I’m a massive fan of the Dead Space series, and with Visceral having been closed down by EA, there was little hope of a new game in that franchise. When I found out that Glen Schofield and several other people from Visceral started a new studio and began production on The Callisto Protocol, I was excited. A spiritual sequel to Dead Space, perhaps? Well, it sure looked that way from the trailers.
The game is finally out, and I’ve had a chance to play through my most anticipated game of the year. Here are my thoughts.
The story revolves around an event that has happened in the Black Iron prison colony. This colony is located on Callisto, one of the moons of Jupiter. I will not go into any specifics since that is spoilers territory. As alluded to in the trailers, bad things were being done in Black Iron, and you get to see the consequences.
While the story is not particularly original, the excellent voice acting is enough to drive the experience forward. The big issue is that you don’t get to really know any of the characters during the game. A large chunk of the game is very light on story details. Except for the final sections, most of the time you “go here” and “get over there” simply because “we need to escape.” As a result, I did not feel like I was discovering anything meaningful about what happened as I journeyed to the end.
What compounds this issue is that there are very few collectible logs and other information compared to something like Dead Space. The logs are all very short and barely add any background information, location lore, or chronology of events leading up to what was currently happening on the station.
There is also little in the way of environmental storytelling. Dead bodies, a few scribbles on some walls, and general chaos in each location are not enough to tell a story. Compared to Dead Space, Dead Space 2, System Shock 2, Prey, and the like, the backstory, lore, and environmental storytelling does not feel particularly fleshed out. This majorly hurts the experience and the atmosphere.
The weak lore is especially surprising since the five-part pre-launch audio series, “Helix Station,” was great and had tons of atmosphere. I was expecting the same, if not more, from the actual game, but it just is not there. This is somewhat disappointing, to say the least. There are also a fair amount of jump scares throughout the game. Unfortunately, many did not land for me.
The game is also pretty short and can be completed in 9 to 12 hours or less.
Visuals & Audio
Visually, the game is stunning. There is no doubt about that. The character models are some of the best I’ve seen this year. Movement is motion captured, which adds to the believability of each encounter. The environments are also very well done. The enemy design is decent and adequately horrid, but the creatures are not nearly as disturbing as Dead Space’s Necromorphs. The overall atmosphere is good but not very disturbing or scary. It did not convey a sense of dread or horror, unlike Dead Space, which had those feelings in spades.
The audio is excellent and impactful. Combat hits hard. You can always hear where enemies are and when they are crawling through vents to jump out at you. The lip-syncing is correct for the most part, but some movements are out of sync and appear odd. I found this to be quite distracting. At least the music is adequately fitting, helping to create the atmosphere.
While the sound and music aspects of The Callisto Protocol are high quality, these alone do not make a game good. It seems they focused so much on these parts that they forgot to add backstory and lore, and they should have fleshed out the gameplay mechanics, which is the next topic.
The Callisto Protocol is a third-person action-horror experience more than a survival-horror game. It is mainly focused on melee combat, with some ranged combat thrown in.
You hold left or right to dodge and attack (it does not matter which). Then you hold the opposite direction to dodge the next attack. Some enemies attack twice. Some attack three times, after which you can do a melee combo followed by a quick shot with whatever weapon you are currently using. Then you rinse and repeat. There is not any particular timing involved with the dodging. Just make sure you are holding any direction before the attack lands. You can perfectly dodge, which slows time, but this mechanic is inconsistent. For me, it felt like it made no actual difference.
There is an ability to block as well, but you still take some damage while blocking. Thus, I did not use it since dodging was easy enough and entirely negated damage. I saw no point in upgrading blocking.
The enemy variety is sparse. You fight almost all of them in the manner described above, albeit some have slightly different attack patterns. As you progress, enemies get a little harder. After some enemies take damage, tentacles appear in their necks or chests. You are then required to shoot these tentacles else the enemy will transform into a stronger enemy that does more damage and has more health. Mutated enemies can kill you quickly if you’re not careful, but fighting them is the same as fighting any enemy, as outlined above. It just takes a little longer.
