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Just about two years ago, fans got their first look at a new sci-fi, horror game titled The Callisto Protocol. The announcement trailer premiered at The Game Awards in 2020, and since then expectations for the title have grown exponentially as fans have searched for a game to fill the Dead Space void (keep in mind this was prior to learning about the Dead Space remake).
Developed by Striking Distance Studios, which is led by Dead Space creator and Sledgehammer Games founder, Glen Schofield, expectations were naturally high for the new IP. So now that the final product is in players’ hands, does it meet its lofty goals? Let’s dive in.
The Callisto Protocol begins straight-forward enough. Set in 2320, you assume the role of Jacob Lee (played by Josh Duhamel) who pilots a simple cargo delivery ship. After making a routine delivery to Black Iron Prison colony, his ship is boarded by a hostile organization known as The Outer Way, and crash lands back on the surface of Callisto, a moon of Jupiter, where Black Iron Prison is located. Black Iron’s warden treats you as a threat, you are incarcerated without question, and thrown into the prison amongst the inmates.
Of course, being wrongly imprisoned with the worst the universe has to offer is hardly enough horror for a video game. So, upon awakening, Black Iron is on lockdown and overrun by deformed, hostile beings named “necrophages.”
You are immediately introduced to the combat system, which is different than many peers in the industry. Instead of your standardized run-and-gun approach with a lock-on feature and dedicated dodge button, The Callisto Protocol features a dodging system tied to the left stick that aims to be more immersive by placing the engagements front and center. Dodging is simply a matter of alternating your movements between left and right while you wait for the right time to strike. From there you can combo into attacks using weaponry and abilities that you unlock over the course of the game.
The system takes some getting used to, and it’s certainly not perfect. At times it can be a challenge to properly engage with, and this is exacerbated when you are attacked from multiple angles at once. Because the camera focuses on whichever attacker is front and center and aligns your left stick dodge to that attacker, it’s sometimes difficult to prepare for incoming attacks from varying angles.
That said, when utilized to its fullest, you begin to realize the vision of the developers at Striking Distance. It ensures the engagements with the brutally hostile necrophages are up-close and personal, and should you combo efficiently and variably, it results in some truly remarkable highlights. As I’ve seemingly said often recently, it’s a system that rewards the player when the player chooses to engage with it in its entirety.
The bleak Black Iron Prison and the viciously hostile necrophages are presented in all of their horrific glory in spectacular fashion. This is one extraordinarily beautiful game. On console you are offered the familiar Quality and Performance mode options, but, regardless of which you select, the output is simply stunning. Character models are realistic and detailed with the actors and actresses likenesses captured in very high detail. The various necrophages, meanwhile, are utterly grotesque. Every inch of their deformed, sinewy forms will make your hair stand up, and Striking Distance does a fantastic job of framing the scenes to highlight them.
The high point here, however, is without a doubt the lighting. Navigating a necrophage-ridden prison is already frightening, but the lighting system on display really shows Striking Distance strutting their stuff. Throughout much of the game, there is an impending sense of dread and beautiful camera work, complemented by the lighting, that keeps you on edge. It continually presents situations to raise the terror level while simultaneously forcing the player to engage with situations that test their nerves.
If you’re like me and like to capture some of the imagery while playing, there is a photo mode with various filter and exposure options as well.
As always, I’m a sucker for sound design in games, so I’m happy to report it’s extremely well accomplished in The Callisto Protocol. As you would imagine, the necrophages make some frightful noises, and they are audible in glorious detail all around you. Given the framing of scenes and directional focus for the player, ensuring the sound direction was accurate plays a large role in the overall delivery. Fortunately, it’s implemented extremely well and further compliments the tension you’ll feel throughout the game.
The necrophages themselves are naturally a large focus for the game. Encounters range from one-off simplistic threats to full-blown “how the hell am I going to survive this” territory. There’s a good variety of enemies which can be taken down in numerous ways. However, by the late game you will experience repeat encounters and a few mini-bosses that rear their ugly head(s) on more than one occasion. It didn’t ruin the experience for me, but it would have been nice to see more dedicated, one-off challenges spread throughout.
The genre title of survival-horror is taken to heart, here, with enemies able to dispatch you readily when you make mistakes. It can be unforgiving at times, and resource management also comes into play. Combined with a healing system that makes you vulnerable, plotting your moves and actions is imperative. Personally, I enjoyed the challenge as it hearkened back to the days of trial and error and finding the most efficient ways to complete areas. But even if you’re not like me, the game offers three difficulty levels, so you can tone it down should you so choose.
Your trek through Black Iron Prison will take you to numerous areas, many of which you’ll be wishing you could leave immediately. Environmental storytelling is on full display here. Every section of the prison and colony was overcome by the outbreak, and the chaos that obviously ensued was clearly immense. Over the course of your journey, you’ll learn the details of the lives of the residents and the cause of the outbreak. I enjoyed visiting the various areas of the game but wish it was more able to be further explored. The game is quite linear with only small side paths to discover through the bulk of it. And, similar to many other games in 2022, it also has you shimmying and crawling through spaces to hide loading screens far too often, especially in the early parts of the game.
Delivering the narrative is a cast of well-known actors and actresses who do an admirable job. As I noted, Josh Duhamel plays the role of the main protagonist in Jacob Lee. But also featured are Dani Nakamura played by Karen Fukuhara, Leon Ferris played by Sam Witwer, and Duncan Cole played by James C. Mathis III. While they don’t transform the story into something exceptionally noteworthy, they all add a certain flair to the game that I enjoyed.
While the narrative isn’t anything revolutionary, it is well delivered. It does a good job providing bread crumbs along the way while eventually opening players’ eyes to the full picture by the late game. And as the season pass contains additional story expansions, a strong foundation for the future has been built for future entries.
The Callisto Protocol is, quite frankly, just a creepy good time. It’s not revolutionary, and it won’t shake up the genre. But it is well-crafted, enjoyable, and can be expanded upon further in the future as Striking Distance sees fit. It also has an indescribable quality about it that keeps you engaged throughout. I wanted to keep playing it even after completing it, though I had seen all it has to offer so far. In that vein, it’s worth noting that a roadmap has been provided for the game as well, which you can find below.
If you’re someone who enjoys survival-horror, I recommend giving The Callisto Protocol a go. I appreciate what Striking Distance has created for their first IP, and I’m excited to see where they take it from here. I’m especially excited that we have another player in the horror renaissance that we seem to be experiencing throughout the industry at the moment. What a time to be dead.