The Callisto Protocol review: As a fan of Dead Space, I am disappointed

The Callisto Protocol review: As a fan of Dead Space, I am disappointed

The game comes close to recreating the magic of Dead Space, a series that is close to my heart. But it doesn’t feel finished.

(Krafton/Washington Post illustration)

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Available at: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC

Developer: Striking Distance Studios | Publisher: Krafton

Release date: 2 December 2022

Astronomers estimate that the Milky Way contains about 100 billion planets; our galaxy is just one of 2 trillion others we can see. We know very little about the things in our tiny, 93 billion light-year observable corner of the universe. We know almost nothing beyond that.

There is a reason why the room has been such a popular fixation in the horror genre. It is a setting where our imaginations can run wild. One of the best examples of space horror among video games is the Dead Space series, which followed an engineer named Isaac Clarke (a reference to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, two of the “Big Three” writers of the golden age of science fiction) as he battled hordes of undead monsters and uncovered the mysterious cult that had helped create them.

“The Callisto Protocol,” the first game from Striking Distance Studios, could easily be mistaken for a “Dead Space” spinoff. Striking Distance CEO Glen Schofield was one of the co-creators of “Dead Space,” and it shows. The two games share similarities in terms of story, presentation and mechanics – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “Dead Space” was a great game, and many of the nods to that franchise work in “The Callisto Protocols” favor.

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But the familiarity also made some of the plot points feel predictable. And unlike “Dead Space,” “The Callisto Protocol” suffers from spotty writing that gave me little reason to care about the universe or the characters. Also, the game’s poor optimization for PC (which caused my framerate to plummet during key moments) and mediocre weapon options ruined what could have been a standard but perfectly serviceable horror game.

“The Callisto Protocol” puts you in the flight jacket of Jacob Lee (played by Josh Duhamel from “Transformers”), pilot of the cargo ship UJC Charon. Jacob is a transporter for the United Jupiter Company (UJC) who has made a series of shady deliveries between the planet’s moons Callisto and Europa. He is on his last mission with his co-pilot Max when the ship is infiltrated by a group led by Dani Nakamura (Karen Fukuhara from “The Boys”), a known member of an anti-UJC guerrilla group called The Outer Way. During the resulting battle, the ship crashes on Callisto and everyone on board dies except Jacob and Dani. They are arrested by a patrol from the local prison, Black Iron, and immediately sentenced.

After being treated and thrown into his cell, Jacob wakes up on his first day in Black Iron to find the prison in the midst of a riot. This is where the real meat of the game starts, and the similarities to “Dead Space” become apparent.

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When he got to Black Iron, Jacob was restrained and forced to undergo a gruesome operation that grafted a device called CORE onto his spine. The annoying thing about sticking a surveillance tool into someone’s neck without a stun is to show how dark and terrible Black Iron is, but for our purposes as players, CORE is a health bar. Anyone who has played “Dead Space” will recognize it as the equivalent of RIG, which similarly displayed Isaac’s hit points with a glowing bar running down his color.

The similarities to Dead Space don’t end there. Jacob uses a telekinetic device called a GRP that works identically to the Kinesis module. He stomps to finish off enemies or knock open crates, as Isaac does. “The Callisto Protocol’s” story, like that of Dead Space, relies heavily on audio logs to flesh out the details. Space zombies always seem to be the result of aliens and fanatical secret societies. Jacob and Isaac both have a bad habit of falling off things, each making an excuse to lose an NPC companion and then regrouping with them when an objective needs to be completed or the plot needs to move forward.

Ironically, zombies may be what separates the two games the most. In “Dead Space”, Isaac had to eliminate Necromorphs by methodically ripping off limbs using ranged weapons, occasionally using melee or stomping to confirm the kill. “The Callisto Protocol” reverses this. You start most of your battles in melee mode, using a largely prompt-based combat system to wear down a zombie with your baton, weaving in a few shots here and there.

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Here’s how most engagements went for me. A zombie would give chase. When it took a swing at me, I dodged the attack and followed up with an overwhelming baton combo. Then I’d dodge again—this time to the right and then to the left, to avoid both hits from the zombie’s two-hit combo—and counterattack with a few more melees until the zombie starts sprouting tentacles from its stomach. If you let them grow too long, the zombie evolves to become even stronger and harder to kill. At that point I fired two shots into the creature’s tentacles, stomping on it as it collapsed to the floor until it split apart like a cantaloupe, its body no longer moving. It’s a satisfying combat loop, and you don’t need to be a gaming god to do it.

