I went into The Callisto Protocol last year hopeful that, at the very least, I’d get an entertaining facsimile of 2008’s Dead Space. The gameplay trailers looked promising, with set-pieces, visual elements, and the soundscape clearly drawing on the game that pushed Glen Schofield’s name into popular discourse. The website and storefront pages declared it would be a “narrative-driven, third-person survival horror” and I was psyched.
Unfortunately, The Callisto Protocol has little in common with Dead Space (2008) beyond the setting and premise. Instead, Striking Distance Studios and Krafton were following an all too common and frustrating industry trend: trying to sell a game to one audience by highlighting its connection to an iconic IP, while actually designing it to ape what’s currently popular for another audience.
Objectively – at least after a few post-launch patches – it’s not a bad game and there’ll be fans without the Dead Space baggage that’ll enjoy the ride. However, as part of the target audience pining for another Dead Space, I found their attempt to straddle the line between survival-horror and story-driven blockbuster resulted in a game that doesn’t excel at being either.
It has a great premise and looks the part…
I wanted to start on a positive note as The Callisto Protocol has an interesting setting, premise, and intensely cinematic presentation. Just like the Dead Space universe, it’s set in a future where humanity is expanding into space and life on the frontier is rough. The Jovian moons are host to worker colonies, megacorporations, mining facilities, and, of course, the Black Iron penal colony on Callisto. It’s a turbulent and dangerous region with colonial governments fighting for control against rebel groups seeking more independence, little corporate or government oversight, and thriving black market trade.
It’s a wonderfully realised universe thanks to the impressive visuals, an immersive soundscape, motion capture, and quality voice acting. Environments are incredibly detailed and atmospheric; character models for both humans and biophage creatures demonstrate intricate, lifelike, and gruesome details. There are some outliers, like the rough animations for reloading and picking up items, but the melee combat and gunplay typically look, sound, and feel brutal. The crunching impact of baton strikes and bullet impacts is complemented by ridiculous sprays of gore and death animations that ensure every battle – regardless of whether you’re victorious or not – ends with dismembered limbs and bodily fluids coating the walls and floor.
The audio deserves top marks with quality voice acting, crunchy claw and weapon impacts, unsettling and multi-layered directional audio that’ll keep you on your toes, and a subdued but atmospheric soundtrack that ramps up in sync with the threat level.
…but cinematic aspirations and impressive visuals can’t carry a game
Of course, an impressive audiovisual package can greatly enhance your gameplay experience but a video game is something that’s actively “played”, not passively consumed. Even if the gameplay mechanics are just a perfunctory framework for storytelling, balance and pacing remain essential. The longer you play, the more it feels like The Callisto Protocol forgot the basics.
It’s worth going all way back to 2007’s Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune for a point of comparison. Naughty Dog is one of the most recognisable progenitors of story-driven cinematic games and their 15-year-old game does a better job of balancing clunky gameplay sequences with heavily-directed, spectacle-driven set pieces, quiet periods of banter between the cast, and cinematic cutscenes. I’d even argue most Naughty Dog games have distinctly average gameplay, but they’re masters of pacing, ensuring you rarely do one thing long enough to start noticing the limitations.
The Callisto Protocol is intensely cinematic and feels aggressively directed. You’re funnelled down unflinchingly linear paths, with the camera forced towards what the director wants you to see, and every encounter is fought on their terms. Unfortunately, the balance and pacing are inconsistent. Maybe it was by design, but the degree of control feels oppressive and makes the wide-corridor approach of The Last of Us or A Plague Tale games – which I assume Striking Distance Studio was trying to emulate – feel like massive sandboxes in comparison.
A tightly controlled tutorial sequence is nothing new, so when The Callisto Protocol kicked off with an exciting and brisk opening chapter – used to introduce the setting, protagonist, and supporting cast – I just assumed the subsequent chapter would open up. Instead, the training wheels stay on while the pacing slows to a crawl. You find yourself going through the same motions for upwards of an hour per chapter, and while the narrative eventually gets going, the limited survival, combat, and puzzle elements barely evolve.
So much idle time that could have been used better
That said, even the narrative takes a long time to get interesting. Four chapters – accounting for two-thirds of my total playtime – are dedicated to escaping the prison and finding a ship, before the final three chapters have you trudging through an old colony toward a flurry of revelations, flashbacks, and the finale. It’s not a great structure for a game that advertises itself as “story-driven” and the biggest issue is how little of significance happens between the cinematics that bookend each chapter.
During my 13-hour casual run, it was only a handful of entirely missable audiologs that kept me interested in the overarching narrative. Radio chatter is almost always Jacob receiving directions on where to go – mechanically pointless given the linearity – and, when Jacob finally teams up with rebel leader Dani, every conversation about the history of the Callisto colony was followed by several that revolve around circumventing contrivances that keep them separated. Most disappointing is the limited environmental storytelling that feels barebones in contrast to Dead Space 1 and 2, where attentive players could follow in the footsteps of minor characters through multiple chapters to discover the ultimate fate. In The Callisto Protocol, they’re once-off events that often reference other games, and they never move beyond the basic monster closet design to generate scares.
The knock-on effect is an overreliance on lengthy cutscenes and contracted character arcs that make later interactions feel unearned. Jacob feels anguish over the death of his copilot and the prisoner that helps him escape, yet shares so little time meaningfully interacting with them. The prison warden pops up for clichéd and laughably evil monologues, while his underling – who I initially pegged as the comic relief – returns for a distinctly Resident Evil-style finale. Dani feels like the only fleshed-out character, coming across as cold and uninterested in anyone or anything but her mission before flashbacks reveal more about the tragedy that led her to Callisto and put her on that path. The problem is her arc is still crammed into the second half and she’s reduced to a damsel-in-distress during the final chapter to facilitate Jacob’s redemption arc.
