I love survival horror games, and I love space horror even more. So, the recent string of space horror games announced this year has me hyped. The Callisto Protocol is the first of these to be released. With the Dead Space remake currently scheduled for January 2023, when I first saw The Callisto Protocol trailer, I thought we were watching another trailer for the Dead Space remake until the title appeared at the end. The resemblance is striking, and it’s not hard to see why as the creator behind the original Dead Space, Glen Schofield, is on board for this game. But, does The Callisto Protocol live up to being a ‘spiritual Dead Space successor’? Despite its resemblance to Dead Space, it would be unfair to call The Callisto Protocol a ‘copy’. Because it’s so much worse.
Set in the year 2320, The Callisto Protocol opens with a cinematic introduction that shows a terrorist attack presumably conducted by The Outer Way terrorist group; part of a string of bioweapon attacks happening across the Jovian moon Europa. In The Callisto Protocol, the main protagonist is Jacob Lee, a pilot of a cargo ship who regularly makes trips through Europa to deliver supplies to Black Iron Prison, located on Jupiter’s dead moon, Callisto. When The Outer Way group attacks Jacob’s ship, they crash land on Callisto. When Black Iron Prison guards investigate the wreckage, they are ordered by the warden to arrest Jacob along with the only surviving member of the group who attacked Jacob’s ship. Following this is a gruesome scene of Jacob being processed and fitted with a ‘core’ implant, he faints during the procedure and wakes up in his new bunk. This is short-lived as an alarm sounds straight away. The prisoners are mutating into monsters and the place is being torn to pieces.
The Callisto Protocol is described as being ‘narrative-driven’, which is utterly laughable because this would mean there’s no driver; the plot barely exists. Once we get through the opening segment which shows Jacob’s imprisonment and the mutant outbreak, we get absolutely no development in the story until the third act. Jacob meets a fellow inmate, Elias, who knows the prison from top to bottom because ‘he’s been in there a while’. This apparently means that Elias knows exactly how to tamper with the security systems. Elias has an escape plan, but needs Jacob’s help for it to work. He’ll spend most of his time in control rooms, giving Jacob instructions over the radio. Other than that, the plot doesn’t develop and when it finally does in the last three chapters, it’s hardly surprising or creative. It’s as if absolutely no thought went into The Callisto Protocol’s story, and was merely an afterthought – which is strange for a ‘narrative-driven’ game. There’s no depth, a predictable mystery that’s nothing that we haven’t seen before, and there’s not even a compelling intro to get us hyped for the rest of the game.
Elias’ background in Black Iron Prison is only a few lines long, yet is far more in-depth than anything we’re given on Jacob. Jacob is a pilot and that is all. We know nothing about his history, anyone that he cares about, not even his background as a pilot for the cargo ship. Jacob is essentially just a vessel for the player to control and this means that we care very little about him or his journey to escape the prison. That being said, even Elias is utterly one dimensional, existing only as a way for Jacob to get from point A to point B. The audio settings allude to ‘radio banter’, however there’s absolutely no banter at all between the two. Elias only comes onto the radio to give Jacob instructions and to assure him that he ‘knows this place well’. Elias also possesses that infuriating side character trait where he’ll constantly nag Jacob to ‘move on’ even though the game has presented you with a room full of loot to explore. I really don’t understand why so many developers choose to include this in their games… just let me explore the room that you’ve designed in peace.
We’re given snippets of information through recordings found on deceased prison employees. But these are very generic for a survival horror game and offer nothing new that we haven’t seen already in the likes of Resident Evil, Alien Isolation or The Evil Within. The Callisto Protocol is very shallow in its writing. The early games in the Resident Evil series aren’t exactly well-written or in-depth, and I would consider even these to be works of art when compared to the story that The Callisto Protocol has to offer.
The Callisto Protocol has its fair share of odd gameplay mechanics which each add up to create a frustrating experience. Speaking of the voice recordings, rather than have them play automatically while you explore the rest of the room, you have to remember the name that appears as you pick it up and then go and look for it in your data inventory. On top of this, the markers for interactive objects are really hard to see. They only flag up when you’re right up close to the object, so you’ve got to scour every inch of the room to make sure you’ve picked everything up.
The Callisto Protocol tries everything in its power to mimic Dead Space, but not so closely for there to be a reasonable case to sue. Everything from Jacob’s armour to the fact that you can stomp on dead bodies to get more loot just replicates what we’ve seen already in the original Dead Space trilogy. The only difference is that it doesn’t make sense in The Callisto Protocol. In Dead Space, you stomp on bodies to make sure they’re not playing dead. In The Callisto Protocol, it seems that Jacob is just doing so to be a sadistic bastard (which also gets you loot). Another thing is the weapon upgrade system. As you work your way through Black Iron Prison, you pick up Callisto Credits, the game’s currency. You can then spend these at upgrade machines, which begs the question: “Why would there be weapon vending machines in a prison? Did the guards really have to spend their own money to print and upgrade weapons?”
