The Callisto Protocol Released: December 2, 2022 Developer: Striking Distance Studios Publisher: KRAFTON Systems: PC, PS4/PS5 (reviewed), Xbox XS
If its marketing hadn’t been harping on about how it was made “by the creators of Dead Space,” I’d have thought The Callisto Protocol a shameless ripoff of other artists’ work. Instead, The Callisto Protocol is a shameless ripoff of its own artists’ work, one so incompetently realized that the pedigree of those responsible only serves to damn them. It’s frankly shocking that anybody associated with Dead Space would possess enough nerve to offer a successor quite so pathetic, let alone brag about it.
The Callisto Protocol is a pale shadow of the game it desperately emulates, managing to be worse in every way while never once trying to be anything other than a sorry retread. Divorcing this production from the one it relentlessly apes lends it no further favor - even if Dead Space had never existed, it’s still a spiteful little game that seems to hate being played, a squalid trek through the horror genre’s worst tropes, an experience so thoroughly vile I struggle not to take it personally.
It’s hard to know where to start, though it’s easiest to begin with the story given how vapidly straightforward its premise is. You are a man in space with the motion-captured (and stiffly animated) face of an actor I hadn't heard of before now. Some people infiltrate his ship and it crashes near a prison that incarcerates him for no reason and suddenly Space Zombies happen. The opening sequence is hurried as hell and forgets to establish a shred of atmosphere, but it soon becomes clear there's nothing worth establishing anyway.
Worldbuilding and characterization are impressively lacking. If you want a hint as to the kind of creativity we're dealing with, the prison is called Black Iron. They might as well have just called it The Bad Prison Place. Audio logs dotted around the world are so uninformative as to be pointless - a few muttered sentences apiece providing neither history nor depth, just nebulous reactions to things. If you can't think of what to put in a log, why even have them?
Oh right... Dead Space had them.
Now, your girl doesn't need a super compelling story to be engrossed, but there's just nothing here. Absolutely nothing. Characters are bland, backstory goes so far beyond vague it feels nonexistent, and the monsters are generic enough I could believe anybody telling me they were storebought assets from a bundle named “Undead Sci-Fi Critters Pack 4.”
The creative bust that is The Callisto Protocol’s bestiary might be its biggest creative crime. Remember, this game agonizingly wants you to know it’s drenched in Dead Space’s artistic DNA, yet when faced with the task of crafting antagonists as memorable - or at least threatening - as the iconic Necromorphs, Striking Distance Studios just… didn’t. They didn’t even attempt it. Instead, All My Children star Josh Duhamel goes up against bargain basement “infected” archetypes that vary mostly by how much they look like they’re covered in vomit and sperm.
I would like to avoid making comparisons to Dead Space throughout my entire review, but it’s quite difficult since The Callisto Protocol is so nakedly obsessed with the thing.
It’s not just camera positioning, color schemes, environmental designs, lighting, and the way All My Children star Josh Duhamel moves, fights, and stomps on things. It’s in how the menu works, the look of the in-game item shop, the little health bar dongle bolted to the player’s neck for no other reason than we had a health bar dongle on the back of Isaac’s RIG suit. Hell, it’s not long before you get a glove that gives you kinesis powers, such is this game’s apparent fear you might forget, for just a second, that it's like Dead Space.
The comprehensiveness of such mimicry might not have been so bad if it didn’t do literally everything worse. Weapons are generic pistols and shotguns, a far cry from anything like Isaac’s delectable plasma cutter. Kinesis is used almost entirely to throw enemies into conspicuously placed spike walls rather than for anything clever. Even stomping on corpses to get items from them comes off poorly in contrast, since at least the heavy looking suits worn in Dead Space made chunking limbs with one's boots feel slightly rational. All My Children star Josh Duhamel, stomping in his prison skivvies, has no such logic in his favor... at least not until several hours into the game when he gets his own suit, which - you guessed it - is just a mediocre Dead Space RIG.
The Callisto Protocol's one driving theme is “Dead Space but shit.”
Gosh, we’ve gotten this far in and I haven’t yet mentioned how atrocious the combat is. There are guns you can sluggishly fire, but heavy emphasis is placed on melee encounters that resemble, of all damn things, Punch Out. Fighting largely consists of waiting for an enemy to attack, then evading, then attacking back in a dodge/swing/dodge/swing pattern that gets tiresome quickly and persists throughout. Aggressively swinging without respecting the routine will lead to a quick death, especially as your movements are slow and leave you open to the almost universally faster enemies.
With this strict battle pattern and tight camera focus, combat is designed specifically for one-on-one fights, but the monsters are happy to gang up on you. There’s a constant risk of getting punched in the back of the head as opponents exploit the design in ways that don’t seem entirely fair. Often you’re given no choice but to tackle multiple creatures at once, and they have none of your restrictions on mobility or vision. As we’ll discuss a little later, taking unfair advantage of the player’s powerlessness is something The Callisto Protocol absolutely delights in.
