December 2022 saw the release of The Callisto Protocol. Starting out as an in-universe PUBG shooter, the focus shifted when former Dead Space developers were brought on board. Thus, the game transformed into the product we were given – an undeniable ode to the aforementioned Sci-Fi horror franchise. Upon its launch late last year, The Callisto Protocol was met with widespread criticism, particularly in terms of its PC release. Marred with technical issues and bland gameplay, I took a post-release look at The Callisto Protocol’s PS5 version, to see if the negative response holds weight…
Trouble in Blackgate
The Callisto Protocol is sold as a “Survival Horror”. Whilst I realize such a term has become a label for anything remotely horror (at this point, I’m surprised Bloodborne isn’t painted with that brush), in the strict definition of the term, this game is not a Survival Horror. It’s an action game through and through. That’s not necessarily a bad thing and actually, The Callisto Protocol’s story and setting are entertaining enough.
Set on one of Jupiter’s moons, (Callisto, obviously), the game puts you in the shoes of Jacob Lee. He’s a space freighter, piloting a ship contracted to transport goods from Europa to Callisto. He doesn’t know what he’s carrying and is only really concerned with the job he’s being paid for. Jacob’s co-pilot Max is cautious, though Jacob reminds him this job will pay enough to afford them both retirement. However, during the job, their ship is hijacked by an alleged terrorist group known as Outer Way, forcing their craft to crash land back on Callisto. From here, things go from bad to worse, as Jacob and the leader of Outer Way, Dani, are taken into custody on unknown charges and promptly escorted to Blackgate Prison.
This is where the nightmare begins. Awakening to find the prison overrun by monstrous humanoids referred to as “biophages”, Jacob has no choice but to place his trust in a surviving inmate, Elias, who promises he has an escape plan. What ensues is a whirlwind gauntlet through biophages and robot security to leave Blackgate and get to Callisto’s surface. Of course, things don’t go according to plan and Jacob finds himself pulled into a shadowy conspiracy of which Blackgate is merely a means to a far more sinister end.
Whilst the story is, taken by itself, just a pinch cliché, the setting helps The Callisto Protocol leave something of an impression.
Surviving the Nightmare
Gameplay in The Callisto Protocol is fairly standard. It’s in the third-person perspective, and that’s more than welcome in an ocean of flaccid first-person horror titles that bill themselves as Survival Horror. Combat consists of melee, guns, and a glove you acquire that you can use to pull and throw enemies. Mixed in with this is a dodge mechanic, whereby you hold the left stick in a particular direction. A lot of enemies will try to swipe at you three or more times in a row, which means you will need to alternate your dodges between directions, otherwise you’ll take a hit. There are a number of environmental hazards that you can use your glove to throw enemies into or, if you’re close enough, swing your melee weapon and literally hit the enemy into the hazards. Either way, this results in an instant kill. Weaving these things together is the key to success, especially as The Callisto Protocol will often pit you against an outrageous number of biophages. Honorable mention goes to the very basic, although very useful stealth mechanic – be sneaky and creep behind a biophage for an instant stealth kill. As stated, it’s all very standard, but it can be fun to mix things together and watch one enemy explode in a rain of innards whilst you simultaneously beat another ghoul.
In keeping with the simplicity of the core mechanics of combat, there’s a rudimentary upgrade system. As you play through the game, you’ll happen across forges, where you can 3D print upgrades to your weapons, or even, if you have the requisite blueprint, craft new firearms.
Progression itself is very straightforward. It’s hard to get lost at any point in The Callisto Protocol, as it’s all go from point A to point B. When you get to point B, something goes awry, which sets you off on another A → B run. Sometimes you’ll encounter minor puzzles, but more often, swaths of enemies. The game is split into eight chapters of varying length and were it not for the brevity of the game, The Callisto Protocol’s linearity would outstay its welcome. My playthrough took me something in the region of 11 hours and that was just fine with me.
There isn’t a whole lot more to say on the gameplay side of things, as it really boils down to navigating predetermined paths to a goal, leaving a path of dead biophages in your wake.
