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The Callisto Protocol

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Krafton
Developer: Striking Distance Studios
Release Date: Dec. 2, 2022


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PS5 Review - 'The Callisto Protocol'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Dec. 8, 2022 @ 1:00 a.m. PST

The Callisto Protocol is a brand new story-driven, single-player game from the minds behind the Dead Space franchise.

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The Callisto Protocol is set in the distant future, after mankind has moved to the stars. Jacob Lee is what amounts to a space trucker, as he's responsible for moving cargo from place to place. Unfortunately, his latest assignment starts with his vessel being boarded by a group of terrorists and ends with him crashing into Jupiter's moon of Callisto, home to the infamous Black Iron Prison. Jacob is rescued and promptly and inexplicably imprisoned. After he thrown in his cell, catastrophe strikes. A mysterious sickness sweeps through the prison, transforming inmates into mutant biophages who want to violently murder everything in sight. Jacob must find a way to escape before he ends up as another mutant monster in the doomed prison.

The Callisto Protocol is doing its utmost to mimic Dead Space without exactly mimicking Dead Space, and the result feels kind of boring. Jacob is an everyman protagonist, but he's not super memorable, and the rest of the cast largely tends to be forgettable. The comparisons end up hurting The Callisto Protocol because its plot beats are close enough to Dead Space that things that should hit hard don't. Biophages aren't quite as viscerally horrifying as Necromorphs, and the story feels a bit like the Asylum version of Dead Space. It isn't a beat-for-beat comparison, but it's so similar that the comparisons are inevitable.

For all that Dead Space is the most obvious inspiration for The Callisto Protocol, the core combat system is quite different. Yes, removing limbs from enemies still plays a significant part in combat, but it isn't the centerpiece. Instead, melee attacks are the top choice for most situations. Jacob usually has a stun baton, which he can use to beat the ever-living crap out of the biophages. Ammo is limited enough that you'll want to do preserve it whenever possible, so most of your time is spent on beating up enemies. As the game progresses, you get other tools, such as guns and the ability to pick up things (including enemies) and throw them at one another. Eventually, you'll learn more powerful follow-up gun attacks.

You might imagine that getting close to undead spike-covered abominations is not great for your long-term health, and you'd be right. That is where the dodge system comes into play. Dodging in The Callisto Protocol is a touch weird and reminiscent of something like Resident Evil Revelations. Basically, if you are holding left or right when an enemy attacks and not in the middle of an animation, you'll automatically dodge. However, the next attack that comes in will hit unless you are holding the opposite direction. To dodge three attacks, you'd need to press left-right-left. Holding back allows you to block incoming attacks, which reduces their damage but doesn't nullify them, so dodging is a better choice in most situations.

I understand what the dodging system was going for, and I like the idea quite a bit, but having it tied to holding left or right results in a genuinely awkward experience. It makes sense in Punch-Out, where you're an immobile boxer facing a single opponent, but in a third-person shooter/brawler, it doesn't feel natural since those are also the directions you hold to move. Against multiple opponents, it kind of falls apart. This seems to encourage players to avoid engaging multiple opponents at close range, but I imagine a lot of players are going to find that to be difficult. It doesn't help that enemies are incredibly lethal, so if you get stuck in a bad area with minimal resources, it can transform into a game of bashing your head against a challenge until you get lucky.

The core problem with the combat in The Callisto Protocol is that it tries to hit the horror/action style of something like Resident Evil 4, but simplicity was the key. Like RE4, the game focuses on heavy aggression and taking risks for bigger rewards. Nothing in The Callisto Protocol feels as satisfying as suplexing a Ganado in RE4, and even when I was kicking butt, it always felt like I was fighting the controls.

The game has fun moments, and when you hit a groove, it can feel quite good, but eventually, you end up noticing one of the annoying aspects, and it brings everything back. It doesn't help that high-end combat falls into a strange groove. Once you learn that you can cancel animations into infinite brawl strings or manipulate AI so it breaks, it becomes a lot more about that than properly mastering the core mechanics. Don't get me wrong; there's fun to be had in stunlocking a space zombie with repeated baton smacks. It inevitably feels more like I'm cheating the game than mastering it, though.

Exploration also isn't anything to write home about. The game is largely linear and pushes you forward by blocking off the previous area, which is fairly standard for action games but gives things a bit of a rushed feel. There are hidden items and resources to collect and plenty of spooky audio logs, but it's mostly a forward-driven experience. That isn't a complaint, but it can occasionally feel awkward when you crawl through a vent and can't go back for no clear reason other than "the game says so." The environments are pretty neat, and there's a lot of creativity in the area design, if not always the layout. It lacks the creepy "lived in" feel of the Ishimura, but it's still a fun haunted house to explore.

I think a major problem with The Callisto Protocol is that it isn't sure what it wants to be: a horror-themed brawler? a Dead Space clone? an action game? It lacks a central identity, and the result is a game that doesn't work. Dead Space worked as well as it did because it had a very strong basic premise and stuck to it. The Callisto Protocol is desperate to remind you of Dead Space, but it forgets to establish its own identity.

It isn't a straightforward Dead Space copy. There are a lot of little elements that remind you of the inspiration, such as the super-heavy stomp and the delimbing of enemies. Even at its very best, it makes me wish I was playing Dead Space again, which offers all of The Callisto Protocol's strengths but none of its weaknesses. You can play The Callisto Protocol, but in almost every situation, you'll have more fun going back to Dead Space or even Resident Evil. If you want a new experience, there's even the remake of Dead Space due out in a month's time.

One area where The Callisto Protocol excels is in its visuals. The game looks absolutely fantastic. There are atmospheric spooky areas filled with tons of little detail and horrifying monsters that genuinely look disgusting. The game goes all-out on death animations (including DLC ones!), which is a minus in the long run. They are sure to shock gore fans, but some of them run too long, and due to the wonky game design, you'll probably see them too often. If you just want to see the horrible ways a protagonist can die, The Callisto Protocol will probably keep you happy. Even without the gore, it's a top-notch-looking game, and thankfully, the PS5 version runs smoothly. The voice acting is also quite good and helps carry the otherwise bland story further than it could on its own.

The Callisto Protocol is frustrating as a game because it's so easy to see how it could have been great. There's no single thing that drags down the game, but it's an endless stream of annoyances that are exacerbated by the constant reminders of better titles.  The Callisto Protocol can be fun, but it's constantly getting in the way of its own fun. It's possible that patches might smooth out some of the combat issues and improve the game a fair bit. At launch, though, it's more frustrating than fun. There's a lot of potential for a sequel that takes the lessons to heart, but for the moment, you're better off waiting for a sale.

Score: 7.0/10

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