The extraordinary minds behind the Dead Space franchise have finally released their new independent project, The Callisto Protocol. Glen Schofield, the lead director for the game, hoped to fully immerse the player into a new world of horror, bound to be remembered by all who were immersed within. However, whilst the game does boast some frightening moments, it is by no means Schofield’s next masterpiece.
We play as Jacob Lee, a freight transporter holding an unusual cargo to be transported between Europa and Black Iron Prison. After coming under attack by a terrorist group known as the Outer Way, Jacob and his partner, Max, crash land back onto Callisto, killing Max and injuring Jacob. Once awakened, Jacob is saved by Black Iron enforcement alongside the Outer Way leader, Dani Nakamura, but is then arrested for unknown reasons and incarcerated by Black Iron. Shortly after, the prison becomes overrun by a mysterious infection, and the player can finally begin their adventure to find out just what happened and escape.
Where’s My Magnifying Glass?
As we take control of Jacob in the first few minutes of exploring Black Iron, players will notice how immersive the HUD system is. Many video games use on-screen icons to portray health, ammo, etc. The Callisto Protocol takes a different approach, utilizing the mechanics of the CORE implant that is attached to all prisoners of Black Iron. The primary colours of the implant are the key indicators that determine how close to death the player is. For example, green means that Jacob is healthy, whereas red means our protagonist is one slap away from hitting the floor. It can be pretty hard to see just how close to death one is as the CORE is attached to the back of Jacob’s neck, especially during combat encounters when he’s bobbing and weaving left to right. Even worse, once Jacob acquires the GRIP gloves, the energy indicator is much smaller, meaning I nearly had to break out the magnifying glasses to see the damn thing.
On a positive note, the in-game HUD makes the whole experience feel more immersive. Having a clean screen and everything displayed on the character means you don’t have to spend time constantly glancing around the TV to check on ammo or health. Players should really feel like they are in the shoes of Jacob and not the part of a camera hovering behind him, watching him slaughter countless biophages in his path. Having the ability to see everything on-screen is a blessing, particularly for a game advertised as survival horror.
Things Go Bump in Black Iron
As a survival horror game, The Callisto Protocol should aim to make the player frightened throughout their entire playthrough. Instead, what we get are a few spooky moments, cheap jump-scares, and enemy variants that barely differ in appearance and mechanics from each other. Don’t get me wrong, the early game really does solidify a truly haunting experience as Jacob is relatively unarmed and facing ungodly creatures around every turn. For instance, there’s a scene where we can hear something whispering Jacob’s name in a hallway filled with various cages that get progressively louder, and it helps to amplify the atmosphere even further. What we encounter a few more hours in though are predictable scares that even the most timid of fans could stare at the screen just before the event occurs and not flinch one bit. To put it bluntly, it’s like a kid jumping out at their parents on Halloween night in their ghost costume in a poor attempt to startle them.
He’s No John Wick
One of the strangest things about The Callisto Protocol is its combat, which works wonderfully but, at the same time, hideously. Facing an enemy with your trusty stun baton is all about reading movements and finding the best time to strike. Whack off a couple of limbs before dealing the chunky final blow and you’re safe for a short time. As the player is physically hitting the enemy, many attacks feel heavy, and Jacob really seems like he wants to pummel his foes into the ground. Players must also dodge left or right, which is essential on harder difficulties where a biophage can easily kill Jacob in two or three hits. What bothered me the most was fighting more than one enemy at once as combat feels tailored around a single enemy targeting mechanic. There is nothing stopping Jacob from being molly-whopped from the back whilst keeping their attention on the front, not even an input to dodge quickly away from an enemy approaching from behind. Oh, and don’t even think about trying to heal mid-combat as Jacob apparently needs to sit down and cross his legs before jabbing the needle in his neck, meaning fighting multiple enemies in the red is an automatic death sentence.
Fighting head-on is not always a viable strategy, and it might be more effective to take enemies down stealthily. That’s what I would’ve said if Jacob didn’t move at the speed of a sloth with a mobility issue. Enemies can be quite unpredictable in the way they patrol areas and will almost always spot Jacob if any attempt at stealth is made. The only time stealth is required is during later stages when blind enemies are introduced with apparent supersonic hearing. How this works, however, confuses me as the slightest jog can alert a horde of such enemies, but stomping dead foes for loot is like trying to hear a pin drop in a factory. No complaints from me though, seeing as I could happily crouch around an area infested with such hideous beasties and stealth kill to my heart’s content right next to an unsuspecting zombie who was unaware of his pal being gutted right next to him.
All in all, The Callisto Protocol might have truly reintroduced proper survival horror to modern gaming. Despite its flaws regarding combat, enemy variety, and a short story length, it really does shine with its incredible atmosphere and sound design. It’s just a shame that the masterminds behind the Dead Space franchise couldn’t follow up on what fans of the horror gaming genre might call a cult classic series.
Developer: Striking Distance Studios
Publisher: Krafton, Bluehole Inc.
Platforms: PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, Windows
Release Date: 2nd December 2022