The Callisto Protocol is obsessed with having you squeeze through things. Tight passages, debris, vents; the slowly-waddle-with-your-back-to-the-wall animation is repeated so many times through the 10-hourish campaign that it could almost be counted as a main gameplay pillar.
It would rank among the most inventive mechanics in the game, too, as Striking Distance Studios delivers a turgid spiritual successor to Dead Space that crushes the skull of inventiveness in favour of exposing a spine that cannot bear the weight of expectation and a considerable marketing push.
The game is rotten even if you overlook the performance issues and bugs; fundamentally it strings together a series of baffling design choices to create horror that is only scary in its predictability. The nicest thing I can say about The Callisto Protocol is that it’s dull and uninteresting. I genuinely wonder if the team ran out of resources or belief for what they were doing in the second half of the story that places space ferrier Josh Duhamel in an escape from Black Iron Prison after a major delivery turns awry.
Moments from frustration...
It’ll come as a surprise, then, that I really enjoyed the opening hour. The prisoners of Black Iron are quickly freed as hell breaks loose within the jail’s walls. Mutated entities flood in for a scene of palpable panic in a tension-filled first act that portrays something big going down in an impressive fashion.
The graphics are sharp and rich with detail, while the sound design elevates the sheer need to just get moving from your cell. As soon as the screen-pausing tutorials hit, though, major problems are thrust forwards like your flailing corpse if you mistime a swing in the simplest of combat encounters.
Initially armed with an electronic baton, your early confrontations are mainly defined by learning the simple dodge controls that may appear overly complicated on first inspection. If you hold left before an enemy swings, they are guaranteed to miss. Hold right before the next swing and they will grasp air again. As long as you alternate the direction you are holding between each attack—and I stress, there is no need for intricate timing—you will be safe.
Every enemy leaves an obvious window for you to strike back, but the incoming pattern never goes beyond needing to avoid one, two, or three swings before returning fire. Even after some mutate, which makes them stronger, the onslaught remains the same.
Some scenery looks stunning
The caveat is that, on every difficulty setting, most enemies can rip you to shreds in a couple of hits. One-shotters are introduced as the narrative reaches its limp finale, including a two-headed mini boss that is repeated three times in cramped spaces that galvanise the game’s deadliest foe: the camera.
It’s cruel that The Callisto Protocol’s excellent audio shines in the moments before pure annoyance sets in. A repeated scenario goes like this: you’ll enter a room where a couple of infected foes will suddenly awaken from their slumber. While dealing with them, you’ll hear the terrific spacial sound of mutants clambering inside the walls or bursting out of vents. You are now completely surrounded and are likely going to be hit by one of them that resides off screen. The clunkiness of turning means it’s possible to get stuck in no man’s land while trying to deal with the new threat as you freeze on the turn and are subsequently pummelled from all directions.
Before long you’ll receive the GRP; a glove that allows you to pick up and hurl enemies and scenery. This is your gateway into inciting the kind of violence that got this game banned in Japan, with the inexplicable amount of spikes, whirring fans and meat grinders becoming tools of destruction for anything flung at them. Blood spews, body parts are pulverised and it’s at this point that you’re meant to think you’re having a good time.
Once upgraded with a better battery and greater power, the GRP actually trivialises combat against any of the non-boss types. One awfully designed encounter on a fast-moving platform that throws waves of instantly mutating enemies your way is only really survivable because of the glove and if you’re lucky enough to receive extra batteries from the random drop of items that spawn with each attempt.
Welcome to The Forge. You’ll be seeing a lot of each other
It’s a far cry from the gun selection, that despite packing a decent punch, is hard to quickly switch between or reload in pressure situations due to general slowness and animations that seem to get stuck. It’s hard to tell if you’ve filled the chamber sometimes, especially while you are holding left or right to avoid an incoming wallop designed to separate your limbs from your body.
You will see the unskippable death animations a lot and quite often the checkpointing system amplifies all other irritations. Upgraded your gun and bought some supplies at a forge before dying in the next room? You’ll need to watch the 3D printer’s animation again if you want those buffs on the next attempt. Not quite tired of squeezing through yet another man-sized gap? Die just after doing so and you get to see the back of Duhamel shimmy along once more.
An autosave checkpoint hit just before my showdown with the final boss, a situation exacerbated by the fact I needed to reload two guns and had very little health. Sometimes the sprint button just doesn’t seem to work, so my forced opening dash to find a miniscule of health became a lottery of whether or not the world’s least imaginative Big Bad could outpace me or not.
The final section is indicative of a product that has zero original ideas or features to call its own. How does such an atmospheric and excellently realised opening descend into a game that repeats the same tired jump scares so often that you’ll be able to call exactly when they’re going to happen?
Take enemies out quickly or before the camera decides to mess things up
Of course, there’s a little parasite ready to launch itself at you as soon as you open that locker. Of course, it happens multiple times. Surely none of these frozen enemies are going to wake up, right? Of course, they do. That man banging on the door for help, he’s totally going to be okay, isn’t he? Oh no, now there’s a monster ripping him to shreds. What about that body at the end of the vent you’re crawling through? Oh, it’s been whisked away. It’s boring to the point of fatigue.
Your objectives are borne from the same school of monotony. There’s an entire section dedicated to following a big red pipe, shortly followed by a part where you must follow some cables to, you guessed it, a power generator. If that doesn’t get the heart pumping, then buckle up for the multiple times in which you must locate a fuse, or rip a code from a deceased worker’s neck to open a door.
Then there’s the holographic warden on a power trip, a character whose dialogue about ‘choices’ and ‘greater knowledge’ tries to add a sense of grandeur throughout. In reality, all Striking Distance managed to do is evoke the memory of Bioshock’s Andrew Ryan, gut him of personality and malice, before trying to use his presence to carry a threadbare story that crescendos into an unfulfilling conclusion.
The really disappointing thing is, there are moments that pinpoint how excellent this game could be. Late on you enter a server room that looks completely different from anything else. It has a brilliant, unique sound and feels like it was meant to be a set piece. Then the same boss you faced before turns around. And here we are again.
When set pieces are thrown your way, it’s a shame the framerate often slows down to almost unplayable standards, even after post-launch patches. One particular section where you, yawn, have to dodge pillars as you’re swept away by water rendered itself a stuttering confusion even on medium settings with a PC that is more than equipped to deal with high-end games. Add in some bugs, like getting stuck on scenery or a weird slide as you try to walk sideways just to compound this concoction of broken, brown, bubbly messiness.
THE CALLISTO PROTOCOL VERDICT
The Callisto Protocol is one of the year’s biggest letdowns. It is joyless, contrived and feels unfinished, as if the studio rushed it out prior to Dead Space Remake’s launch on January 27, 2023. Like Black Iron itself, I can’t help but feel the project was abandoned at some point. It feels so wrong for a game that looks and sounds this great to be so devoid of spark and quality control. It’s fitting that after traversing every tight nook and cranny, the only feeling left once the credits have rolled is that of having life squeezed from you.
TOP GAME MOMENT
The opening is excellent and completely at odds with the rest of the game’s quality.
Graphics are sharp
Sound design really shines
Combat is cumbersome and broken when multiple enemies appear
Stuttering frame rate, bugs, and glitches prominent
Lack of new ideas across the board
Awful checkpointing system
Second half of the game feels unfinished
Narrative amounts to nothing
Isn’t scary, reuses the same moments and enemies over and over