The Callisto Protocol Review
It has been 10 years since the last Dead Space game released. For a while, it seemed like EA were just letting the franchise fade away. But a remake of the first game is coming early next year, so the series is not quite dead yet. If you cannot wait that long, here is something that might fill the void. The Callisto Protocol is made by some developers of the original Dead Space and has many points of direct comparison. It is also a third-person action game set in a similar sci-fi universe, although with more focus on melee combat. And while The Callisto Protocol has great atmosphere, it comes off as a weaker imitation because of lackluster world building, dull weaponry, and a few gameplay issues. Even though it is not quite a spiritual success, it may keep Dead Space fans occupied for a short time.
Jacob Lee is running cargo in his spaceship when the vessel is boarded by a known terrorist, Dani Nakamura. In the ensuing dramatic clash, his ship suffers a catastrophic failure and crash lands on Callisto, one of Jupiter’s moons. Rescued by some guards at the local Black Iron Prison, the pair is immediately incarcerated for reasons that are never adequately justified. Soon thereafter, the prison turns into a disaster zone as both guards and prisoners transform into mutated freaks hell-bent on death and destruction. You play as Jacob and initially help a fellow prisoner escape in order to navigate through the infected. Eventually you will also cross paths with Dani, the one that started this mess, and might have to put aside your differences to survive a descent into madness.
While the story starts off okay, there is not much of it across 10 hours. Half the time the narrative is straining for new ways to keep Jacob separated from his acquaintances. And the rest is spent withholding story to be mysterious. The main antagonist is a prison guard, and he is a walking cliché, coming and going randomly. Josh Duhamel and Karen Fukuhara are suitable as Jacob and Dani, but they are not given much to work with. There is not enough personality, growth, or humor, and character bonds are flimsy. Like in Dead Space, there is more going on under the surface and that includes some questionable science. Unfortunately it doesn’t turn out to be all that interesting or surprising. Even the prison’s main scientist has just four short and vague audio logs across the entire game and barely appears in cutscenes. The result is substandard world building and a narrative that is mostly absent.
Threats are rarely absent though and, unlike Dead Space, the action revolves around melee combat. It addresses some of the inherent awkwardness that comes with close encounters in third-person games such as this. Not far into the game you acquire a stun baton that will bash the mutated freaks. But before attacking, you have to dodge; holding left or right before an attack avoids damage. Any follow-up swipes must be dodged in the other direction. Once they’ve had all their swings, it’s your turn to unleash pain; fights can last a few rounds. When it’s over, you can stomp corpses to get resources. Although the melee combat is mostly fine, multiple enemies make it awkward and dodge does not work when aiming weapons.
Projectile weapons handle the infected outside melee range. Two primary guns and three side-arms are available, all with their own ammo. Swapping between weapons can take longer than usual as the side-arm has to be reformed into the new weapon type. When attacking in melee, you also get a UI prompt that lets you shoot staggered enemies, so melee and shooting often works decently in tandem and helps with crowd control. While the guns are adequate and accurate, they’re incredibly boring for a game set in 2320. With two shotgun types, two pistols, and an assault rifle, it’s the equivalent of a dull modern-day shooter. And even with all the guns, it is still a good idea to use melee to preserve ammo and because it can be more satisfying to bust skulls.
If you prefer to keep enemies far away, a telekinesis power called GRP will help to do just that. It can pick up enemies and throw them. And, in some areas, you can grab red explosive cylinders and hurl them to dish out good damage. GRP is most useful in locations with huge industrial meat-grinder contraptions—why these spinning devices are there is often unclear. Unfortunately the ground-up bodies don’t seem to drop resources, so it should only be used in emergencies. GRP can also grab supply boxes from inaccessible ledges. Aside from that, the power barely features and feels like an afterthought. It does not get used in situations that could be called a puzzle; there are no puzzles, unless you consider moving a fuse between doors one. Often it is easy to forget that GRP even exists, and it needed more practical use outside battle.
Most of the enemies are melee attackers and quite similar to each other. Nearly all are human prisoners or guards that have been transformed and shamble around until you get close enough. There is one explosive type that crawls on the floor and another dog-like foe that can go invisible. Even though they all look gruesome, the enemy selection is rather mundane, much like the guns. The only thing you have to be wary of is when they start sprouting tentacles. This means they’re about to evolve into bigger and stronger freaks, so it is a good idea to kill them quick.
In the second half there is some optional stealth against blind enemies, in the style of The Last of Us. Here you can get behind and stab for an easy takedown kill. Although they’re alerted when Jacob merely walks, they cannot hear you stab their twin a few yards away. They do not even notice Jacob stomping on corpses. So the stealth against them is trivial, requiring you to merely crouch and shuffle. Failure only happened when the melee takedown broke, resulting in Jacob tickling their backside instead. These blind foes well and truly overstay their welcome, especially when they’re typically found in areas that are traversed twice, making the second half a drag.
While the ten-hour adventure is mostly linear, there are side areas. There are usually only two paths forward, but one is a dead-end with ammo and valuables. The problem is that it is sometimes not clear which path is the main one; there is no map and the in-world directions are vague. Even going some distance through one route does not always make it obvious. Vents are used frequently to connect areas, probably as hidden load screens, and they are boring to crawl through. So if you enter the main path accidentally, but want extra resources, it means going back through the same long vent. The game auto-saves often enough, especially before tough encounters, but a few saves are placed such that you might have to repeat a side area again after death.
If you do explore, resources are plentiful on medium difficulty. Inventory space is limited, so you might end up dropping health or GRP batteries to make way for valuables or precious ammo. Fortunately the game is not stingy with heals, as even enemies drop small parcels of health when Jacob is wounded. Reforge stations appear infrequently and they let you sell valuables, upgrade weapons, and buy ammo or health. Annoyingly, valuables are often placed a few rooms ahead of the reforge, making you turn around or hope that another is not too far away (hint: it will be far away). Inventory space only expands when you get new weapons, to allow for new ammo types, and it is a pity it cannot be manually upgraded. It will be difficult to upgrade everything in one playthrough, and there is currently no new game+ option, although replay value seems minimal anyway.
At least Black Iron Prison and its surrounds are stunning. The prison itself seems to breathe and groan, with hissing steam and clanking in the walls. Infected can be heard rooms away, screeching or making weird guttural noises. The narrow corridors have great atmosphere thanks to fog and volumetric lighting. Jump scares are rare, and it does not quite manage to create much dread, despite the stellar atmosphere. Although the cast isn’t huge, the character models are detailed, albeit with lip movements that are not quite in sync. The game’s performance is a little shaky, however. Although the first two patches have removed nearly all the horrible stuttering present at launch, there are still a few errant slowdowns.
The Callisto Protocol looks the part and plays decent enough, but it fails to truly exploit the Dead Space blueprint. Many features from that franchise are here, just not all up to the same high standard. Perhaps the weakest part is the story, which is often absent, uninteresting, or lacks depth. The weapons, while functional, are some of the blandest to ever grace a sci-fi action game, paired with a telekinesis power that is easy to forget. Using melee attacks to kill brutal enemies is usually satisfying, when the dodge works as advertised. The awesome and atmospheric prison location is mostly good to explore, but there are minor navigation annoyances. We can definitely say that the Dead Space template is alive and kicking, even if it is currently behind bars.