The Callisto Protocol on PS5
Initially announced back in 2019 as a quasi-PUBG spin-off, The Callisto Protocol has had a somewhat unusual trajectory to market. Developed by newly-formed outfit Striking Distance Studios and helmed by former Dead Space co-creator Glen Schofield, this new sci-fi horror IP was shaping up to be the spiritual successor to EA’s beloved and critically-acclaimed franchise.
But much like the undead parasitic Necromorphs at the heart of Dead Space, is this just a reanimated corpse masquerading as one of the best survival horror games ever made? Or is there something much deeper and meaningful here? Strap in, folks… when do we get to stomp on stuff?
You assume the role of Jacob Lee, a cargo ship pilot with a shady past. On a routine delivery mission to Jupiter’s dead moon, Callisto, Lee’s spacecraft is boarded by a handful of mysterious armed hijackers, which inadvertently results in your spaceship crash-landing on the aforementioned nearby moon.
Meanwhile, on the surface of Callisto, a maximum security penitentiary known as Black Iron Prison awaits, and it’s here where you unwittingly become embroiled in a dastardly plan filled to the brim with mad scientists, experiments gone awry, and industrial espionage. As you awaken in your cell, you soon realise that a mass prison breakout is underway, though the cause of the prison break is unclear. However, the sudden existence of a bunch of mutated beasties running amok that want to eat your face off surely has something to do with it, right?
Story-wise, The Callisto Protocol doesn’t weave an especially complex or overwrought narrative, but its easy-to-follow yarn is a serviceable setup that tees up your cinematic adventure with a driving mystery. Why have you been incarcerated in this dilapidated prison? What the heck’s the cause of all these mutated monstrosities? Did that monster just bite that guy’s head off? (Yes. Yes, it did.)
So firstly, let’s kick things off with what The Callisto Protocol gets right.
Right off the bat, it’s clear that The Callisto Protocol is a visually impressive spectacle with excellent motion-captured facial animations, vivid interplanetary vistas, exciting set-pieces, and authentic-looking interior and exterior level design. The otherworldly cosmic environments are eerily lit and well-realized, and run the gamut between icy tundras, claustrophobic vestibules, fetid sewer systems, derelict industrial workshops, and grimy laboratories chock-full of rust, splattered blood, and shattered glass. Few of the locations look samey, and it’s laudable how distinct each area is to behold.
Furthermore, the overall audio design is top-notch, with a brooding orchestral score laden with swells of moody bass and brass, with the occasional burst of haunting atmospheric synth a ‘la John Carpenter. Composers Brian Trifon and Brian Lee White nail the central ambient soundscape, but it’s also the moment-to-moment audio cues from the simpler things, like the futuristic whoosh of a door sliding open or the squelch of a monster’s carapace as you stomp on it for loot that really amps up the general ambiance.
Right on schedule, this leads me poignantly to another praiseworthy element about The Callisto Protocol: the evocative cosmic horror atmosphere is surprisingly on point. With the terrific visuals and audio design working so well in tandem together, the amount of atmosphere Striking Distance Studios has managed to evoke is impressive, incorporating influences from The Thing, Event Horizon, Alien, and yes, that game all into one neat package. On the whole, The Callisto Protocol’s presentation is strong across the board.
Now, onto what is equally both a curse and a blessing for The Callisto Protocol: its incredibly uneven combat. On the one hand, the crunchy third-person melee-centric scraps are satisfyingly grisly stuff, combining the brutal and situationally dynamic nature of The Last of Us series with the dodge mechanics of, well… a Punch-Out boxing game? Yep, you read that correctly. Of course, that latter part is where things start to crumble.
The main issue isn’t how it looks but how it plays. Not only is it a borderline broken mechanic – you can simply strafe left and right and dodge 95% of all attacks from monsters – but it, unfortunately, undermines the scare factor of the core experience. In other words, the horrific atmosphere that the game’s visuals and audio work so hard to build up is hamstrung by a dodge mechanic that renders most enemy encounters as mere nuisances that can be dodged by walking left or right.
Admittedly, it becomes much more challenging to pull off these dodges when you’re overwhelmed by multiple enemies, which leads me onto the laundry list of little inconveniences that start to rear their ugly, mutated heads when you look at the gameplay beyond the game’s combat.
Frustratingly, healing with a health injector takes what feels like a lifetime, so doing so when you’re swamped with a handful of flesh-eating mutants isn’t a very viable option. There’s also seemingly no way to speed up this healing process, either, so get used to getting your butt handed to you when you’re up against throngs of pesky abominations. Speaking of things you can’t do, you also can’t craft ammo in bulk, so if you’re on the hunt for lots of ammunition for, say, the Skunk Gun, you’ll need to watch a lengthy animation for every two bullets you want to craft. Sub-optimal.
On that note, while the weapon upgrade system is welcome and the core shooting is solid, the guns on offer lack the depth and variety of its inspiration. One of Dead Space’s most unique gameplay mechanics was its use of dismemberment with engineering tools. However, in contrast to the iconic sci-fi weaponry of the Plasma Cutter, Line Gun, or Ripper, you’ll instead brandish far more conventional fare in The Callisto Protocol, like pistols and shotguns, which feels like a small step backwards.
Another bone of contention is the constant barrage of QTE enemies that chip away at your health and are seemingly impossible to avoid. Sure, while the first couple of times a specific snake-like creature grabs you with its maw and drags you to certain doom, you’ll likely jump out of your skin. The tenth time, though? Your eyes start glazing over a little bit. And that’s before I mention the critters that consistently jump out of crates, which, as you can imagine, get pretty vexing too.
From a performance perspective, on PS5, The Callisto Protocol largely runs very smoothly. Blasting mutated extraterrestrials into spike traps with Lee’s telekinetic abilities – which is just as fun as it sounds, by the way – ran without any framerate hitches. And I’ve got to give a quick shoutout to the Reforge 3D printer that crafts all your weaponry and gear – it’s actually quite a novel idea.
All in all, it may sound like I’m really down on The Callisto Protocol, and in some ways, I am. For those who were expecting the next Dead Space, I’m sad to report that The Callisto Protocol just isn’t quite it. Instead, Striking Distance Studios has crafted a largely by-the-numbers horror-action title with terrific presentation that could’ve been something truly special. Unfortunately, while your journey across the titular dead moon is a sporadically fun and entertaining ride, it fails to authentically push the genre forward in any meaningful way. Still, despite all that… at least you get to stomp on stuff, right? Phew!
Annoying QTE enemies.
Lack of weapon variety.
Lacks some basic quality-of-life features.
Quite short at around 10 hours long.