There is stealth in the game as well. If you sneak up behind an unaware enemy, you can execute them. Later in the game, a new enemy is introduced that relies on sound. They are used in what are essentially stealth sections. Unless you feel like a fight, it is best to remain silent. However, the other enemies do not hear your loud execution moves, even if they are close by. They also do not notice you stomping to get loot off corpses. Even if these enemies are alerted, they are easy enough to deal with unless you are horribly outnumbered.
There is also a lack of weapon variety. You get a melee weapon, a pistol, a mini shotgun (skunk gun), a tactical pistol, a shotgun, and an assault rifle. Both the mini shotgun (skunk gun) and the pistol share the same base, as do the riot shotgun and assault rifle. This means you can’t quickly switch from the riot shotgun to the assault rifle, for example. You need to remove the shotgun attachment and connect the assault rifle attachment before you can use the weapon. The same goes for the pistol and skunk gun. This system is not ideal because this makes the limited weapon variety seem even more restricted. All these weapons also use different ammo, so you need to decide what you will upgrade and use, since inventory space is an issue for a while.
Of course, changing attachments mid-battle is possible, but it is not the most efficient method since you must perform these actions while avoiding the enemies attacking you. It is simply easier to use whatever weapon you have selected and switch to the other weapon you currently have set up if you run out of ammo in your magazine (it is faster than reloading).
All the weapons can be upgraded with Callisto credits at Reforge stations located around the map. There are several upgrades for each weapon. All the guns follow the same formula: more ammo, more damage, more stability, and an alternative fire that uses more ammo. I focused on upgrading my stun baton and my GRP glove since melee is such a large part of the combat in the game. Then I upgraded the pistol and the shotgun.
As said earlier, combat has weight and impact and feels great. It is enjoyable for sure. In addition, it is gory with the ability to crack open heads. Dismembering the enemies is intense. However, the game gets repetitive because you deal with almost all the enemies the same way throughout the entire game. Another issue is that dodging can be a little finicky when you are in an encounter with more than one or two enemies at the same time, which is quite frequent.
You also get a gravity-based glove called GRP. It is similar to the gravity gun in Half-Life 2 and G.R.I.P. Telekinesis in Dead Space. In The Callisto Protocol, you can pick up and throw objects (like exploding canisters) as well as enemies. GRP is quite strong and can make many encounters rather trivial since you can just throw enemies into the many conveniently placed wall spikes or fans (or grinders in some rooms). Or you can toss enemies off ledges. The GRP does have a charge, so it will run out after a few uses and require recharging (unless you have a battery pack).
The presence of wall spikes in any location gives away any surprises that could be had there. If you see them (or dangerous-looking machinery), you know you will be attacked once you reach a specific location or hit a switch. Who put all these wall spikes around, anyway?
The sense of exploration is almost nonexistent, except for a few side paths that loop back to the main path. Levels are very linear, going from point A to B. You almost never backtrack to older areas, either. There is usually no way to go back to previous Reforge stations to sell stuff, forcing you to choose what loot to leave behind.
Did I mention there are a ton of crawl spaces? These disguised loading screens, sorry, I mean ‘crawl spaces,’ are very frequently encountered. Very frequently, indeed.
Your inventory is also very limited for what seems like half the game until you get the space suit (6 slots). You need to pick and choose what you keep and what you discard. I prioritized health stims and some ammo. Then I filled the rest of my inventory with Pristine Energy, which I could sell to get currency for upgrades.
Some containers or egg sacks have larvae/grubs that will jump out at you. Or tentacles arms will burst out and grab you. This starts a “mash ‘E’ event” until you get free. The same happens when a regular enemy catches you.
There are a few encounters with large security droids. Then there are a two-headed mini-boss and a final boss as well. You end up fighting this mini-boss four times. Four. It is exactly the same every single time. There is no variation in its attack pattern or visual appearance at all. The only difference is that the additional three encounters with this thing also spawn other mobs making the encounter a little more complicated. The combat with the mini-boss is identical to fighting any other mob, unsurprisingly. Dodge, dodge-shoot in the head, repeat until you kill the first head, and repeat until it is dead. It seems lazy to make players fight the same boss four times. Perhaps they ran out of ideas?
The tutorial is too invasive. It pauses the entire game and fills your screen with an image and some text the first time you play through. It is obnoxious and unnecessary and interrupts the gameplay. Thankfully you only ever have to see it once.
