The field ahead The Callisto Protocol is an enticing one: creators behind the Dead Space series of sci-fi survival horror games would finally make a spiritual successor to that franchise, nearly 10 years into Electronic Arts’ dormancy. The Callisto Protocol would also build on the elements of Dead Space – crawling through cold, desolate space environments inspired by Alien‘s Nostromo, is doused with blood ripped out event horizon – with a decade of experience and maturity to hopefully make something better.
Developer Striking Distance Studios instead made something that was largely divergent: a spiritual successor to Dead Space with some, but not all, of Dead Space’s best parts. In some ways it is a step backwards.
The Callisto Protocol opens with space truck driver Jacob Lee, played by actor Josh Duhamel, performing One Last Job. That mission, of course, is sidelined when an apparent terrorist group sabotages his freighter, causing him to crash-land on Jupiter’s second-largest moon, Callisto. Jacob and his ship’s saboteur, Dani Nakamura (played by The boysKaren Fukuhara), are thrown into the moon’s Black Iron Prison. The disaster doubles when Jacob awakens to find himself fitted with an invasive implant called a CORE, in the middle of a catastrophic outbreak, and surrounded by mutated monsters wreaking havoc. Jacob, armed with only a stun baton, fights to escape from his wrongful, unexplained imprisonment.
Where Dead Space focused on high-tension gunfights and tactically separating limbs from zombie-like grotesques, The Callisto Protocol puts meaty, action-heavy melee attacks at the center of its combat. The game’s monsters wave at Jacob with hay picks, which he can dodge by leaning left or right. It’s a mechanic similar to Nintendo’s Punch!!, where Jacob can bob and weave until he can find an opening to club his attacker into a bloody mess. Later, Jacob gains access to pistols, shotguns, and rifles, which become supplements to melee combat, not wholesale substitutes. He also gains Jedi-like powers, thanks to the battery-powered GRP, a gauntlet that can grab and throw objects – including the monsters themselves.
Combat can feel frustrating at first. Jacob’s unwieldy movement gives everything a sluggish, inconsistent feel, and knowing when to dodge, or even when you’ve been hit by an attack, can be unclear. Understanding the timing of the game – find it The Callisto Protocol‘s groove – takes time. Eventually, switching between melee, gunplay, and GRP controls starts to click.
Even in one-on-one combat, a successful encounter can involve a series of dodges, bashes, surgical pistol shots (yes, you can also remove enemies’ limbs here), and telekinetically throw an enemy to give yourself some space. The GRP occasionally allows for a one-hit kill, allowing you to throw enemies into spikes or whirling fans, turning them into a thick spray of blood. But the GRP is a very limited resource and should be used sparingly. Subsequent encounters turn things around, with Jacob facing off against sentry robots who can instantly kill him from a distance, and blind monsters where stealthy kills with a shiv are not only preferable, they’re all but necessary to succeed.
Still, the game has an overall sense of slowness, a seemingly deliberate choice to give Jacob and enemies a sense of weight and impact. Some inputs, such as quickly switching weapons, sometimes seem not to register, which is a huge problem in difficult encounters. Turning on “performance mode”. The Callisto ProtocolThe computer’s graphics settings help alleviate that sluggish feeling. By default, the game uses a more cinematic, graphically impressive visual mode. But the improved frame rate – and more responsive input – offered by the performance mode make a huge difference.
But even once you get into it more The Callisto Protocol‘s rhythm, combat scenarios often feel unrefined. Lesser enemies pop up with little to no warning, such as trapping Jacob in fast-paced events that cut knots and deplete his health. Monsters also pop up right behind you, making some encounters feel downright unfair. Dead Space had its “monster closet” moments that elicited fun, well-deserved scares – but mutated zombies emerging from gratings in the floor beyond your line of sight? Much less fun, especially when combined with the game’s disorienting camera movements. That’s nothing compared to multiple times when the game throws hordes of enemies at you. These are the worst parts of it The Callisto Protocol, where any earned tension snaps and immediately turns into pure annoyance. Multiple difficulty spikes pushed the game beyond the realm of “pleasant challenge” and into that of “unfair masochism.” Finally, out of necessity, I switched to easy mode.
