For years now, The Callisto Protocol has invited comparisons to the 2008 survival horror classic Dead Space. From the camera perspective and a lot of the combat through to the atmosphere and setting, it all screams silent protagonist Isaac Clarke and his great stomping boot. Wanting to emulate that tense undertaking 14 years later is understandable — particularly as it comes from one of the game's original creators — but it's a double-edged sword. In creating a tribute to a masterpiece, it already has a supremely solid foundation to work with. However, The Callisto Protocol has little it can really call its own.
While it does take place on a moon's surface rather than a spacecraft, the Black Iron Prison still attempts to capture the look and tone of the USG Ishimura. With its dark hallways and nightmarish inhabitants, a range of similarly designed weapons make up much of main character Jacob Lee's inventory, and there's still room for a rip-off of the Kinesis ability. The immersive HUD is a button press away, and your health ticks down on the outside of Jacob's suit all the same. It's like you’re playing the first few hours of a sequel, where the gameplay feels familiar before the developer begins to introduce some new ideas.
Whether this is actually a bad thing or not is difficult to judge because it makes for a game that's consistently good. It's certainly unoriginal — even one or two of the enemy designs feel copied — but there's no denying there's a decent level of quality built into The Callisto Protocol purely by virtue of its blueprints.
What's new, then? The story for a start, which sees Jacob Lee crash land on Jupiter's moon Callisto and taken prisoner. He doesn't spend more than five minutes in his cell before mutated monsters outnumber the security bots on patrol, giving him the chance to escape. What follows is your stereotypical narrative: the plot becomes just as much about making it out as it does uncovering what's really going on inside Black Iron Prison.
It's a serviceable narrative. It's okay, if unspectacular. You could say the same about the characters fuelling the story beats: the vast majority of them are forgettable, with little in the way of personality or defining features. Protagonist Jacob consistently comes across as just a bit of a knob, but Dani is the saving grace. The two begin the game as enemies, but eventually learn they need to work together to escape. She has a bit about her and elevates virtually every cutscene she's in.
It's a shame neither the plot nor any other character can match her prowess because the title actually has some really impressive cinematics. Clearly having received a lot of the budget, they're of a very high quality and turn the game into quite the looker when you're not controlling the action. What's happening isn't all that interesting, but it looks good whilst doing it.
That's at least one deviation from the Dead Space formula — which presented all its cutscenes in world ala God of War — and another would be the combat, which is just as much about melee attacks as it is bullets. At least in the early game of the roughly 12-hour campaign, your stun baton will see a lot more action than any gun as you get up close and personal with the mutants of Black Iron Prison.
As such, many of your encounters with the enemy will be one on one. Jacob comes equipped with a crowbar and then a stun baton, with which he can both block attacks and deal damage. Fights are largely centred around dodging, though, mapped to the left thumbstick. Timing is paramount as you read the telltale signs of an enemy attack, then create space so you can follow up with your own blows. The game never really develops beyond just mashing the R2 button to get as many hits in as possible, but a simple upgrade tree does introduce a few new moves to think about as you progress.
These melee fights will be tough at first; the introductory chapters are actually quite difficult. However, as your arsenal grows, the game becomes more manageable to the point where some enemies won't even get close to you — unless they've succumbed to the power of your GRP. This is essentially a rechargeable telekinesis skill that allows you to pick up enemies and throw them about the arena. The best place to put them is inside active machinery for easy kills. In combination with melee actions and standard weaponry, The Callisto Protocol has a nice curve to it where you eventually start to overpower monsters in later levels.
It all makes for a really robust combat system that has a nice weight to it. More options open up the further in you go, and since the title is pretty much devoid of puzzles, this is survival horror action pretty much all the time. It's easily the best thing about the experience, and also acts as a nice differentiator from Dead Space.
Although, where the game returns to its roots is in its structure — it's almost completely linear. Save for a few optional areas and rooms off to the side, Striking Distance Studios has a single path for you to walk and there's no deviating from it. In an age where 50+ hour RPGs are a common part of the release schedule, it's refreshing to be told exactly where to go and not get distracted by side quests or open world activities.
Yet another thing The Callisto Protocol riffs on is death animations. Jacob meets his maker in all manner of gory ways, from having his eyes poked out to his torso ripped in two. Obviously influenced by Dead Space once more, these scenes are at least inventive and incredibly brutal. Not that you ever want to die and put a stop to progression, but seeing how Jacob died next was at least a fun buffer to another failed run.
Like we said before, then, there's no getting away from the fact the title is of fairly high quality. Taken on its own, it's an enjoyable horror campaign that's let down by its story but redeemed by a good combat system. However, it's impossible to avoid comparisons to the series that so heavily influenced it. The Callisto Protocol isn't as good as Dead Space, so it's always going to live in its shadow. To create a game so similar, you're always going to have that nagging feeling in the back of your mind that you've already done all of this before 14 years ago. Even with the bigger focus on melee action, Striking Distance Studios will always be remembered as the team that tried to bring back Dead Space instead of really making its own completely new experience.
On the technical side, you're able to toggle between a Quality Mode at 30 frames-per-second and a Performance Mode targeting 60fps. While neither option offers a locked frame rate — small dips are fairly common, particularly during intense combat sequences — the latter is the one to go for. Fights feel a lot more fluid and engaging with the extra frames, and although you will lose a fair amount of graphical quality, the game still boasts some impressive visuals.
It's not entirely plain sailing, however. During our review process, we encountered such abysmal frame rate drops (less than 10fps) that we were able to crash the game on command. Reinstalling the title and loading an earlier save fixed the problem, and multiple updates were pulled while we were playing — a day one patch is also expected. However, there's no guarantee the same won't happen to you.
The Callisto Protocol is a consistently good game that, when it's at its best, gives many of the survival horror greats a run for their money. However, there's no getting around the fact the game has very little to truly call its own. In borrowing so heavily from Dead Space, there's always a sense of having been there, done that. With frame rate issues and an unimaginative story with poor characters, The Callisto Protocol is good. But it's not great.