Upgrading the stun baton does not change its visual appearance, unlike the other weapons. While this is not game-breaking, it seems odd since it is the most used weapon in the game. They could have at least put some effort into the baton’s visual upgrades.
There is no FOV slider, so you are stuck with your character taking up a massive portion of the screen. There is no way to switch the shoulder camera either.
The game also lacks New Game Plus at the moment. They are releasing it as a free update, along with a new difficulty in February, I believe.
Finally, the save system is strange. There is an auto-save that saves at specific checkpoints. This will eventually overwrite previous auto-saves. Then there is a manual save function, which saves whatever your last checkpoint was. If you forget to use it, you will lose the ability to go back to a specific checkpoint or stage if that auto-save has been overwritten. The game does not make set saves for the beginning of each chapter. In my case, I did not make a manual save at the beginning of or during a certain stage, so now there is no way for me to go back there to get screenshots or footage. The only other save I have is at the end boss. This is not an intuitive system.
The Callisto Protocol launched with serious issues on PC. Massive stutters and performance problems affected everyone, regardless of system specs.
Thankfully, a patch fixed the worst of the stutters within 24 hours. There was another patch this morning that fixed the remaining stutters. I’ve not been able to test the performance in the sections where I had drops before since I no longer have save files at those spots. The recent patch notes did not mention performance fixes, so I must assume those issues are still present.
Ray tracing is broken visually and tanks the frame rate if enabled.
As far as bugs go, I did not come across any frequent issues that come to mind. I think I’ve had one crash, and that is about it. The technical issues seem purely performance-related, at least for me. Some folks say that the game does not utilize the CPU properly, which causes performance issues. Striking Distance Studio is working on further optimizations, but perhaps it is a little too late. I think the damage has already been done.
There is certainly no way the developers were not aware of these severe performance and stutter issues. I think it would’ve been better if they announced immediately that they were aware of the problems with the PC port and were working on a fix, instead of waiting until there was a massive negative reception before saying anything. Sadly, so many games seem to launch in this state these days. And it is terrible that PC versions seem to be a low priority compared to the console versions, but this is the gaming industry these days.
As much as I don’t want to defend these developers, I want to clarify one thing. There is news that they have withheld death animations and are selling them separately in the season pass. There are plenty of posts on the Steam forums that bring this up as well. This is not true. These animations are connected to two new modes that will have new enemies and very likely new traps (hence, new ways to die). None of this content has even been made yet. This information can easily be found on the Steam store page under the Season Pass, and the developer has said as much.
Is The Callisto Protocol a bad game? No, it is not. Is it an abysmal PC port? It was, but it is better now. Though, there’s still technical work to be done.
Part of the issue is that The Callisto Protocol is not a Dead Space type horror game, but rather an action game with some horror elements. For me, there was nothing scary about it at all. I was especially disappointed since I was looking forward to it. Perhaps I shouldn’t be comparing it to Dead Space, but that is somewhat inevitable. Hell, they even put in the “stomp dead bodies for loot” mechanic and the callback to Dead Space with the “shoot the tentacles,” as seen in the above image.
Let’s set aside Dead Space for a moment. How does the game stand on its own merits? Well, it is visually impressive, the animations are great, the audio is good, and the combat feels solid. However, these things don’t make up for the deficiencies in the story and the absence of a rich and interesting world background. There is no sense of exploration, and it is a very linear A-to-B experience. While the combat feels great, it is very basic, lacks variety, and is shallow.
All these things hurt the experience and move The Callisto Protocol into the just above average to decent category for me, which I had hoped would not be the case. There is nothing blatantly wrong with the game, though, aside from the technical issues. It just does not stand out as unique or special in any way, so I can’t recommend it wholeheartedly. It is disappointing and could have been so much more. If you are dead set on playing the game, my advice is to at least wait for a decent sale.
- Visually impressive
- Voice acting is good
- Combat impactful and feels great
- Death animations
- Photo mode (if that’s your thing)
- Performance issues
- Not scary
- Very Linear
- Shallow combat and systems
- No backstory or lore
- No sense of exploration
Windows 10 64-bit computer using an Intel i7-12700k, 32GB Ram, and an nVidia RTX 3080 graphics card.