For all its stylish cutscenes, with motion capture and quality voice work, The Callisto Protocol ultimately does a worse job of telling and pacing its story than the original Dead Space (2008) – a game in which the silent protagonist can only awkwardly gesticulate while everyone talks at them.
Entertaining combat but superficial survival-horror elements
I don’t care how loose or hybridised video game genres have become, a key element of survival-horror is resource scarcity and decision-making. Will a detour to find ammunition or health items expend more resources than I gain? Should I use a powerful weapon to trivialise a tough encounter when I’m low on health, or do I save it for the inevitable boss fight? If I have to backtrack to solve puzzles, which routes do I expend supplies clearing out? Regardless of whether you use Dead Space (2008) as a point of reference, or go all the way back to 1996’s Resident Evil, there are fundamentals that never change.
Starting on a positive note again, I enjoyed The Callisto Protocol’s melee mechanics and it was always fun to bob and weave around enemies before bludgeoning them with a shock baton. Firearms and your “GRP” ability (think telekinesis from Dead Space) feel like support tools. Firearms are primarily used for quick-shot dismemberments after a three-hit melee combo, or to detonate environmental hazards and exploder enemies from afar. The slowly-recharging GRP glove can fling enemies into hazards, or fling hazards at enemies. Honestly, if The Callisto Protocol had been marketed as a cinematic action-adventure with horror elements, I’d have been more forgiving – even if the combat encounters fail to meaningfully evolve. The problem is the extreme linearity, melee combat, and an abysmal checkpointing system undermine core survival-horror tenets.
There are, of course, excellent linear survival-horror games you could point to, such as Dead Space 2, The Last of Us, and A Plague Tale, but their wide corridor approach feels akin to interconnected mini-sandbox environments and some even offer hubs with either multi-part or optional objectives. I can remember maybe three substantial side paths in The Callisto Protocol with interesting audiologs at the end, and maybe a half-dozen fuse hunts that had me backtrack through two or three rooms at most. The rest of the experience felt like I was on autopilot – pushed forward through narrow tunnels, caves, and an absurd number of crawl spaces; battling against small groups of biophage creatures; and surviving rare set-piece moments before hitting the end-of-chapter cinematic.
Although desirable to stomp on corpses and crates for ammunition, healing items, crafting blueprints, and scrap for upgrades, the cramped environments and powerful melee system made these elements feel superfluous at times. Sure, a shotgun might be good for knee-capping charging creatures and there are exploding and spitter-type enemies best dealt with quickly at range, but the selection of grounded firearms feels broadly interchangeable and a lack of ammunition never means failure (and it’s rare you have the opportunity to backtrack and find more supplies anyway).
Other designs that water down the survival-horror elements include: the melee + quick-shot combo that works just as well with the first revolver you pick up as it does with a late-game burst rifle; upgrades for weapons that offer incremental boosts and rarely affect your tactics; the fact you’re simply given a new suit with more health and twice the inventory space at the halfway point; and healing syringes that are slow to the point of useless in combat. The Callisto Protocol wants to ensure you’re always pushing forward irrespective of your loadout and inventory.
Checkpoints are the true horror
Now that’s not to say survival in The Callisto Protocol is easy. To offset Jacob’s melee prowess, enemies hit hard and gang up on you – even on the easiest difficulty. The biggest biophage creatures that function as bosses often have one-hit-kill attacks, while several mutate into faster forms if not killed quickly. The final boss is also a great example of lazy design – a lumbering monstrosity that constantly chases you down, accompanied by waves of exploder enemies that, if they knock you to the floor, guarantee the boss has time to walk up and insta-kill you. It’s perhaps the only time firearms felt essential.
But wait, you might think, The Callisto Protocol is linear and has checkpoints. You’d be right, and some stretches of the game play out without issue, but their implementation is inconsistent and, once again, it’s another design that undermines the survival-horror elements.
Firstly – and despite the ability to save between encounter phases and preserve all dropped items in the world – most checkpoints are placed before lengthy transition zones so you can mindlessly repeat them to get back to the combat arena you died in. Secondly, it rarely checkpoints when you return from a side path, forcing you to repeat that excursion for any resources and collectibles if you die before the next checkpoint on the critical path. Lastly, and most annoyingly, it triggers checkpoints as you enter rooms with crafting stations, rather than as you leave. If you run around to gather up and sell excess items for scrap then upgrade your gear before heading out – you better hope you don’t die during the next combat encounter or you’ll be repeating the process each time.
Mixed messaging, bad designs, and inconsistent pacing
The Callisto Protocol sits in a weird middle ground for me. Once I started treating it as a cinematic action-adventure with jump scares, and stopped trying to play it like Dead Space, I could enjoy the spectacle and melee combat. I still had issues with it – but it was entertaining enough to see through to the end and that’s why I scored it a 7/10.
That said, short of some radical overhaul in how the expansions play, I doubt I’ll be returning to it. Progression and combat encounters in The Callisto Protocol feel so aggressively controlled and poorly paced, with few opportunities for dynamic scares, that I’m not sure the promised New Game Plus mode could dramatically alter the experience.
As a story-driven cinematic game, the balance between gameplay, set-pieces, and storytelling sequences is inconsistent. As a survival-horror game, the linear structure that always pushes you forward, the powerful melee system with no resource constraints, and often awful checkpointing ensure these elements feel superficial at best. By attempting to straddle the line between survival-horror and story-driven blockbuster – while being less than honest about marketing – fans of either genre are going to find the end product underwhelming in comparison to its more focused peers.