The Callisto Protocol arrives with pretty convenient time for developer Striking Distance Studios. Had the team waited another few weeks to launch their sci-fi survival horror, it would have gone toe-to-toe with none other than Dead Space – a remake of the very game it owes its existence to.
Landing that first punch has certainly given The Callisto Protocol the upper hand, but does it have the gameplay and presentation value to follow through? In short, yes, it does, but while the similarities with Dead Space are (somewhat intentionally) inescapable, this isn’t the opportunistic copy-and-paste effort some horror fans might have been fearing.
One last job before I retire. It seems that whenever these words are spoken aloud they are quickly followed by certain misfortune, as our protagonist, Jacob Lee, is about to find out. I mean, what could possibly go wrong hauling high-value cargo to a prison complex that’s so dangerous, it’s housed on one of Jupiter’s moons?
An unscheduled crash landing later, Jacob finds himself being booked into this very same prison. Processing new inmates isn’t exactly what you’d call glamorous as they restrained, then near enough butchered in our first of many déjà vu moments that hark back to the Dead Space series (remember the sequel’s eye-watering opening?). When Jacob finally comes to, he finds himself… augmented. It seems the prison’s processing team were game designers in a past life, forcibly attaching implants that double up as a clever, diegetic game UI. It’s a slightly more subtle version of Isaac Clarke’s spinal health bar.
It doesn’t take long for things to start kicking off. We don’t even get to see any “day in the life of” prison montages before Jacob busts from his cell to find it overrun with mutants. However, in a design choice that dampens some of those Dead Space comparisons, you’ll be battling these nasty creatures with melee weapons. We don’t see enough of this kind of action in survival horror games – the recent Resident Evil remakes a case in point. Close quarters combat is usually ineffective that barely gives you one or two actions to distance yourself from enemies before pulling a gun on them once again.
In The Callisto Protocol, getting up close and personal is core to the experience, though there’s still plenty of gunplay too. That said, the melee controls will prove disorientating at first, with your dodge and block commands both assigned to the left analog stick. However, what seems like a poor design choice becomes intuitive the more you play.
One thing we’ve always loved about Dead Space was how its arsenal adopts repurposed sci-fi engineering tools such as the now-iconic Plasma Cutter. The Callisto Protocol doesn’t disguise its weapons in such a way, giving players a stun baton and handgun so they’re equipped to take on the prison’s mutant invaders. You’ll encounter a handful of variants to begin with, which either charge Jacob head-on, spew slimy projectiles, or strike from the shadows.
Thankfully, the way combat scenarios are designed keeps the combat feeling fresh, as does the variety of environments, often fitted with hazards such as giant fan blades. With ammunition being scarce, you’ll need to use them – the GRP (pronounced ‘Grip’) is able to grab objects and even enemies and turn them to your benefit. Just be careful not to use up all your Grip energy!
That’s another thing The Callisto Protocol gets right, forcing players to think about their inventories between battles and rationing what limited resources they’ve gathered while touring Black Iron Prison. Thankfully, you can always fall back on Jacob’s electrified riot club, which only becomes more powerful as you progress and unlock upgrades. These can be purchased from shopping stations adding yet another dimension to managing your loadout – you’ll often ask yourself whether it’s worth cashing in some health injectors so you can buy a cool new weapon enhancement.
These ‘Reforge’ stations are also a joy to watch in action as a flashy fabricator builds gear from thin air like some giant 3D printer. It’s touches like these that help underscore the developers’ efforts to create a fully-realised sci-fi world, splicing futuristic tech with industrial architecture and the creeping mutant corrosion. The set dressing is far from subtle, with guts and gore daubed just about everyone, but it’s still effective in spawning a sense of dread that’s only matched by Callisto’s fantastic sound design. The often underused DualSense speaker combines with its haptics to add texture to your actions and movements, like crawling through vents or delivering a punishing melee attack.
We’ve yet to see the credits roll on The Callisto Protocol and will be saving our final score until then. However, we can confidently say Dead Space fans will delight in its bloody mutant-shredding carnage, Striking Distance Studios using the classic 2008 horror as a template while inventing new and interesting gameplay ideas of its own.