The Callisto Protocol is a nuts and bolts survival horror with a few screws loose.
Living up to any legacy is tough, especially when it’s your own. That’s the position veteran game director Glen Schofield finds himself in, however, following up 2008’s Dead Space with a spiritual successor in all but name. The similarities are undeniable. A working Joe trying to survive a viral outbreak within a dank and dreary sci-fi setting? Check. A minimal HUD to increase immersive tension? You bet. That said, The Callisto Protocol doesn’t pretend to reinvent this oddly specific sub-genre of survival horror. Even if it can’t quite escape the shadow of Isaac Clarke’s original outing, there’s plenty here to make your skin crawl despite a few narrative and mechanical shortcomings.
The primary way The Callisto Protocol differentiates itself is via its combat. Whereas other third-person horror outings often make you feel empowered from afar, for protagonist Jacob Lee, the exact opposite is true. Equipped with a heavy stun baton, you’ll regularly be whaling on nightmarish space creatures like Jacob’s life depends on it – because it literally does. Sure, there’s a handful of pistols and rifles to deploy eventually, but overall the emphasis is on waiting patiently, thinking about when to strike as foes stagger and slide up-close.
Sadly, the melee combat is extremely hit or miss in practice, largely due to a dodge mechanic that forces you to move left or right depending on the direction of enemy swipes. Problem is, knowing which side to swerve is a big learning curve that is often at odds with the need to think and react quickly. It takes a good while to grasp, and feels unfair until you do.
The pessimist in me almost suspects that enemy encounters have been made to be awkward on purpose, if only as a way for Striking Distance Studios to show off the game’s gorily detailed death animations. From being pinned down and having his arms stamped off to getting his jaw ripped open, the various terrors poor Jacob Lee is subject to aren’t for the faint of heart. The high level of graphical detail on display only contributes to this, too, as it does the incredibly atmospheric sense of place. The Callisto Protocol is definitely a case where being a linear single-player game allows its stunning visuals to accurately set an appropriately bleak mood.
All the elements were here for The Callisto Protocol to be a truly great horror romp. Its general lack of refinement, however, left me thinking less about what it is and more about what could have been.
The first game from Striking Distance Studios provides a relatively safe blueprint for a far more solid survival horror sequel.