At first, dodging feels awkward and uncomfortable, but once you spend some time getting to grips with it you learn it’s both those things and it’s just plain fucking shit! To dodge, you have to hold the movement stick left or right. You won’t get told until after the first fight, but neither timing nor appropriate direction are required - if you hold the stick in either direction, All My Children star Josh Duhamel will automatically dodge enemy blows. The only time you have to be on the ball is when enemies swing multiple times in a row, something they do with next to zero telegraphing. During such combos, you have to move the stick side to side in time with attacks. All this nonsense works for Punch Out, but in a third person horror game, especially when multiple enemies get involved from all directions, it’s pure swill.
Given the fact you’re constantly moving as you hold the stick, it feels really frigging weird to prepare for an attack, and you might as well forget trying to avoid damage if multiple monsters are present. Even in single combat, the anticipatory strafing threatens to pull an enemy out of focus and confuse a camera that’s already prone to shaking disorientingly the moment anything attacks. Oh, sometimes dodging just doesn’t seem to work, and pulling back on the stick initiates a block move that only causes more confusion.
For a little extra fun, I tried going into the accessibility options and turning automatic dodging on, just to see if that stopped me wanting to pull my fingers off. This accessibility feature literally did not work. Like… it doesn’t work.
If I were to describe a person as a “vicious little shit,” I think you’d get a good idea of the kind of person I was talking about. Perhaps you’d imagine a certain celebrity typified by smug nastiness such as Piers Morgan, or maybe a detestable school bully from your childhood. Maybe you’re imagining an angry hornet flying around stinging people for no reason. Whatever you imagine, it likely shares many traits with what everybody else is thinking. You'll find such traits abundant in The Callisto Protocol, a game that would, if it were a person, be described by everybody it’s ever met as a vicious little shit.
The Callisto Protocol relies almost entirely on cheap shots and trickery to falsify any sense of challenge, and it acts upon this reliance so frequently you could charge it with harassment. I already discussed how enemies exploit combat limitations to bully the player, but they offer so much more bullshit on top - projectile spitters that hit from any distance with uncanny accuracy, hiding places that let them pop up an inch in front of the player’s face, and so fucking many QTE ambushes that will sap health while you button mash for freedom. This latter tactic is Callisto’s favorite, and within the first hour of the game, it's been used to the point of exhaustion. Unless you play the game yourself, you’ll never quite believe how silly this overuse is, but at least try to comprehend it, because I don’t want you putting yourself through any of this garbage out of curiosity.
There are leeches that pop out of nowhere to latch onto you, and they’ll drain health until you’ve mashed a button enough times. There are heads on tentacles that latch onto you, and they’ll drain health until you’ve mashed a button enough times. Most regular enemies have grapple attacks they can trigger without warning and they’ll drain health until you’ve mashed a button enough times. With the exception of some leeches, these attacks cannot be anticipated and are often even scripted, each one dealing unavoidable damage.
No skill, no prescience, no reload will stop the game simply helping itself to your hit points, and that’s exactly what it feels like - The Callisto Protocol will just help itself to your health with a frequency so absurd it can happen multiple times a minute. Sometimes in a row.
If anybody at Striking Distance thought this was scary, I’m embarrassed for them as horror creators. I haven’t been so much as startled by anything this game does, and the constant QTE ambushes masquerading as jump scares are plain fucking feeble. Regularly losing valuable health through no fault of your own feels like you’re being punished simply for playing, and Callisto hits below the belt enough as it is. It’s actively repellent, and while I could give you a laundry list of reasons why I’m happy I don’t have to play The Callisto Protocol anymore, my favorite is I’ll no longer be assaulted by a goofy looking head on the end of a fleshtube while feeling as if this malignant twat of a game is laughing at me.
While not the buggiest game I’ve ever played, polish is certainly needed (and it's reportedly unplayable on PC). I’ve had items glitch through the floor, and one particularly insulting bug caused the camera to fix in position thanks to a bloody QTE ambush disabling its movement. Bitterly laughing at how I could no longer aim as a result of the game’s most antagonistically dreadful feature is genuinely the only time I could crack a smile while playing. The rest of my experience was spent feeling quite sincerely miserable. I felt miserable playing The Callisto Protocol.
I’m a huge Dead Space fan with a significant loathing for Electronic Arts - I want a good spiritual successor, but what I had to play here just made me feel sad.
The Callisto Protocol isn’t scary. It isn’t fun. It isn’t entertaining, fascinating, or mildly enriching. It lays a self-entitled claim to Dead Space’s stylistic and mechanical elements yet wields not a single one with grace, instead performing a crude pantomime. It’s mechanically unpleasant, bereft of a single original idea, and hostile to its own players. There's literally one jumpscare tactic reused at a rate best described as pathological. It's got some damn nerve wanting to be seen as a worthy successor - it can't even rival the weakest of pretenders.
In a game that needs so many improvements, you know what I wish The Callisto Protocol had more than anything else?
I wish it had some fucking dignity.