Nearly a decade and a half ago, Visceral Games released Dead Space, a now cult-classic survival-horror game inspired by the likes of Alien and The Thing. If you’ve ever yearned for a return to its mix of sci-fi and horror, or if you want a near-identical experience to Schofield’s first survival horror hit, you’re in luck. Schofield’s latest, The Callisto Protocol, veers incredibly close to Dead Space, for both better and worse. Unfortunately, though, it’s far too familiar. There are glimmers of greatness, namely in its opening hours, but what unfolds after is a tiresome and unsurprising eight hours that feel like a relic of the past.
The Callisto Protocol is set primarily in Black Iron Prison and the surrounding area on one of Jupiter’s moons, Callisto. After a crash landing, correctional officers imprison protagonist Jacob Lee and Dani Nakamura in Black Iron Prison. Something goes wrong; Jacob escapes his cell, and shortly after, meets his first biophage, a highly-mutated monstrosity who’s more fleshy pustulating gore than human.
The game introduces its unique melee combat system here, and it’s one of the highlights. Dodging by pulling left and right on the control stick is engaging, as are the heavy and slow swings of Jacob’s melee attack. Each hit carries a ton of impact, and with proper timing and precise dodges, I took down enemies using just this electrified prison baton in a satisfying way. Guns are later folded into the mix, but they’re not as satisfying as the baton, nor do they meaningfully differentiate themselves from one another. Upgrading my baton to keep it useful until the end felt like a necessity, although ammo is plentiful if you wish to go into encounters with guns blazing. The telekinesis-like pull-and-throw GRP system is useful and fun, but there’s disappointingly little to do with it beyond throwing enemies into the same three types of insta-death machinery, off a ledge, or away from you.
You are asked by characters talking through the radio to go here and there, and right when you show up, something goes wrong, and now you need to meet them at this location instead. After a few hours, I was predicting most of the story beats in advance, all the while being fed bread crumbs of a larger narrative. Sure, things happened, but I rarely saw a semblance of the game’s overarching story until the final hour, at which point it felt like a rushed dump of information. While Dani’s story, which weaves in and out of Jacob’s throughout the duration of the game, comes to a satisfying conclusion, Jacob’s does not, ending with a scene that feels inorganically enticing and designed to ensure I purchase the upcoming story DLC.
The final boss before this disappointing climax is an exhausting and repetitive fight that feels like those of yesteryear; the one every game had to include, even if it didn’t prove necessary. This wasn’t the only disappointing boss. All of them left me feeling empty and annoyed at the lack of variance. You fight the same enemy type as a boss multiple times throughout the game, just in different arenas. Most bosses can kill you in one hit, which takes away the earned stress of survival horror. I wasn’t desperate to find ammo or a health pack to survive by the skin of my teeth; I was just jogging away to ensure its hits didn’t land close to me.
Furthering my frustration is a bad checkpoint system. You must redo the entire battle if you die by insta-kill, even at the tail end of a boss fight. If you have to kill a few enemies before that battle, you need to do that again, too. The same goes for ammo, audio logs, and other resources, as well, even if you save right where you’d like to pick up post-death after doing this kind of preparation. Bad checkpointing is also present in standard enemy encounters, which quickly became stale.
Listening to audio logs, which add small touches of needed flavor to the area you’re playing through, requires you to stay in the log menu, and you can’t move or search the environment while listening. The death animations are exciting and gruesome, but they lack variety. They’re buggy, too, and some death scenes are drastically more interesting to watch play out than others. A biophage pulling Jacob’s eyes out of the sockets, for example, is great. But watching an enemy knock Jacob to the ground in an unintentionally hilarious and anticlimactic ragdoll-like fashion falls flat.
Gun animations, which play when switching weapons, look nice at first, but you must agonizingly sit through each to use a new weapon. If you aim too early or hit reload during the animation, the sequence ends, and the weapon you were using prior to attempting this change returns. This is frustrating during tense combat encounters where I’m flipping through my handful of weapons to find the right one. A unique quick-fire mechanic that auto-locks onto an enemy’s weak point at the end of a melee combo is a nice addition to the combat’s systems, but if your equipped weapon is out of ammo or requires reloading and you don’t realize it, you hit fire only for nothing to happen, leaving you open for damage. The Callisto Protocol dies by a thousand cuts such as these.
These various problems aside, though, The Callisto Protocol is still doing a lot of what Dead Space did, for better and worse. And to that end, there are moments of fun, even if, in contrast, they’re light on genuine terror. I’m okay with The Callisto Protocol being another version of its spiritual predecessor, but it struggles to nail even the basics. As a result, I’m underwhelmed, annoyed, and disappointed. If you wanted anything more out of this second crack at making a new sci-fi IP in survival horror, or something markedly different that acknowledges just how far gaming has come since 2008, The Callisto Protocol is not your answer.