Space horror is a genre that feels underserved in the absence of Visceral Games and that awful Dino Crisis sequel few remember. When Dead Space set the bar for mutilation and visceral combat (much like the studio's namesake), it left behind a lineage that hasn't yet been matched. With one of the original Dead Space co-creators at the helm, The Callisto Protocol aims to fill that void with their own take on horror. No longer a part of the PUBG cinematic universe (though you'll still find references to Paramo as the source of Callisto's problems), Glen Schofield's up-close and personal style of horror is finally upon us.

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Enter Jacob Lee, an Earth-born cargo freight pilot that happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. After successfully fending off a hijacking of ship and cargo (with the unfortunate loss of his co-pilot Max) and crash landing back on the surface of Callisto, Jacob's treated as a new inmate to the Black Iron Prison, complete with amenities such as a fully furnished prison cell and toilet, haircut, a new suit, and even a shiny new prison collar graciously installed into the back of his neck to monitor his current vitals and prevent any escape. It doesn't take long after his entrapment within the prison system before all goes to hell, leading to a mixture of prison riots and outbreaks and a pathogen outbreak all at the same time. From these, the player's main concern is just figuring out how the hell to get off that rock.

Much of Jacob Lee's escape from Black Iron Prison and onto the surface of Callisto is wrought with the same formula of locked doors, blocked paths, and an almost laughable number of unstable walkways that usually result in the player losing their footing and crashing stories below instead of just traveling along with his current companion at the time. Far too often, Jacob loses his way and has to find some alternate path to his destination, which after the third or fourth time just feels like a running gag meant to pad The Callisto Protocol's already lengthy runtime breaking a dozen hours to make it from opening to credits roll. One of the earliest examples of padding the game length is when it comes time for Jacob to simply take an elevator up to meet one of his fellow inmates face to face. Instead of just taking an elevator up a few floors, he instead has to descend as low as it can go m traverse through treacherous cavernous environments to reach the opposite elevator, which conveniently goes up to the same destination. But oops, your companion seems like they've already gone on ahead without you, so you'll have to continue forward in hopes of crossing paths one more time.

It's impossible to look at The Callisto Protocol and Glen Schofield's influence on the project without drawing similarities across the whole Dead Space series that he and Michael Condrey helmed at Visceral Games. While Jacob might not have the engineering know-how and plasma cutter that Isaac Clarke brought to Saturn's moon Titan in prior adventures, Jacob and his knack as a pilot land him on Jupiter's moon Callisto. Both titles feature an unknown alien outbreak that transforms humans into grotesque anomalies that want little more than to tear the hapless protagonist limb from limb. Without a plasma cutter in hand, don't expect Jacob to be as handy with decapitating enemy limbs one by one, but his prowess with melee and guns alike gives him a different fighting edge.

Tight camera angles, moody environments strewn about derelict bases and ships, and a consistently solid ambient soundtrack all help The Callisto Protocol fit into that vein of survival horror that Dead Space carved out nearly a decade and a half ago. That inspiration is perhaps most evident in the prisoner collar fused to the back of Jacob's neck that serves both as a health bar and energy for his GRP, a powered gauntlet that can grab and throw objects and enemies alike on demand, pending he has the stored energy to do so. Ammo counts were similarly projected upon the guns themselves. The only HUD element not built into Jacob's character itself is a pop-up menu that allows the player to quickly swap between equipped weapons. With each of Jacob's five guns being 3D printed and grafted onto a receiver, the player has to detach one gun assembly and slap on another onto the same grip, whether it's the two varieties of pistol, two shotguns, or the burst-fire assault rifle. Swapping between a one-handed and two-handed weapon is much faster than switching between two one-handed weapons as Jacob has to stop briefly to detach and reassemble the gun on the fly and usually reloads it for good effect too.

In proper survival horror fashion, resources are very limited within the confines of Black Iron Prison and across the icy surface of Callisto. Until Jacob receives an environmental suit that permits him to survive the cold outside, his health is limited and his inventory only permits six items in total, which can quickly be filled up by juggling health injectors, GRP battery packs, and ammo for each different weapon type (this is doubled in the new suit, in addition to a higher health pool)00000. Midway through when Jacob receives this crucial upgrade, The Callisto Protocol transitions into more of a shooting gallery by throwing enemies in larger numbers at the player.

What sets The Callisto Protocol apart from your standard survival horror is a heftier focus on melee encounters. Jacob's eventual melee weapon, the shock baton, can deal heavy amounts of damage across light and heavy attacks on R1/R2. To mitigate damage, the player can hold back on the analog stick to block an incoming attack but still take a small amount of damage. What players should really get used to is ducking and weaving enemy attacks through a very simplistic dodging system. As long as Jacob isn't recovering from a melee swing or aiming his weapon, holding the left analog stick in one direction  (it doesn't matter which) will allow him to effortlessly dodge an enemy attack while having to quickly pull the analog stick to the other side to evade a follow-up attack. It's a simplistic approach to, say, Punch-Out that feels clunky in these confined spaces. If timing defensive moves aren't your forte, there's an accessibility option to auto-dodge simply by holding down on the same analog stick. I'll admit, I fell back to this feature on two bosses in particular that caused me to repeatedly see the game over screen just a couple of seconds into the encounter.

