We mostly get spiritual sequels to game franchises that are viewed as dead. But the series that The Callisto Protocol aims to build upon, Dead Space, is very much alive, with a remake due early next year.
Perhaps that’s why it feels like it was pushed out a little too early. The Callisto Protocol is so close to being a phenomenal game, but little issues and omissions here and there add up to bring it down a peg or two. And so, while some may jump into it and find it to be one of the best horror experiences of 2022, others may find it much less impressive.
It all begins on a ship transporting cargo. For some reason, someone thinks it’s worth boarding your vessel to investigate what you’re carrying, and then disaster strikes. Forced to crash land, you’re then thrown into a high-security prison without a chance to defend yourself. “Welcome to Black Iron,” you’re told. You’re not going to enjoy your stay.
But this isn’t a gritty prison drama. It isn’t long before the shit hits the fan and being locked up becomes the least of your worries. When your cell door unexpectedly opens amidst absolute chaos, you jump at the opportunity to escape. Though soon you discover why the prison has been thrown into disarray: something is happening to the inmates, turning them into grotesque creatures.
What makes The Callisto Protocol unique when put at the side of Dead Space, is its focus on melee combat. While you will collect some guns during the course of your struggles, there’s simply not enough ammo to take down all of your adversaries. And so going toe-to-toe with most of the monsters you encounter is a must, especially in the early stages of the game.
Thankfully there’s a fairly robust combat system here. When monsters charge at you to attack, alternating between left and right on the left analogue stick allows you to dodge their onslaught, while holding back puts you in a defensive stance. Then, when there’s an opening, you can unleash a combo of your own, or perform a powerful strong attack that can knock enemies backwards. When enemies are on the floor, it’s also a good idea to stomp on them to make sure they’re really dead, and perhaps unearth goodies in the process.
It can have its problems when you’re facing off against multiple enemies, but the ferocity of The Callisto Protocol‘s close combat, as well as the intimacy of the game’s camera, creates a real sense of a violent struggle for survival. You can feel your heart race every time you engage an enemy in a bloody melee, knowing that if you mess up a dodge or block, you might end up a bloody heap on the floor, or worse.
As you get further into The Callisto Protocol, you won’t be surprised to hear that your enemies get even more fearsome, too. Some will even one-hit kill you if they manage to get in a clear hit on your back, forcing you to be aware of your surroundings at all times. It’s here, however, that most frustration will be found, especially as the game’s checkpointing can be poor at times, forcing you to replay sizable chunks or redo certain actions.
Those actions include upgrading and purchasing items with the credits you accumulate during your ordeal. Your melee baton, for example, can be made to hit with more force, and even break limbs when your enemies try to defend themselves. Weapons such as the shotgun, on the other hand, can be upgraded to have alternative firing modes that use more ammo for explosive results. Even your special gauntlet that has the ability to grab objects and enemies from afar before catapulting them away can be upgraded, giving you another way to defend yourself and make use of the environment to your advantage.
As already mentioned, it’s the checkpointing in The Callisto Protocol that’s bound to be the real frustration for many. There are some other issues, too, however. Health injectors, for example, can’t be used when on the move and have an overly long animation, making them tricky to employ in the middle of battle. Thankfully you can at least dodge an enemy attack once the animation is underway, giving you its effects while awkwardly putting you back in control again.
There’s also the fact that once you’ve completed The Callisto Protocol, there’s not much reason to return to it. At least currently, anyway. A new Hardcore mode and New Game Plus is set to be added for free in February, but until then there’s no way to play through it again with the upgrades you’ve earned. There’s not even a chapter select. Your only option is to play through on a harder difficulty unless you’ve already tackled the hardest possible, which certainly puts up a challenge with its beefed-up enemies.
There’s one thing, though: The Callisto Protocol sure does look nice on PS5. This may be a third-party game, but it really shows what the console is capable of, what with its eerily realistic character models and atmospheric environments. Both Quality and Performance graphics modes are available, and for once we were compelled to forgo improved performance for visual splendour, and we don’t regret it one bit.
Aside from one or two overly frustrating encounters, we’ve truly enjoyed our time with The Callisto Protocol. And over time, we’re sure it’s going to get better. This is a mighty debut for Striking Distance Studios, and we can’t wait to get our hands on an improved sequel or something entirely new from the studio in the future. We wholeheartedly recommended The Callisto Protocol to horror fans open to brutal close-combat encounters, but some might want to wait until features such as New Game Plus have been added and certain issues have perhaps been ironed out. With a solid update or two, it will be essential.