So, the story doesn’t work in The Callisto Protocol. But, as it’s a survival horror game, the player would hope that it at least offers some kick-ass fighting mechanics to make up for it. It doesn’t. In fact, The Callisto Protocol’s action mechanics are what really let the game down. To dodge, you direct the left analogue stick either left or right and then alternate between them to dodge multiple times in a row. To block, you pull the left analogue stick back. Yes, this is the same analogue stick that you’ll also be using to move around. So, oftentimes The Callisto Protocol will mistake your dodge command as you just trying to move, and you’ll get hit. It also only works when you’re up close and personal with the enemy, so there’s no way to dodge projectile attacks and if you have no room to move to the side, you’ll get hit. This is one of those ‘if it’s not broken then don’t fix it’ scenarios that make me question why The Callisto Protocol doesn’t just give the dodge and block actions their own buttons like every other game.
To begin with, you only have melee weapons at your disposal. Once you have a gun, your melee attacks can be followed with a critical gunshot, which is overpowered but also satisfying. At some point, you’ll pick up a GRP, which is a type of gauntlet used by Black Iron Prison guards to use the prisoners’ cores against them and throw them around like ragdolls when needed. This, again, very much mimics Dead Space and its telekinesis mechanic. The GRP can become very overpowered once you’ve upgraded its power banks as it allows you to throw any type of enemy anywhere, especially when combined with the environmental hazards.
One of the things that made The Callisto Protocol stand out in its reveal is the inclusion of using the environment to your advantage when fighting enemies. Using the GRP, you can throw enemies against spikes, grinders, or even over ledges to finish them off in one go. These moves are incredibly overpowerful, yet also satisfying when executed well. That being said, you’re also vulnerable to these environmental dangers, which becomes increasingly annoying when you take into account how clunky and awkward Jacob is to maneuver around. He’s constantly staggering around when being hit or by throwing his own attacks, you’ll often find yourself moving across the room completely against your will – so it’s actually best to stay well and truly clear away from the environmental hazards.
The Callisto Protocol is also guilty of the classic survival horror game trait of introducing stealth mechanics during the game’s tutorial, only to rarely revisit them afterwards. In fact, I constantly found that the game was working against me every time I attempted to approach a level with stealth rather than going in guns blazing. There were situations where I had successfully snuck past a room full of enemies, only for a scheduled jump attack right at the end of the room attract their attention to me anyway. This happened in a room where you face one of Black Iron Prison’s security robots. These things hit hard and will usually kill you in one go if you don’t take cover quickly enough. So, the most intelligent thing to do would be to not engage with them at all. But nope, The Callisto Protocol wanted me to kill it, and thwarted my attempts to approach the room stealthily instead by making sure an enemy jumps out right at the end. If this doesn’t happen, then any attempt at stealth will be halted by an enemy immediately spotting you the moment you enter the room, even if you take cover straight away.
Later on in The Callisto Protocol, some of the monsters have mutated to the point where they resemble clickers from The Last of Us series; they’re blind and can only be triggered by sound. This… doesn’t work in The Callisto Protocol. You can use your GRP to throw objects around the room, but these ‘clickers’ are hardly sensitive to your whereabouts because you can sneak literally right in front of them and they won’t notice you at all. So, at this point the stealth difficulty has gone from 100 to 0 because these things have the awareness of Skyrim NPCs after you’ve fully upgraded your stealth. I love stealth games, they’re one of my favourite genres with the Dishonoured and Hitman series being some of my favourite games ever and I always go for stealth builds in RPGs, but my stance on stealth sequences in action games is to not include them at all unless you’re going to design them properly.
The infected prisoners continue to mutate further as The Callisto Protocol progresses, with new variants being introduced that possess certain abilities or added strength and health. The only problem with this is that The Callisto Protocol prefers to stick to the average humanoid monsters. There was a chance here to bring forth some incredibly creepy and disgusting designs, which it does so with the spider-like creatures that can crawl along the wall, but that’s about it when it comes to the creativity that The Callisto Protocol has going for its enemy design – the rest are basically zombies.
There aren’t even any boss fights in The Callisto Protocol until the very end. Which means there are no breaks between these average zombie-type enemies where we get to engage in a cool and exciting fight. It’s just the same thing over and over again. The Callisto Protocol basically strips out everything that makes games within the genre such as Resident Evil and The Evil Within fun and instead offers up this bland Dead Space-inspired plate that’s only half cooked.
The Callisto Protocol is in a third camera perspective, which is slowly becoming the standard for survival horror games after the likes of The Evil Within and the Resident Evil 2 remake have brought it back into popularity. But The Callisto Protocol somehow even manages to get this wrong. You’re way too close to Jacob at certain angles. So much so, that when he’s crouching you’re basically on top of him – further increasing how difficult stealth is in The Callisto Protocol. To see anything around you, you have to physically turn around. And this also means fighting multiple enemies is an absolute pain. You’ll always have something creeping up on you outside your peripheral vision as Jacob can only focus on one enemy at a time. It looks nice cinematically, but just isn’t functional for a game that focuses so much on hand-to-hand combat. This also means that you can’t fully see where you’re dodging to, so dodging straight into one-hit kill environmental hazards or other enemies who are waiting to take a swing at you is quite common in The Callisto Protocol.
