Glen Schofield enjoys wearing his heart on his sleeve. After all, Isaac Clarke of Dead Space fame couldn’t be a more transparent name for the influences that clearly live in his mind, and not even rent free, but kidnapped and held against their will. What with the additional horror and all.
It’s not a surprise then that The Callisto Protocol, the debut title from Schofield’s Striking Distance Studios, is not so much in honour of Dead Space, but rather a spiritual successor to it, in every sense of the word. The events that see hapless pilot, Jacob Lee, imprisoned on the titular moon’s maximum security facility, Black Iron Prison, and the nefarious nature of its UJC operating arm could very well be taking place in the same game-universe as Dead Space; adjacent to whatever misadventure Isaac might find himself on next, should EA decide to take us there in original story form again, one day.
And that’s okay. The resonant verbiage you’ll glean from this and likely every other review of the game is that if you’ve played Dead Space, you’ve played The Callisto Protocol.
That’s a bit black and white, and of course The Callisto Protocol doesn’t exist in the Dead Space universe and is very much its own thing, it just isn’t afraid to build sideways on an already-winning formula, and from one of the alchemists who originally transmuted it, to boot.
From the outset, and playing on Xbox Series X, The Callisto Protocol is a genuinely jaw-dropping visual assault. It might have the most detailed interiors of any game I’ve ever played, and the variety in art that accompanies these is staggering. From the initial prison sequences through to deep underground spaces where you’ll be navigating an old, abandoned colony to the surface of Callisto itself, the game serves up a terrifying feast for the eyes.
"Another update is scheduled to hit on release and we suspect once it’s out in the wild it’ll have a few more...”
In our early review sessions there were stutters and hiccups in frame-rate here and there, with Kosta having to abandon his PC playthrough until the Day One patch (that hit today), while on console Striking Distance delivered us two updates over the course of our review week(-plus) and I’m happy to report, the stuttering was smoothed out. Another update is scheduled to hit on release and we suspect once it’s out in the wild it’ll have a few more, but for me, playing Callisto was a relatively easy, jitter-free run. Which is good because that’s not how I played the game at all.
On the highest difficulty setting, you’re in for a roughly 15-hour experience, or longer, depending on how investigative you choose to be. One of Callisto’s strengths is its level design, and actually has a fair amount of room for exploration, which is sometimes antithetical to the survival horror experience. I also found in my playthrough that there were sections of the game I’d missed or chosen to ignore thinking I wasn’t main-pathing when I actually was.
There’s no map, you see, which genuinely adds to the game’s tension and its contextual situation. Jacob, bless him, is wrongly incarcerated by Sam Witwer (Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed) and thrust into an unwitting escape when things and shit at Black Iron hit the fan (both shit and fans are a feature of the game, too) and we’re sent on our merry way, armed with nothing but a metal bar and some hopeful wits.
"Full circle, I came to call it the “melee dance”, which will make total sense once you play, but the gist of it is that enemies will come in close quarters to you and you’ll need to evade their strikes…”
Where it’ll rub many the wrong way is in its initial combat phases, which employ a unique evade system. Full circle, I came to call it the “melee dance”, which will make total sense once you play, but the gist of it is that enemies will come in close quarters to you and you’ll need to evade their strikes. There’s no window, it’s just a matter of timing and not repeating the same side too often (left or right). After each evade you have a window to strike yourself, and from there the caper plays itself out. But be warned: early on, it's terribly messy.
It’s also here where the game differs a lot from Dead Space, as projectile weapons are secondary, really, to your prison guard Stun Baton. At times the game teases you to risk your bravado by offering to let you play it as a shooter; serving up tantalising yet ultimately feeble pillars for cover while taking on robots whose ammunition rips you to shreds in a one-shot for the ages (straight to death-scene, no room for bargaining back with bullets of your own), or space zombie swarms.
It’s weird because in Dead Space you wanted distance between yourself and the necromorphs. That game was largely about crowd-control and how you managed the limited space you had during each conflict, but in Callisto it’s all about the dance; that “melee dance” I mentioned earlier. You want to invite Callisto’s space zombies (known in-game as the “biophage”) into your embrace, so you can wail on them. Repeatedly.
