Josh Duhamel from the Transformers movies does a commendable job in the lead role, as does The Boys’ Karen Fukuhara as his main ally Dani Nakamura, but the majority of the desperation and discomfort of the pair’s plight is conveyed through the impressive art direction and audio design. With the third-person camera tight on Jacob at all times, you get a clear look at the sweat sheen on his scalp in the humid laundry area, the blood-spatter that soaks his coveralls after each brutal encounter, and the especially icky sewerage that coats his body after he’s forced to wade waist-deep through waste management. Everything is thick and gross in a genuinely palpable way and reinforced by unsettling scrapes and sickening squelches in the darkness around you. And while it’s become a common technique for developers to mask the loading of new areas with the use of narrow gaps in the terrain for players to shimmy through, here they fortify the feeling of dread rather than becoming a drag. As Jacob inched his way through the disgusting pus-boil and tendril-covered caves of Black Iron’s lower levels, his winces on screen mirrored my looks of unease. The Callisto Protocol’s putrid penitentiary had me locked in a state of maximum insecurity.
But let’s talk about the mutant monster the size of an elephant in the room; Striking Distance Studios is even led by Glen Schofield, a co-creator of Dead Space, and The Callisto Protocol is essentially a Dead Space game, even though the name is different. The combat system heavily relies on a battery-powered telekinesis ability that enables you to hurl objects around with a flick of Jacob’s wrist, the neatly minimalistic HUD that grafts Jacob’s health bar into the back of his neck like a phone battery indicator, and the stomping of crates and corpses to uncover precious resources. In addition, there are blood-smeared instructions on how to kill enemies and evidence of a baffling religious cult that may have been involved in the outbreak. As someone who has played all of the Dead Space games, it made for a campaign that was heavy on startling jump scares but light on any major story or gameplay surprises. However, it does not introduce Isaac Clarke’s stasis ability and replaces his collection of weaponized mining implements with a more conventional arsenal of pistols and shotguns.
The Callisto Protocol’s greatest departure from the terror-fueled design of Dead Space is its increased emphasis on melee combat, at least during the opening hours. To eliminate each snarling cellmate, you must first lure them into uncomfortable proximity, sway out of the way of their clawing attacks, and then counter with a flurry of Jacob’s stun baton blows as weapons and ammunition are initially scarce. Dodging and blocking incoming attacks with a thumbstick is similar to ducking and weaving in a boxing match, but your opponent is more like “Holy crap!” than Holyfield. Additionally, pounding baton-shaped grooves into their skulls and severing their limbs one at a time provides a satisfyingly heavy sensation.
Even as Jacob’s arsenal grows, melee combat is still a good way to save ammunition because each successful combo string gives you a short window to perform a “skill shot,” which lets you automatically lock on to a weak spot with your gun and kill them in a few shots instead of a full clip. I liked the risk-reward decision of getting close to the bad guys rather than trying to pick them off from a safe distance. Not to mention that the already close-up camera pulls even closer to show the slaughter as you give each infected prisoner a lethal injection of hot lead.
Getting a GRP
Unfortunately, once the GRP is introduced, that high level of tension does not last. This gravity-defying gauntlet can certainly produce some dynamic combat encounters, particularly when used in conjunction with the various deathtraps and volatile objects that are conveniently positioned around each area. It is powerful enough to lift the majority of enemies into the air. Before the ghouls even knew you were there, you could enter a room full of them, pick one up and nail him to a spiked wall, throw another into an exposed grinding mechanism, and kill a third by cutting their midsection with a saw. It can be a lot of fun in a way similar to jailbreaking a Jedi, and it often produces gloriously bloody results. However, it also means that major threats are frequently extinguished too quickly, like Indiana Jones bringing a gun to a swordfight.
I couldn’t always use GRP as a crutch because it depletes and must be recharged over time or immediately replenished with batteries if you have them in your inventory. However, I did feel that it gave me the force-flinging advantage in the majority of enemy encounters even on the “maximum security” difficulty setting, which occasionally made me wonder if I was the most dangerous monster in Black Iron.