Even the level design is confusing. You’ll often come across multiple paths to the same room for absolutely no reason. On top of this, there’s the ‘right way’ which you will take to progress in the level, and then there are rooms that you can explore for extra loot or data recordings. The only thing is that The Callisto Protocol has no objective markers or compass to point you in the right direction for progression – which is really frustrating when you want to loot because you’ll often accidentally progress in the level and sometimes will trigger an event which will prohibit you from turning back.
And, that’s not all. The Callisto Protocol can’t even be honest with its save data. On multiple occasions, I have found a potential room for a large fight that will trigger once I interact with an object. So, I prepare myself by looting, and upgrading and reloading my weapons before I manually save to ensure I’m ready for the fight. After triggering the fight and dying, I kept finding myself reloading back to before I prepared for the fight. This isn’t an autosave, this is on my manual save. So, The Callisto Protocol has overwritten my manual save to put me back to before I prepped for the fight, meaning I had to keep looting the room again every time I died. Why? This would even happen in fights that have multiple stages. In one level, I triggered a difficult fight that has two stages; the first where you deal with waves of enemies, and then you trigger a cutscene where a new enemy is introduced as the final stage of that segment. After dealing with the first wave, there was a least a minute of downtime before the custscene triggered, so I used this opportunity to heal, loot and reload. The next stage starts, and I die, but luckily the game has autosaved at the cutscene… only it hasn’t taken into the fact all the preparation I had done before the cutscene… so it’s again overwritten save data and now I have to run around the room to try and heal with the enemy chasing me. Why?
The Callisto Protocol is a punishing game. I usually play on normal difficulty the first time I play any game, yet with The Callisto Protocol, even normal difficulty feels so much more difficult than any other survival horror game. So, I turned it down to easy, which is what this review is based on. This is described as the ‘story mode’, but I would honestly consider this ‘normal difficulty’ by any other survival horror game standards. Do not play The Callisto Protocol if you don’t like a challenge, as this game will be heavily frustrating to anyone who simply wants to enjoy the story (or lack of) and the atmosphere.
Speaking of atmosphere, we lead on to the only positive thing that The Callisto Protocol has going for it. The story is rubbish and the gameplay is a frustrating mess, so how are the actual ‘horror’ aspects? They’re brilliant. The Callisto Protocol utterly oozes in atmosphere. Its visual and sound design is top notch and it’s such a shame that this beauty is wasted on such an unimpressive game.
The Callisto Protocol should absolutely be played with headphones (if you’re even going to play it). A good pair of headphones offers the best experience, as the sound effects are so well done that you can hear exactly where creatures are crawling around in the vents above your head. The prison groans as you maneuver around its abandoned corridors, feeling like a character in itself as it’s slowly torn apart by monsters. The eerie sound effects and slowly rising music are perfect for raising your heart rate for an anxiety-inducing experience.
Despite having this strange wash out effect on darker shades, The Callisto Protocol is gorgeously designed visually. Developed on the Unreal Engine 5, I really recommend players take advantage of the photo mode (if you’re even going to play it) to take a look at the amount of detail put into the game (because you can’t do this in game with Elias nagging you to move on). On top of this, despite the fight mechanics being frustratingly awkward, they do offer some satisfying death animations.
The Callisto Protocol is amazingly optimised for PlayStation too and is one of the first games that isn’t a PlayStation exclusive that I’ve seen fully take advantage of the DualSense controller’s impressive haptic feedback capabilities. Ensuring that not only are you experiencing the game through amazingly crafted sound and visuals, but you can practically feel the prison’s destruction through your controller.
For a survival horror game, The Callisto Protocol does an amazing job of making sure its combat and level design are both unimpressive and incredibly frustrating at the same time. I’m also still in utter disbelief at the audacity of this game being described as ‘narrative-driven’ in its marketing material when the notoriously cheesy early Resident Evil games had better writing than this. The Callisto Protocol reminded me very much of my experience when watching Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker; while you’re playing it, you’re so absorbed by the amazing visuals, sound effects and atmosphere that you’ll be thinking “well, this isn’t anything special but I’m enjoying the ‘cool’ moments”, but after you’ve had a chance to sit down and think back on it critically, you’ll realise it completely sucked. I only recommend The Callisto Protocol to fans of the survival horror genre, especially those who love Dead Space, but I advise you shut your brain off the moment you stop playing and never think about the game again.
Jess reviewed The Callisto Protocol on PlayStation 5 with a purchased copy. The Callisto Protocol is out now for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, and PC.