The Callisto Protocol is an interesting game, in relation to its development. Originally created to be connected to the PlayerUnknown’s Battleground extended universe, this idea was eventually dropped, with the game becoming its own thing. Though I say that relatively loosely, as this action-horror title shares the same DNA as Dead Space, which isn’t entirely surprising given its director, Glen Schofield. However, while The Callisto Protocol tries to bring players back to the PS3 era of grotesque survival horror, it can’t seem to recapture what made those games interesting to begin with.
The Callisto Protocol begins with players watching camera footage of an outbreak that happened in the far reaches of space, with a broadcast concerning a terrorist organization already laying the foundation for one of several key characters. Players assume the role of Jacob Lee, a pilot for a freight transport service delivering cargo between Europa and the prison colony known as Callisto. While this is supposed to be Jacob’s last job, things go awry as the ship crashes with the woman seen in the previous broadcast on the ship. This leads to Jacob’s arrest and detention in Callisto while an outbreak infects the prisoners, resulting in their loss of self and transformation into something grotesque and barely human. Unfortunately, nothing about the narrative is particularly striking, and the callbacks to Dead Space (or similar threads) hold the game back from being its very own thing. Which may have helped bolster the story in some regards, but does little favors for it overall.
In regards to gameplay, the controls are clunky, even with the numerous patches that have rolled through to make gameplay a more streamlined experience. For example, before the patch players would be locked into an overlong animation to heal. With the patch, it’s shortened significantly, but doesn’t do much if you’re in the middle of fighting two or more enemies at a time, which the game seems to have a problem balancing. Encounters can sometimes vary between handling two or more enemies at a time after you’ve gotten through the first thirty or so minutes of the game, in which it becomes a near constant onslaught of aggressive, humanoid creatures throwing themselves at you with reckless abandon. The Callisto Protocol doesn’t necessarily facilitate itself towards these encounters, which is strange because it makes up a bulk of them.
While traversing the infested prison, there were several rooms found throughout that had up to three enemies in them. Before you get the ability to throw enemies into objects (or off of platforms) like in Dead Space, these areas are a chore. Taking several hits will result in instant death, with the over-exaggerated, grotesque animations drawn out to an unnecessary degree. Thankfully, you can skip these now through an update patch. While they were shocking at first, they just became annoying the longer I spent with the game. Also, since the game throws enemies at you that can one-hit kill you later, the difficulty options don’t really matter.
Concerning combat, the key issue is largely with the dodging mechanic. Players must alternate between moving right and left, almost like a rhythm game, to avoid being hit. However, these dodges don’t sync up with the direction the enemy is attacking. You literally just need to move right and left without moving the same direction twice, or you’ll get hit no matter what you do. This is obviously confusing if you’re basing your dodge on what your eyes are seeing, versus what the game has told you, and I never really got the hang of it.
While it tries to mix things up and make enemy encounters more energetic with the ability to take advantage of weak spots on enemies with quick firing your 3D printed firearm between melee blows with your electric baton, the gameplay falls into tedium quickly. The aforementioned ability to throw enemies into things didn’t feel particularly satisfying, since charges are limited between item use. Throwing enemies off platforms felt cheap, almost like I wasn’t supposed to, but the game facilitated its use anyways by some mistake. Throwing these foes into spiked walls resulted in killing them instantly, which was great, especially when dealing with lots of enemies at once.
However, the controls hold this experience back. It genuinely felt like I was playing a PS3 game in perhaps the worst way possible. While enemies rapidly approach you, sometimes sprinting and charging in your direction, controlling protagonist Jacob felt like I was wading through sludge. Having controls that work against the player in a horror game is something I feel that is generally fine, as it adds to the overall tension of the game and helps create a feeling of helplessness for the player. That said, The Callisto Protocol felt anything but that, and in the end I walked away frustrated and just happy to be over once the credits rolled.
But perhaps one of the most egregious things about the game was its overall performance on PC. Within the first fifteen minutes of playing the game crashed, which would have been fine were it not for it completely messing up my resolution to the point I had to hard reset my PC. This happened not once, but twice during my time with the game. There were also other issues that have now been patched, which involved the game caching whenever you’d get to a new area which resulted in massive frame drops. Thankfully, these were the only major technical issues I encountered.
The Callisto Protocol feels like a retread of the PS3 era of survival horror, but perhaps in the worst way possible. It’s clear that this title was made with Dead Space in mind, as it shared the same creator, but it’s also a look at how the genre has evolved since Dead Space was relevant. And while The Callisto Protocol’s narrative is lackluster, the gameplay could have been something great and ultimately redeeming about it. Instead, it feels trapped in the past and a worse iteration of what inspired it.
The Callisto Protocol is immediately available for the PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Windows PC.
Related: How to Get Best Weapons in the Callisto Protocol on The Escapist