, press fire to deal damage, and it’ll be light damage in the early stages. Projectile fire knocks the biophages back, and levelled up weapons can take chunks of body away, but they will still come at you and whacking them is usually the only sure fire way of taking them out of action. Combining strikes with precision body shots is the way to go, and executing a combo will bring up a targeting reticule so that there’s a chance of a critical hit. Making use of this style of play is the most effective way of dealing with the monsters quickly, whereas using the techniques in isolation can protract the battles and allow other creatures to get the drop on you. The Callisto Protocol is not shy about swarming poor Jacob and coupling powerful strikes with multiple foes can bring about a quick death. That’s before you encounter the 1-hit kill enemies too, and probably at that point you start to call BS on the combat side of the game. For all the good ideas at play, it cannot hide the fact that it’s just a bit clunky and not designed to be fluid enough to be satisfying, with some encounters ending up being a test of your patience on seeing gruesome death animations rather than your skill.
What makes the fighting frustrating is the slow turn pace and responsiveness of the characters melee swing and dodge, and the tight third person camera that means you can’t see what else is coming up on your sides or behind. You’d be able to hear them if the audio of metal smacking flesh wasn’t so overpowering, so it tends to be that you finish beating one biophage down only to get grabbed and slaughtered by the one that’s shambled up to you in the meantime. Shooting them back helps, though reloading is slow and switching weapons so painfully awkward on the fly that you might as well not bother. There’s a quick swap between handguns and rifles which is needed, but prey you don’t run out of ammo on one because you won’t get chance to change to something else until everything is dead. That goes for the boss fights too and makes them challenging for all the wrong reasons. Jacob is even armed with a telekinetic device to pick up and throw objects, yet the battery drain is so high you’re lucky to get two uses from it before it conks out. That’s lovely when you’ve picked a creature up at distance to throw them into a spike trap only to have the power drop and them land right in front of you… arms already swinging.
Spurring you on through the chaotic and nightmarish combat is the fact that The Callisto Protocol is one of the best looking games we’ve seen in a while. The art direction and environmental design are superb, and layering in the lighting and smoke effects brings the prison to life in the most ghoulish of ways. Let’s not forget that the facial and motion capture is also excellent with Josh Duhamel bringing depth to Jacob, Karen Fukuhara showing determination in Dani, and Sam Witwer being himself as the antagonist Ferris. If you want to feel creeped out and on edge throughout the 10 hour runtime then that won’t be an issue, the soundtrack and visual style are there to do exactly that. You may get sick of seeing them, or even feel sick seeing them, though kudos has to go for the death animations and how brutal and disgusting they can be. It’s an incredibly polished game (at least on PlayStation 5), and makes good use of the horsepower of the console building a believable off-world colony.
Whilst there’s a lot of chatter about the Dead Space influence (that’s a given considering the pedigree of the staff and the fanbase clamouring for more of that series), it’s unfair to say that The Callisto Protocol has nothing in its own right going for it. There’s a decent story, engaging characters and an amazingly realised facility. Granted, the overall run length is quite short, and parts feel forced to slow the progression down – nearly all the end of act 2 requiring stealth in order to survive the number of biophages – though making it longer might start to raise stress levels. I found there’s a very heavy lean on the survival side, and I reached the final boss with only a few bullets and no health packs, so had some panicky attempts there to make it through. It could do better on shouting out some of the key gameplay elements too, like blue boxes that contain ammo, and the aforementioned perfect dodge; and why it insists on putting enemies in loot chests and lockers over and over is just obtuse. However, we don’t get many titles with this level of ambition to deliver a controlled single player experience, and it’s one that’s definitely worth playing through. Let’s see if they can fix some of the minor gripes for the inevitable sequel.
The Callisto Protocol is available now on PlayStation, Xbox and PC for around £40.
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