The Dodge mechanic doesn’t require you to time anything. As long as you hold down left or right while in melee range of a zombie, you will avoid the attack. But the direction you avoid matters. If you dodge in the same direction too many times, the mechanic will eventually fail you, having discovered that you’re just going in the same direction over and over again. You can easily avoid this by switching between left and right with each dodge.

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However, while playing, it can feel like “The Callisto Protocol” focused on the game’s melee system to the detriment of other mechanics. All zombies have a hardy resistance to shots, ammo is scarce and resources are hard to come by. This made it difficult for me to experiment with different weapons because almost every weapon obtainable has to be crafted at considerable cost. Here was my dilemma, if you can call it that: Do I spend all my valuable credits crafting a bunch of mediocre weapons that I can’t find ammo for? Or do I focus on polishing my small collection of free weapons to fight the increasingly tougher and scarier zombies? It was easy – especially when it came to GRP. It takes a lot of effort, risk, time and ammunition to kill zombies with conventional combat. With GRP, I can instakill almost every zombie in the game by throwing them into any of the free normal spiked walls in the game (a terrible security risk for UJC workers, but a wonderful mechanic for players). Cheesy, efficient and fun.

But OSHA-violating game levels aside, even if the crafting system were revised to encourage experimentation, I’m not sure how much my options would have changed. I could have converted my slow-firing but heavy-hitting starter gun to something with a faster rate of fire but less damage per bullet. But why? I doubt the time to kill a zombie would have changed dramatically. What incentive did I have to make a handheld shotgun from scratch and upgrade it compared to the full size shotgun I received for free? The Alt-Fire feature for the handheld shotgun offered homing rounds that tracked enemies, but that upgrade is functionally useless. Almost everything in “The Callisto Protocol” is a spoof or a big target. You don’t exactly need an eagle eye to shoot anything here. You just need an eye.

The game also has some significant issues on PC. During some matches, my frame rate dropped from 120-140 fps to 10-15 fps, turning the entire engagement into a frustrating slideshow. This problem persisted even after I won the match and went to another area. The only way to fix the frame drops was to reload the game with a prayer that it wouldn’t happen again – and the checkpoints in this game can be punishing at times.

To Striking Studios’ credit, “The Callisto Protocol” has a robust accessibility menu. There are tons of options here, including a special font for dyslexic players, a high-contrast feature, a variety of combat assist features, and more. And yet I struggled with other more rudimentary options. I couldn’t find a way to set a specific mouse sensitivity; the setting on offer seemed to be a clunky direct port of the controller’s sensitivity settings, which went in increments of 10. I also couldn’t find an option to aim down sights using a click instead of a hold, which should be a standard feature in any game you target.

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“The Callisto Protocol” has a fascinating premise – but does nothing with it. Somehow, the game about a celestial truck driver fighting his way through zombies in a space prison while uncovering a grand conspiracy orchestrated by the space Illuminati felt bland and generic. One of the great things about the Dead Space series is how it made Isaac’s job as an engineer become important in the game. Isaac’s trademark “weapon” is the plasma cutter, a tool that was designed to be used in mining. There are several sequences where Isaac must enter the vacuum of space and cross the hulls of destroyed starships using magnetic boots. The fanatical Church of Unitology in “Dead Space” was contextualized to the player through visiting their gathering places, seeing their posters plastered around the universe, and hearing from their members.

There is no game mechanic or reference that makes Jacob’s background as a pilot relevant. It’s mildly important to the plot (you have to fly to escape a moon, after all), but he could have been a pastry chef and it wouldn’t change the game at all. You’d think being put in a space prison would also be a ripe opportunity to add little mini-games involving hacking or perhaps a deeper exploration of imprisonment – but none of that exists. I learned that the UJC and The Outer Way are in bitter conflict with each other, but the game never told me that Why that the conflict exists and what both parties want; given that, I found it hard to care.

“The Callisto Protocol” is a visually impressive spiritual sibling to “Dead Space” that shadowed its big brother’s aesthetics and narrative, but didn’t bother to make any of those things new important in the context of a game of its own. This is why so many games often cast soldiers or military personnel, giving players a practical reason why the character is so good at shooting things without any explanation required. That’s why I’m also fascinated when a game has a protagonist who isn’t some sort of fighter—and why I consider it a lost opportunity when developers don’t find ways to incorporate an unconventional protagonist’s background into the game.

Striking Distance’s debut is a swing and a miss, but “The Callisto Protocol” ends on a cliffhanger. If the studio decides to revisit the series with a sequel, I hope the second outing is better than the first.

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