The Callisto Protocol has, until its launch today, largely been known for what came before. It’s a spiritual successor to Dead Space, and its developer, Striking Distance, is headed up by Dead Space co-creator Glen Schofield. It began life as a PUBG spinoff. Given the specter of its heritage, the question hanging over this game’s helmeted head has been whether it could possibly have anything new to offer.
In some ways, yes. The Callisto Protocol is possibly the best looking game to launch on the new generation of consoles. Its skyboxes, glimpsed after long stretches mucking through dark corridors, always inspire a scramble for Photo Mode. Its lighting effects are immaculately moody. Its lead characters — modeled on actors Josh Duhamel and Karen Fukuhara — are photoreal. In action, it looks like posed publicity stills. The game is technically impressive in small ways, too. Large industrial fans abound on Callisto, and when you approach one with a DualSense controller in hand, you can feel the chop-chop-chop of the blades in your palms. The game’s incorporation of haptic feedback makes its world feel appropriately dangerous.
But, in most ways—in the important ways—The Callisto Protocol doesn’t have an original bone in its exo-suited body. The mechanics reproduce Dead Space. This is a third-person sci-fi horror action game with a focus on dismembering enemies. You have a stomp ability and a glove you gain early on grants you the ability to lift and throw objects and enemies from a distance. The aesthetics ape Dead Space, too, with an exosuit that could do double duty in EA’s upcoming remake.
That lack of originality could easily be forgiven if the game was better. Return to Monkey Island, God of War Ragnarok, and Gloomwood all have a shot of making my top 10 list at the end of this year, and all are new takes on familiar formulas. One crucial difference is: the ways The Callisto Protocol feels modern make it worse.
Here’s an example. A few hours in I found a dead guard with the words “SHOOT THE TENTACLES” written in bloody graffiti above his head. If you’re a fan of Dead Space, you’ll instantly understand the reference. That game famously introduced its plasma cutter weapon with the blood-scrawled exhortation to “CUT OFF THEIR LIMBS.” Schofield has said that moment was added late in development, after players consistently failed to understand how to defeat the spindly Necromorphs. Once they added the graffiti, though, players instantly began chopping arms and legs off with gleeful efficiency. If The Callisto Protocol’s development has, similarly, been shaped by feedback, its design suggests that test players understood what they needed to do roughly zero percent of the time.
Before you get to that dead guard, there is a gameplay tutorial hint displayed at the bottom of the screen that warns “EXPOSED TENTACLES WILL CAUSE ENEMIES TO MUTATE.” Then, a full screen, with the header, “TENTACLES AND MUTATIONS,” comes up explaining that you should shoot tentacles. Once you kill the monster, you can approach the dead guard and get an audio log, which begins by telling you to shoot the tentacles. If you’re breathing, you’re going to understand how to play this game.
Callisto remains that straight(jacket)forward, throughout. You can rarely deviate from the precise corridor you need to navigate and, if you do, you will find a helpful item or an audio log, and then immediately turn around and head back to the critical path. The game is constantly shooing you forward, past diegetic arrows and hints painted on walls, signs on posts, and glowing cables stretching along the ground.
This golden path leads through Black Iron Prison where Jacob has been imprisoned for reasons unknown after his spaceship was assaulted and crashed on Jupiter’s moon, Callisto. After a speedy intake, he comes to his cell a few hours later. Outside, something has gone cataclysmically wrong in the prison. After escaping, Jacob slowly makes his way through the sprawling complex. As he goes, he is confronted by zombie-like alien creatures, who will reduce him to bloody bits if he isn’t careful.
At first, all Jacob has is a simple metal rod with which to fight back as they lunge at him and attempt to kill him in extremely long and gorey death animations. Combat is pretty simple, at first. You press the thumbstick left or right to dodge incoming attacks, wait for an opening, and whale on enemies with a rod. If you’re not careful, multiple enemies will team up on you and, when this happens, Jacob is all but guaranteed to have his head chopped in half, or his jaw ripped off its hinges, or his torso separated from his legs in death animations that last twice as long as you want them to. You have to play it safe if you don’t want to end up the star of gorgeously rendered torture porn. Dodging left and right and waiting for an opening to strike isn’t especially interesting, but squishy sound design and lavishly disgusting animation help to elevate the combat above its simple mechanics.
Outside the dance of its hand-to-hand fights, The Callisto Protocol’s combat disappoints. Because its enemies can easily overwhelm if you aggro too many at once, stealth is the smart bet through large swathes of the game. There are fun and gooey ways to quietly dispatch enemies, like using your gravity glove to hurl them against spikes. But, that costs energy, so after a while, I opted to simply sneak up behind them all and press X to stab them in the back. Despite the resulting kill animation being accompanied by audio so loud it could give Krakatoa a run for its money, nearby creatures are never alerted. Multiple times, I dispatched an enemy, causing them to land on a passing opponent as they fell. This never raised an alert. If you can crouch and move slowly, puddle deep stealth is the best option.
Dead Space sometimes took a break from the action to let you explore or to ask you to solve a puzzle. But, The Callisto Protocol forces Dead Space into the Uncharted mold, breaking some bones in the process. There are whiz-bang cinematic set-pieces, but they’re often more frustrating than fun. A water slide through a sewer side steps sensational thanks to irritating instakill deaths. The game has well known actors in Duhamel (Transformers) and Fukuhara (The Boys) and they’re rendered in impressive detail, but they’re let down by a rote script. If you’ve played a sci-fi horror game before, there are no surprises here. Every line of dialogue is an action movie cliche. The characters fulfill plot requirements, but nothing more. Though The Callisto Protocol aims for Naughty Dog spectacle and pace, it neglects to include any of the wide linearity that Naughty Dog has increasingly embraced. There are a few objectives that repeat several times — find the fuses to power the breaker, locate the keycard — but the game’s design is so arrow straight that these require less actual searching and more walking down the one available hallway until you find what you’ re looking for. It’s unlikely there will ever be a moment in this game where you don’t know what to do.
It’s a shame that The Callisto Protocol is so uninteresting at its core. Though it looks gorgeous on the surface, a dozen hours of nothing special can have a clarifying effect. Like a monstrous two-headed enemy banging Jacob’s head into the ground until it collapses, the game’s tedium forces you to reckon with the fact that there just isn’t much once the facade splatters away.
NEXT: We Were Too Harsh On Dead Space 3