The game’s checkpointing system is also inconsistent. There are thankfully regular checkpoints, but they often take place seconds after a boss fight, with no time to heal, reload, or reach a safe position to reassemble.
You do unlock upgrades over time that make Jacob a little more powerful. At 3D printing stations, you can spend money obtained from chests, corpses, and by selling contraband to improve weapons and the GRP. But no upgrades make Jacob a monster-slaying god, and credits are handed out sparingly enough that it seems impossible to upgrade and unlock everything at once. (Or, currently, in a second playthrough, if The Callisto Protocol does not yet have a new game plus mode in which upgrades are transferred. That’s coming out early next year, according to the developer.) Choices about which weapon or device to upgrade can feel difficult: Is an extra few seconds of battery life for the GRP worth more than a harder stun stick? Do I need to blow credits on the increased ammo count to later unlock the bullet damage boost?
The Callisto ProtocolThe 3D printing stations, run by the United Jupiter Corporation that runs Black Iron Prison, offer perhaps my favorite bit of world-building/commentary in an otherwise pretty straightforward sci-fi horror yarn. Posters scattered throughout the prison inform the security guards there that they can spend their so-called Callisto Credits to upgrade their equipment, forcing them to spend their own money on the supplies needed to protect themselves from the inmates.
Moving on, the story of The Callisto Protocol and Black Iron’s disaster is told primarily through Jacob’s interactions with fellow inmates Elias and Dani, as well as the Warden and his sadistic Captain Ferris. Players can also obtain audio recordings of prisoners and guards, but unlike similar audio logs in the Dead Space games, which are played through the games’ diegetic holographic user interface, The Callisto Protocol requires the player to stop what they are doing and give their full attention to listening to each recording. Considering that some of the recordings I listened to nominally added to the story, they started to become unimportant to the game’s story. I walked away satisfied with, but not surprised by, The Callisto Protocol‘s story.
Where The Callisto Protocol excels in its atmosphere and surroundings. The cold, metallic, industrial world of the game is beautifully realized, giving Black Iron Prison a hard, tangible, heavy feel. Jacob makes his way through air ducts, through puddles of sewage and between dangerous machines that can tear him (and enemies) apart in an instant. Outside the prison walls, players explore an equally dark and eerie lunar surface, where they are buffeted by snow and wind. The Callisto Protocol features an impressive, carefully created world; it’s an expensive looking game, and not just because of its Hollywood talent. (In addition to Duhamel and Fukuhara, Striking Distance and publisher Krafton also enlisted actors Gwendoline Christie and Michael Ironside for a six-episode podcast leading up to The Callisto Protocol.)
The Callisto Protocol is extremely linear, with only a few redirects, very little backtracking, and almost no puzzle solving. The original Empty spaceThe game’s holographic signage system is absent here, but there are plenty of arrows and graffiti that act as literal signposts to your next objective. In other words, the game doesn’t want you to get lost, even though I can’t imagine it anyway. After completion The Callisto Protocol in about eight hours – other than the dozen failed attempts in the section that led me to select easy mode – I see no reason to return to the game until Striking Distance adds the new game plus mode or additional story content. Plus, the manual save system doesn’t make it easy to return to previous chapters, meaning I’d have to do a full run-through to collect everything I’ve missed.
Of The Callisto Protocol, Striking Distance proves its ability to create unnerving moments of suspense and horror with a well-crafted combination of sights, sounds and atmosphere. The studio was smart not to make a one-to-one copy of Dead Space, especially with original publisher Electronic Arts now returning to the franchise with a remake due next month. But still: The Callisto Protocol could have taken a few more lessons from its spiritual inspiration and further refined its mechanics to create a game that plays as well as it looks.
The Callisto Protocol was released on December 2nd on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PS5 using a pre-release download code from Krafton. Vox Media has partnerships. These do not affect editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased through affiliate links. You can find additional information on Polygon’s Ethics Policy here.