This gets problematic when different enemies want to cut in on each dance, because everything within the jig is handled dynamically, and largely by the game. You can shift the camera to refocus on a different enemy, but the pace at which these skirmishes play out alongside Jacob’s Isaac-like speed doesn’t always work, and the game actively can’t (or doesn’t) help you. This forced me, often, to just run because trying to square off against two or more biophages was an exercise in futility. Thankfully, the environment itself can be your friend, and sometimes in ways Striking Distance might not have intended.
"I found myself just throwing enemies into unusable, non-interactive parts of the environment where they’d just ragdoll saying goodbye to the intricate game-world created here”
You’ll get a telekinesis-like ability called “GRP” (Gravity Restrain Projector), which the prison guards contextually use to control the inmates and broader jail population. And I found myself relying heavily on this. It doesn’t have a stasis effect like Dead Space, rather you get a small window of control over your grabbed enemies who are incapacitated, meaning you can line them up against parts of the environment and then shoot them into them. This is most fun when you come across spiked walls, turbines, blades and more. But I found myself just throwing enemies into unusable, non-interactive parts of the environment where they’d just ragdoll saying goodbye to the intricate game-world created here. It’s an exploitable part of the game that I don’t think the devs wanted me to use, but hey, this is survive or die, right?
That said, the process of dying in the game, as varied and fun as it is visually, is another aspect that grounds Callisto from loftier heights. Specifically, patterned behaviour with the AI and being able to just preempt jumps and arm yourself accordingly with tactics or the right weapon. The number of times I simply remembered every entry point or which enemies to take out first (damned spitters), to then be able to comfortably push through the bottleneck was enormous, and belied the point of the game, really. I was hoping for much more dynamic AI and know of a few other reviewers who played on lower difficulty levels and had almost no trouble beating the game. Even Dead Space, released in 2008, had more dynamic AI, and it’s largely my biggest issue with the game on the whole.
That’s not to say it isn’t challenging. Mobs and management of disparate groups of biophage is still hard, and once they’ve mingled enough, those patterns of behaviour from a jump or entry don’t matter. And as with every survival horror title, ammo and health are scarce, as are the game's “Reforge” locations -- mini shops that let you spend the Callisto Credits you find, or sell items. Everything you get is upgradeable, but you don’t have a lot of room in your inventory in the early throes, so much like Dead Space, you’ll need to decide on which item you want to invest the most in (melee) which in turn will help you develop your playstyle. This part of the game is good, and management of your limited inventory is a head-scratcher you’d rather not have. But as I said before, this is survival horror.
Is it as good as Dead Space though? I kind of feel bad even asking the question. Like I’ll somehow be infuriating Glen Schofield and the whole team because of all of the comparisons that sit around it, but then it’s just impossible not to compare them. And I think they need to accept that (and probably do). Visually, and from an art perspective, The Callisto Protocol is biophage boss, but it’s also so much younger than the OG, so that’s a hard one to quantify, comparatively. So on pacing -- the hallmark of any good survival horror -- I genuinely think Callisto trumps Dead Space, but its story isn’t as good, nor is its arsenal and I don’t think the biophage would win in a fight with necromorphs.
I also just think Isaac and his station and situation is a far better fit for terror. I can’t discount Jacob, played brilliantly by Josh Duhamel (Blade Runner: Black Lotus), but there are elements of the story that jump around a bit and make a bit less sense for trying to be more broad than the plight of the scourge on the Ishimura. And finally, it is a far less tense experience because of the lack of dynamic AI and being able to track enemy behaviours and entry points. And for all of those reasons above, The Callisto Protocol isn’t as good as Dead Space. But, I desperately want to explore its universe more, which means Glen Schofield and Striking Distance have achieved what they set out to do, and I’m now a prisoner to the world of The Callisto Protocol.
What we liked
Stunning, stunning game
Some of the most intricate interiors ever seen in gaming
Excellent pacing throughout
Wonderful performances from all
A new sci fi world to explore and absorb
What we didn't like
Unfortunately a lack of dynamic AI means you can preempt a lot of the game's 'scares'
The "melee dance" is an uphill battle early to get to grips with and might turn some people off
It lacks the dread of Dead Space, and its story isn't as good (but it's still good)