You’ve got to feel a semblance of sympathy for Striking Distance Studios. Fronted by Dead Space’s executive producer Glen Schofield, the team has clearly designed The Callisto Protocol in direct response to the clamours for a return to EA’s iconic sci-fi horror. But on the eve of the gruesome debut’s release, Motive has started promoting a tantalising remake of Isaac Clarke’s inaugural outing. It’s true what they say: when it rains survival horror, it pours.

Of course, for fans of the genre, this overlap isn’t necessarily a negative – and while there are obvious similarities between Dead Space and The Callisto Protocol, we reckon the latter distances itself just enough to stand alone. Having played through a full 90 minutes of the campaign, we came away overwhelmingly impressed: when you consider this is the debut project from a totally new developer, the production values on display are extraordinary. From what we played, this game is going to be a white-knuckle ride.

The Callisto Protocol Preview 2

Set in the faraway future on one of Jupiter’s moons, you play as Jacob Lee, an inmate at a maximum security prison named Black Iron. With fellow convicts beginning to transform into unsightly creatures, you’re tasked with escaping from the increasingly petrifying penitentiary. The combat is the star of the show: the title mixes close-quarters with ranged shooting, making for a methodical and meaty gameplay loop that will have you feeling every hit.

When you get close to an antagonist, you can use the left analogue stick to dodge and weave like a boxer, and then wielding an electric-charged prison baton you can battle back by striking when there’s an opening. This takes some getting used to: reading the attacks of your enemies isn’t easy when the pressure’s on, but once you get a feel for the flow it’s uber-rewarding. You’ll have a natural temptation to spam the R2 button and bludgeon your foes, but this rarely ends well: you almost need to tempt your aggressors into an error, and then punish them afterwards.

Once you’ve successfully got in a couple of hits, there’ll be a small window of opportunity for you to pop off a shot on a weak spot, and if you get this right you’ll bring them down instantly. Of course, you can hang back and pepper shots from afar, but ammunition is massively restricted: the game’s absolutely designed to keep you up close and personal with the monstrosities wandering the prison’s increasingly dilapidated corridors.

We played a chunk of the title’s third chapter, and were able to manage one-on-one encounters comfortably – but the game begins to ratchet up the tension when it puts two or more foes on screen at once. With the emphasis on melee combat, crowd control becomes crucial, and fortunately you have access to a gravitational glove known as the GRP, which allows you to toss objects and enemies aside. Ultimately, you need to use this to manage the position of your pursuers, throwing them away while you thin out the crowds. It’s hard not to get utterly captivated by it all.

Between these skirmishes is your traditional survival horror scavenging and exploration. Playing on a PS5, the Black Iron prison looks absolutely incredible, with bursting pipes and reflective metal surfaces. It’s grim, as you’d expect it to be, but the game occasionally opens up from claustrophobic corridors, enabling you to appreciate larger vistas that help illustrate the great expanses of outer-space.

As you progress, you’ll collect resources which can either be used or sold at terminals, and you can then use an in-game currency to 3D print upgrades for your firearms. One neat touch is that you need to physically stomp on the corpses of foes in order to expose any loot they’re carrying, and it becomes a real cathartic release to blitz up these bodies once you’re done with a big encounter.

The DualSense support throughout is absolutely superb, and a rare example of a third-party developer investing additional effort to ensure the game feels fantastic on Sony’s pad. Of course, you feel the kick of your firearms and crunch of your baton, but the game also depicts smaller subtleties too – like the reverberation of your footsteps on the metal tiles beneath your boots, or the sharpness of your utility knife as you use it to cut through a body bag. It’s up there with the very best uses of the PS5’s controller.

Our only criticism at this stage, potentially specific to the chapter we played, is that the connective tissue between the combat encounters is a little rote. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but you’ve played this kind of campaign before: locked doors prompt deeper exploration and alternate paths, bringing you full circle while you seek out a key card or a pass code. It’s all largely linear, and while the game does keep you on your toes with set-piece moments, we didn’t see anything that structurally surprised us. Schofield did point out that there are stealth sequences later on, and we got a glimpse of these as we slipped past a marauding security cyborg towards the end of our demo, but we assume these will be more purposeful in the latter stages of the campaign.

The Callisto Protocol Preview 1

Nevertheless, if you like this style of survival horror, then we reckon you’re in for a treat. While the gory death animations that have been so key to the game’s marketing strike us as a bit of a gimmick, the combat system is anything but. By combining elements of crowd control, melee, and gunplay, Striking Distance Studios has constructed a white knuckle dance of death that will have you simultaneously dreading and anticipating each life-or-death encounter.

Thanks to Krafton and Striking Distance Studios for the early hands on opportunity with The Callisto Protocol. Are you looking forward to this sci-fi survival horror? Bat away an infected inmate in the comments section below.