The Callisto Protocol owes a lot to 2008’s Dead Space, but temper your expectations if you were hoping for a prettier retread. The narrative themes, several set pieces, visual designs, and soundscape all draw from it. You’ll also find no shortage of subtle and overt references – think character names, audio snippets, scripted scares, and death animations. The problem is that The Callisto Protocol is only part survival-horror game and desperately wants to be another modern, narrative-driven, cinematic “blockbuster” game. As a consequence, it doesn’t excel at being either.
Great concept, glacial pacing
Although I have issues with the storytelling, the premise and setting are fantastic. You’re swiftly introduced to a future where mankind has colonised the outer solar system. The Jovian moons are host to colonies, megacorporations, mining facilities, and the Black Iron penal colony on Callisto. It’s a turbulent region with colonial governments fighting for control against rebel groups seeking independence, little corporate or government oversight, manipulative secret societies, and a thriving black market trade. Protagonist Jacob Lee is on a questionable delivery run into Black Iron when his ship is boarded by rebels and crashes outside the prison. Jacob and the rebel leader Dani are swiftly arrested and forcibly incarcerated but it doesn’t take long for events to deteriorate. He awakens in a prison block overrun by crazed and violent prisoners, with signs of some sort of organic infection spreading from below.
Unfortunately, that brisk opening chapter – and the finale – are outliers. The Callisto Protocol takes a long time to get going and, if you’re not constantly hunting for secret audiologs off the beaten path, it only gets interesting from the halfway point. I know it’s not uncommon for games to save their stylish cinematics and big reveals for chapter transitions, but The Callisto Protocol only has eight, most run well over an hour, and a casual playthrough takes as long as Dead Space’s twelve (and there are no cool secret messages in the chapter names). You spend a long time simply moving through locations because that’s your only option, most radio chatter is the supporting cast giving directions, and there’s an overreliance on lengthy cutscenes with contracted character arcs that make later events feel unearned. You could argue this is a video game and the narrative is secondary to gameplay but, as I alluded to in the introduction, The Callisto Protocol wants to be a narrative-driven cinematic game and mechanical depth has suffered as a result.
Horror on a leash
I guess you could argue The Callisto Protocol nails the sensation of claustrophobic horror by keeping you inside and below ground for most of your playthrough – but Dead Space (2008) managed the same by trapping you aboard a massive mining vessel while still offering more environmental diversity and gameplay freedom. You might as well be on autopilot at times, as you’re pushed ever forward through confined spaces, towards tightly scripted encounters. There are few diversions, minimal backtracking, and no multi-part objectives that let you choose the route you take. You move from room to room – a task that involves squeezing through a ridiculous number of crawl spaces – hunting for keycards, fuses, or switches; battling against biophage creatures; and surviving rare set-piece moments – some of which are literally on the rails.
That’s not to say The Callisto Protocol doesn’t try to spice up progression by introducing new variants of corridor, a half-dozen grounded but interchangeable weapons, environmental hazards, and deadlier creatures – the problem is the aggressively controlled pacing. It’s like the director is always standing behind you, forcefully guiding your view toward jump scares and pushing you into combat on their terms. There are so few opportunities for dynamic scares that I’m not sure the promised New Game Plus mode would do anything to alter the experience. With the exception of the final boss – which serves as a reminder that changing up the rules in the final moments is never a good idea – a combination of melee and your slowly recharging “GRP” power (think of the Telekinesis module from Dead Space) can get you through. Collecting weapon schematics, credits for upgrades, and conserving ammunition can make progress easier (the slow healing animation makes hoarding medkits useless) but you get a new suit with increased health and double the inventory space at the halfway point irrespective of how you play. As a result, the survival-horror elements feel underdeveloped.
Thankfully, the melee-focussed combat proved an unexpected highlight once I understood the rhythm – even if, just like the narrative, it takes half the game to get interesting. You’ll encounter zombie-like brawlers, long-range spitters, gaseous exploders that scuttle towards you from dark corners, tentacle-spewing mutating tanks, the lumbering equivalent of Resident Evil’s Tyrant, and deadly but blind creatures that’ll rush you if you kick over a can but not if you violently backstab their companions next to them. All of them can be dealt with at range if you master the perfunctory shooting and burn through ammunition, but firearms feel like support tools – able to knock back or kneecap charging enemies to clear some room, or useful for removing a limb with a snap-shot after a successful melee combo.