The Not-so Horrific
Despite the backlash upon its release, there is genuinely a fair bit to like about The Callisto Protocol. Inheriting the HUD-less system of Dead Space, everything you need to know, from health to ammo count is displayed on or around Jacob himself. Health and energy levels are a meter on the back of his neck, ammo is a hologram projected by your firearm and your inventory is displayed as a projection also. This is one of the things that made Dead Space more immersive and it’s put to good use in The Callisto Protocol also. On the topic of inventory, there is a little bit of management, especially for the first half of the game, where you only have six slots available. But unlike classic Survival Horror titles, where you had strategically placed storage, because you rarely backtrack in The Callisto Protocol, sometimes you need to discard items to make room for other things.
Combat here is serviceable, especially on the higher difficult, where spongier enemies demand you make good use of all the tools at your disposal. I also found the stealth sections to be quite tense, with biophages that are blind but if you’re too loud, they will shriek to draw all nearby ghouls. If you’re not careful, you will quickly be overrun.
Visually, the game is really worthy of praise. Light and shadows are used to good effect and the industrial setting gives way to an intimidating set of alien caverns, keeping things visually varied. Of note, the vista you get of Jupiter at one point drives home how isolated you really are and is a rare moment of actual beauty in an otherwise grimy game world. There is an atmosphere in The Callisto Protocol, but it’s nothing incredible and is held back by an extremely generic use of sound – be it Hollywood-esque scores or just bombastic clangs of metal and shrieking monsters. The Callisto Protocol definitely announces its scares, rather than leaving a role for the imagination of the player.
Which leads me to…
Looking back through my notes, I can see more negative comments than praise. In the name of being objective, I can use one word to sum up most of what is poor about this game – that being “generic”. The combat mechanics feel like an exercise in AAA box-ticking.
Telekinetic powers: check.
Gruesome foes: check.
Whether or not the developers started with this vision, or they stripped it down to this along the way, the end result is a game that really doesn’t stand out whatsoever. Now, I’m not saying every game has to innovate. However, with The Callisto Protocol, it feels as though they were resting on the Dead Space name to carry players through a game that doesn’t have an identity of its own. Without that sense of identity, what promises to be a horror game just winds up being a shooter but with monsters and gore. I definitely remember my playthrough, but for all the wrong reasons.
Engaging with enemies becomes a chore and part of that is the dodge system. It’s janky, to say the least. If you time it right, you’re guaranteed to win. Miss a dodge though and rather than anything panic-inducing happening, you’re just filled with a sense of having to repeat the same dance. In keeping with how desperate the game is to appeal to as many players as possible, The Callisto Protocol conflates challenge and fear with an unimaginative use of increasing hordes. To put it bluntly, in one room you may fight four enemies, then solve a little puzzle and proceed to the next area. This next area will have maybe eight biophages. Not for one moment did this feel like horror, nor did it ever feel intimidating. Merely tiresome. There are a grand total of two bosses in an entire playthrough; this includes the final boss. Just when you think you’ve beaten the first of these and you’ll never see it again, you encounter the creature again, but with extra support from basic biophages. At my most generous, I would say hostile and boss encounters are mediocre. In all honesty though, I think saying that it all amounts to a bore is an apt summary.
Yes, there were some performance issues, even on PS5: a few moments of dropped frames here and there; enemies glitching through platforms, presumably because the game couldn’t load a climb or jump animation; peculiar hitboxes on occasion. Even with those things considered, I could overlook it all if the game provided a unique horror experience. The thing is, no amount of patching could give The Callisto Protocol the thing it lacks.
From the story to the enemy design and combat, The Callisto Protocol is copy-paste “horror”. I used the quotes around horror because the use of common tropes means that the title fails to provide the most important ingredient in a horror game – fear.
WAIT FOR SALE ON THE CALLISTO PROTOCOL
This was played on a copy bought by the reviewer on PlayStation 5.
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Damien (dkpriory) has grown up gaming, from the humble days of the Atari all the way through to modern PC gaming. Unafraid to let a game steal his life for a few months, he is passionate about playing something immersive but also yearns for something to take him back to his childhood. Sadly no longer a member of the NookGaming team or creating content, but check out his archives on Youtube here.