The latest game from Glen Schofield, the creator of Dead Space, isn't the best survival horror game of 2022. That honor goes to rose-engine games' Signalis. However, The Callisto Protocol is still an unforgiving, grotesque, eight hours-long, nightmarish trip through the sinister corridors of Black Iron Prison that although not very original, deserves the attention of every survival horror fanatic out there.
The Dead Space inspirations are evident from the get-go: a lonesome white protagonist that walks and shoots the same way as Isaac Clarke, a failed scientific experiment on bio-organic weapons covered up by the government, an abandoned space locale swarming with alien creatures, and a bucket load of audio logs that nobody probably even cares to listen.
However, these Dead Space callbacks come at a cost. Because as much as it helps The Callisto Protocol understand and become a solid survival horror game, it also holds it back from being the evolution this genre deserves.
Living in the past
The Callisto Protocol feels like a PS3/360-era game with updated visuals. It isn't necessarily a bad thing, not least in an era when games are quickly deemed 'abject failure' or 'GOTY' with little middle ground or nuance. It's equally a breath of fresh air among many single-player games that do everything in their power to keep you playing them.
The Callisto Protocol provides no such incentive. In fact, it's the complete opposite. It wants you to run. It wants you to quit. It wants you to beat it, survive it as soon as possible.
You play as Jacob Lee (played by Josh Duhamel), a pilot shipping cargo from Europa to the Black Iron Prison in Callisto. One thing leads to another, and Jacob finds himself a hostage in the Black Iron Prison, now overrun by deadly creatures known as Biophages.
The story in The Callisto Protocol plays by the book, and I was constantly surprised and amused by how little it tried to reinvent the wheel. While Dead Space's narrative dipped its toes ever so slightly into the psychological aspect of the horror, The Callisto Protocol goes full Resident Evil 2.
In short, this is a pretty forgettable but forgivable story because let's face it, you're probably here for a good scare, and in that department, The Callisto Protocol doesn't disappoint.
Frantic and fun
The Callisto Protocol's biggest achievement is that it knows how to balance between making you feel powerful and powerless. Jacob doesn't have a lot of tools to fend off Biophages, but what's there is utterly satisfying to use. The melee takes center stage, with Jacob's stun baton proving a handy and satisfying tool to beat the undead to a pulp.
Early on in the story, Jacob also gets the ability to manipulate gravity (GRP) which works dangerously similar to Isaac's Stasis ability in Dead Space. Although, unlike Stasis, you will mostly use GRP during combat, rather than to open new pathways or puzzles.
Thankfully, it's incredibly satisfying to use, and I had a gleeful smile every time I saw spiked walls in the environment, which are perfect to shove and one-shot enemies, especially when you're surrounded. Just look at that clip below:
Having the option to mix and match melee, ranged, and GRP attacks make this crunchy and responsive combat system quite tactical, even more so than Dead Space. Oh, and if you enjoyed Leon suplexing zombies in Resident Evil 6, get ready for a payback by Biophages in this game.
There is a steep learning curve in The Callisto Protocol, and I was amazed at how much I enjoyed the challenge. Death lurks around every corner, and you never know what or who's going to jump at you from the shadows or ambush you from all sides.
While these surprise encounters can sometimes feel cheap and frustrating, there are always ways to overcome them. Like every good survival horror game before it, The Callisto Protocol wants you to scrutinize your environment, as there's always something that would help you endure and survive, even if barely.
A good sound design is essential for any survival horror game, and The Callisto Protocol is no different in this regard, for the most part.
The slashing noise when Jacob's Baton smashes through an enemy's torso or the sound of Jacob's brain being smeared all over the floor by a boss is strangely gratifying to hear.
In addition, The Callisto Protocol's soundtrack creates a constant sense of dread as you sluggishly make your way through the grim corridors of the Black Iron Prison. There's rarely a quiet moment, and you will often hear Biophages crawling through the air ducts above or making grotesque noises from somewhere, thus creating vivid and terrifying imagery as you pass by.
The DualSense also does a fine job of replicating those imageries, thanks to a stellar implementation of the controller's haptics. I could feel every step of the Biophage walking away from me in the room next door. It was frightening.
The one aspect of the soundtrack that potentially lets down the game is its ambient score. While the photo-realistic visuals do their job, the Black Iron Prison and its surrounding locales do admittedly lack personality, and the game's weak score does little to help ramp up the tension.
To dodge or not to dodge
One area where The Callisto Protocol does try to innovate is the dodge system. Sadly, it makes and breaks the game. Unlike most third-person games, The Callisto Protocol uses the left analog stick instead of the face buttons for dodge.
It works sort of like a quick-time event where you dodge back and forth, but if you lean on the same side twice, you cancel the dodge and get hit by the enemy.
On paper, this seems pretty cool and works exceptionally well when facing a single enemy. However, this new dodge trick completely breaks the game when facing multiple Biophages. Most of the time, I didn't know what hit me and couldn't dodge or dodged incorrectly because my reflexes were so used to using the left analog stick for walking.
As I said, this works fine when facing a single enemy and creates some nail-biting moments in late-game bosses, but overall, the game would have faired better without it.
The dodge isn't the only design issue I had in The Callisto Protocol. For some reason, it takes insanely long to swap a weapon in this game. This created some really infuriating moments as I died countless times just because the game wouldn't let me change my gun before an enemy attacked. I also noticed multiple input lags where the game wouldn't register my actions, leading to some painful uncalled deaths (which in fairness were still enjoyable to watch).
The Callisto Protocol is full of weird design choices and could have really done with some more time in the oven. Also, since we are at it, I'm aware that many players are experiencing severe performance issues on PC. Fortunately, the PS5 version of the game I played for this review ran as smooth as butter, and didn't have any game-breaking bugs or glitches.
The Verdict (3.5/5)
The Callisto Protocol is a bittersweet survival horror game that doesn't revolutionize the genre as many expected it to do. While this unquestionably stings, we'd suggest people try and look past some of its odd gameplay mechanics, and its slightly dated design. There's an immensely challenging and satisfying experience to be had in Striking Distance Studios' short but sweet first outing.