Quite unlike Dead Space, the variety of biophage stays relatively constant throughout the ten-plus-hour journey. You have your standard brutish types that would rather run up and try to tear Jacob limb from limb, spitters that hurl volatile spitballs at the player, fatter, tankier types, and slow crawling bulbous types that once they grab onto Jacob, will explode and cause instant death. It isn't until after venturing outside the prison that Jacob encounters blind enemies that showcase how weak the stealth system can be in The Callisto Protocol.

Running or bumping into one of these blind enemies not only alerts them to attack the player but also summons any other one within a twenty-yard radius to come and get a piece of the player. In just a few seconds, it's not uncommon to get swarmed by five or six blind biophages all swinging at Jacob while he can only block and dodge the ones right in front of his face. For these blind types, the easiest solution is to crouch and make your way behind them and stab them for instant death. Afterward, you can stomp their lifeless bodies for that sweet loot and ammo, which strangely doesn't make enough sound to alert these enemies to your position. Selective hearing, I suppose. At least these enemies primarily encompass only a couple of chapters in the back half of the campaign, so players won't get too frustrated about trial-and-error to make it through the scripted events where Jacob automatically alerts every live enemy in the arena.

Only a few notable boss fights crop up in The Callisto Protocol, both against recurring enemy types. The most frustrating of which is a two-headed abomination that rips itself in half to discard the useless half upon taking enough damage. Even on medium difficulty, these assailants take a hefty amount of melee damage and gunfire before they drop, meanwhile having the capability to either grab Jacob for a single hit kill or usually deal enough damage to drop the player in just two, sometimes three attacks.

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The many ways Jacob can die a gruesome death, while numerous, run their course the first few times you see them. During the many encounters with two-headed enemies, getting hit by their melee swing usually switches to a scripted scene of Jacob getting both of his arms stomped off before the same happens to his head like an overripe melon. Shocking the first few times you see it, then a bit of a chore to sit through after that. There are only so many ways to watch a man get his limbs or face mutilated before the screen fades to black.

One area that The Callisto Protocol absolutely excels in, however, is in the overall presentation and graphical design. There's nary a single square inch of Callisto and Black Iron Prison that doesn't capture that derelict, abandoned spaceship vibes, complete with ambient sounds of creaking pipes or rustling footsteps in the far distance. Of all the technological advancements in the late 2200s, it's a surprise that aluminum soda cans are still the go-to staple for prison guards. The facial and motion capture are both among the highest of the industry standard, with both Karl Urban-lookalike Josh Duhamel and Karen Fukuhara (Kimiko from Darick Robertson's The Boys) looking exceeding close to their real-life counterparts thanks to the modified Unreal Engine 4 bringing The Callisto Protocol to life. The Callisto Protocol also features a Performance Mode on PlayStation 5 that felt almost essential to the experience. The tradeoff for slightly increased graphical fidelity and ray tracing simply isn't worth the performance drop from 60FPS which honestly felt like the game had frame pacing issues and overall sluggishness at the reduced framerates.

While an incredible looker in screenshots and death scenes, The Callisto Protocol suffers from a lack of intriguing content that makes the twelve-plus hour journey through Black Iron Prison worth two, even perhaps one single playthrough. Crafting and skill trees are both minimal in nature (with both costing a heavy amount of credits where players might only be able to fully upgrade two or three weapons in the full playthrough) while melee combat and combat encounters as a whole feel largely scripted. The horror elements stand out as reason alone to play Striking Distance's debut horror game, but you might want to find yourself getting thrown back into Black Iron Prison rather than see the journey through to the end.

Reviewed on PS5 (code provided by the publisher).

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7.2
Wccftech Rating
The Callisto Protocol
The Callisto Protocol

The Callisto Protocol, throughout all of the tension and suspense, can't mask the terrors within might only be surface deep.

Pros
  • Many weapon upgrades feel substantial, such as in Jacob's stun baton or adding an alt-fire mode to certain guns
  • Claustrophobic environments best suited for being played in the dark with headphones on
  • Feel like a melee master with auto dodge and a good rhythm with the stun baton
  • High visual fidelity even on consoles
  • Yanking enemies with the GRP gauntlet and launching them into spike walls or off ledges never gets old
Cons
  • Melee combat and most jump scares feel largely scripted
  • Aside from Jacob's first gun and the GRP gauntlet, few upgrades do much to change up combat
  • Medicore stealth system forced on the players midway through
  • Boss fights with damage spongy bosses that can tear Jacob limb from limb in a single attack
  • No quick turn to face enemies mobbing Jacob from all sides
  • Jacob has the absolute worst luck when it comes to falling off platforms, breaking ladders, and in general just getting lost from his original goal
  • Minimal puzzle solving, typically requiring the player to transport a gate fuse from one door to another
  • Jacob can't walk and listen to audio logs at the same time

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