The seemingly ubiquitous stun baton is such an impressive weapon it’s difficult to understand how Black Iron guards lost control of the prison. You can upgrade the damage and defensive abilities, but the basics of melee combat remain the same throughout. Holding back on the left thumbstick will block most attacks while moving sideways will trigger a dodge. Precise timing rewards a stylish slowdown effect but it’s not essential to avoid or reduce damage. The only time you need to pay attention is during a flurry of attacks, which requires you to move in alternating directions between blows to sustain your dodge. When it comes to dealing damage, Jacob can chain up to three blows to trigger a snap-shot opportunity or counterattack after a successful block or dodge. In contrast to so many horror games that leave you defenceless or reliant on firearms, it’s incredibly empowering and allows for aggressive play during smaller encounters.
To offset these melee abilities, enemies hit hard and are more than happy to gang up on you – even on the lowest difficulty. The biggest biophage creatures have one-hit-kill attacks, while enemies allowed to mutate regain their health and can launch into a flurry of blows that shred your health. Thankfully, you can reduce the difficulty if you’re struggling and enable assists like auto-aim for firearms and the ability to keep dodging regardless of your input direction. It would be easy to recommend The Callisto Protocol as a pure action game if only the combat evolved significantly, but it was always entertaining to bludgeon creatures to death, with several gruesome situational finishers and spectacular death animations should you fall.
A lesson in how not to implement checkpoints
I don’t understand how the inconsistent checkpoint placement ever got past QA. In linear games, checkpoints can and do work, but not in The Callisto Protocol. In many chapters, you’ll hit frequent checkpoints as you move through linear corridors and even between the phases of larger encounters – then suddenly you won’t. There were too many times I’d trigger a checkpoint before a series of lengthy, zero-risk transition animations rather than after, or explore an optional and often deadly side path with no checkpoint on my return to the critical path. Rooms with fabrication station – used to sell unwanted items, upgrade gear, and craft ammunition or medkits – often trigger a checkpoint as you enter, rather than as you leave.
The highlight for me was a multi-wave encounter on a small transport platform. I made a few back and forth trips to collect staches of ammunition, sold off items I didn’t need, and upgraded several firearms before activating the switch to trigger the sequence. But was there a checkpoint after I pulled the switch, just like there was after pulling three switches within the same chapter? Nope. After falling to several mutating biophages, I found myself back in front of the fabrication station, needing to recollect, sell, restock, and upgrade before each subsequent attempt (it did, at least, checkpoint before the mini-boss arrived).
I’ve been gaming for long enough that few things anger me but stupid decisions that result in needless time-wasting are one of them. The checkpointing system feels amateurish, made the crashes prevelent after launch even more irritating, and needs to be tweaked as a priority. If the save system can track multiple checkpoints that retain everyting from the position of enemies to dropped inventory items, it can surely be tweaked with ease?
They’re coming outta the goddamn walls!
Now I’ve been complaining a lot but there are few bad things to say about the presentation – at least on current-gen consoles. The Callisto Protocol looks good and sounds incredible. Sure, the environments lack diversity but they look incredibly detailed and grounded. Character models, both human and biophage, demonstrate intricate, lifelike details. Some animations, like reloading and picking up items, can look a little dated, but the melee combat is wonferfully animated and feels brutal and impactful as exaggerated sprays of blood and dismembered limbs fill the air. In true Dead Space style, the gore is dialed up to 11 and every battle ends with a pile of dismembered corpses and blood coating both Jacob and the environment. If I have one complaint, it’s that they ditched Dead Space‘s hilarious ragdoll physics.
The entire soundscape 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 with the threat level or simply drops the odd discordant note to make you jump. The visual and audio elements come together to create an intensely cinematic experience but you can disable some effects if you find them too disorientating.
Way more words than I intended, yet I’m still not sure how to score The Callisto Protocol. There’s the framework of a good but never great horror game here – but that experience is undermined by its hybrid nature, rubbish checkpointing, and lingering technical issues that are slowly being patched out. The narrative beats and set pieces are not delivered frequently enough for it to be a great narrative-driven cinematic game, while it’s also too linear and mechanically shallow to be a great survival-horror game. Yes, it’s an intensely cinematic experience with quality production values, but that’s not enough to make a great video game.
Part of me wants to say stay the hell away until the checkpoint-based save system is overhauled but, assuming these are tweaked and technical issues are patched out, I’d first recommend The Callisto Protocol to fans of tightly-scripted, horror games like The Last of Us or A Plague Tale. If you’re a fan of pure survival-horror hoping for another Dead Space experience, you’re better off waiting on a sale and hoping the remake pans out.
The Callisto Protocol (Xbox Series) ReviewThe Callisto Protocol (Xbox Series) Review
- A new and intriguing Sci-Fi universe
- Unexpectedly satisfying melee combat
- Intensely cinematic presentation and immersive soundscape
- Plenty of entertaining Dead Space references
- More cinematic adventure than survival-horror
- Oppressively linear and directed
- The final boss is poorly designed
- An inconsistent and often infuriating checkpoint save system