I didn’t bother investing much in The Callisto Protocol’s weapon upgrade system due to the GRP’s overwhelming power. While I certainly spent a lot of money on basic upgrades like larger clip sizes and recoil dampening, I never felt the need to spend enough Callisto credits on more expensive upgrades. After all, the ability to throw the ever-present explosive canisters or pick an enemy up and drop them over a ledge is the only alternate fire mode I ever really needed, so why bother with homing bullets for the assault rifle or explosive rounds for the riot gun?
In a similar vein, stealth sequences do not cause much stress. Halfway through Jacob’s extraordinary break, The Callisto Convention presents a destructive visually impaired variation of the tainted that are suggestive of the clickers from The Remainder of Us. However, even though they are said to have a better sense of hearing, it was surprisingly easy for me to violently kill them right in front of other enemies, who seemed to not care if they had eyes despite the loud death squeals of their friends who had just been killed. The towering security droids that look like Terminators and can only be killed with a precise headshot are a much more serious threat. If you miss, their powerful cannons will likely quickly kill you, but strangely, these truly formidable enemies are introduced early on and rarely encountered again.
Hell in a Cell
That doesn’t mean that The Callisto Protocol doesn’t offer a wide range of adversaries to take on. Even though they represent a fairly standard set of survival horror archetypes—common zombies, suicide bombers who rush you, spider-like creatures that crawl on all fours up walls and along ceilings—they all look wonderfully repulsive, and the experience of creating space jam from their space guts makes them even more terrifying. When fighting groups of agitated foes, a welcome sense of urgency is brought about by the introduction of a regenerative ability that allows basic enemy grunts to transform into more resilient brutes if you wound them without completely killing them. This is perhaps best shown in a late-game ride on an underground drilling platform, where hordes of enemies attack from all directions and instantly power up when hit by flying rock fragments. It is without a doubt one of the journey’s sequences with the highest heart rate.
However, the surprisingly slow so-called “quick weapon swap” function exacerbated my anxiety elsewhere. During the numerous battles against the twin-headed, tank-like mini-boss of The Callisto Protocol, in which my ammunition reserves were rapidly depleted, it consistently disappointed me. The animation of Jacob holstering a weapon and drawing the text is too long and can be accidentally interrupted by tapping left on the D-pad. As a result, there were numerous times when I started a weapon switch but performed a dodge to evade an enemy attack immediately afterward, and then spring back up into a shooting stance to find myself still armed with the same weapon that I was attempting to holster. Although tapping left on the D-pad switches out one equipped weapon for another, the animation of the few bosses fights in The Callisto Protocol are disappointingly one-dimensional and never really blew me away, even though they certainly smashed Jacob’s skull on several occasions.
The Callisto Protocol is plagued by several other minor problems. It’s a bummer that opening chests pick up everything inside, so I had to keep going into the inventory screen to drop the skunk gun ammunition I never asked for to clear space. Instead of being eerie accompaniments to your exploration as they are in games like Dead Space and BioShock, you can only listen to audio logs while standing still with your head stuck in a menu. This seems a little out of date. And even though having a facehugger leap out of the locker you’re looking in might have been a good idea for a jump scare the first time, by the sixth or seventh time, it’s just plain annoying and makes you feel like you have to deal with the same office pranks every day like an alien April fool’s Day.
Last but not least, even though The Callisto Protocol lasts for eight hours, its pacing is about right. However, once you finish the story, there is very little left to do. Even though a New Game+ mode is said to be coming in a free patch in the future, there are currently no interesting unlockable or other modes to try, making the whole thing at launch feel almost as thin as a mattress from a prison cell.
The Callisto Protocol is a thrilling and atmospheric journey through a spectacular space-time slaughterhouse. Because it has a mostly linear design, there is little room for backtracking. As a result, it cuts fat while leaving plenty of bone and gristle to rip and tear. Although there is plenty of murderous fun to be had using giant grinding mechanisms to make mulch out of mutants, such cheap thrills come at the high cost of puncturing any tension and dread that the incredible art and audio design work so hard to invoke. Additionally, it betrays its survival horror roots by frequently tipping the balance of power in favor of the player. In addition to the intense melee combat, there is a general impression that not much has been done before, and after completing the campaign, there is disappointingly little to do. Therefore, The Callisto Protocol is a spiritual sequel to the Dead Space series that is satisfyingly gory, but in the end, it is more of a striking modern imitator than a terrifying new mutation