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The Callisto Protocol Review: Gameplay Impressions, Videos and Speedrunning Tips

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured Columnist IVDecember 10, 2022

Striking Distance Studios

The Callisto Protocol from developer Striking Distance Studios is the rare sci-fi survival horror experience that leans heavily into unease and tension to keep a player's palms sweaty while nearly falling off the edge of a seat.

With the help of some of those behind the Dead Space series, the inspiration and similarities are incredibly obvious. Players wind up in hell on an abandoned moon facility and have but a few weapons, resources and people to lean upon while trying to escape.

A stunningly beautiful, gory next-generation feast for the senses, The Callisto Protocol won't be for everyone, both because of those stylistic choices and because of some notable issues.

But it easily won't be forgotten or ignored, either.

Graphics and Gameplay

If there is one thing The Callisto Protocol perfects, it's visuals.

This is by far one of the best-looking games ever made, to the point trailers don't really do it justice. Or, perhaps more notably, to the point it overrides some of the game's other issues.

Within, the game boasts arguably the best facial animation we've seen to date in a game. The mannerisms and expressions are wickedly brilliant. It's the same thing while playing too, as the main character emotes and reacts to the happenings.

Which means the monsters are done well too, of course.

Four-legged enemies skitter across walls and ceilings, exploding enemies pulsate and scamper to get in range of the player, downed enemies disgustingly reanimate if the player doesn't permanently end them after putting them down. That protagonist suffers many, varied gruesome fates. It's all here and glorious, in a gross way.

The game made a smooth stylistic choice for a third-person game and keeps the camera close to the protagonist at all times. That means seeing every bit of gore splatter, his sweat sheening in hot areas and disgusting little bits of whatever that he must drudge through to survive.

Also a stylistic choice? The minimalist HUD that very much takes a page out of the Dead Space book, to the point a character's health gets displayed on a life support panel grafted to the back of his neck and ammo counters are a holographic projection.

Odd as it might sound, gore has never looked so good in a video game. There's an almost artful display of it in the way it smatters on the environment, to the point of being uncomfortably impressed and sometimes grossed out.

It's always exciting to discover new areas because the environments are just so packed to the brim with little details. Some areas showcase a doctor's last stand, or how a group of prisoners took advantage of the chaos to strike back at some guards.

At one point, players walk by six or so glass panels as tall as the character and each one lights up as he goes, displaying his picture, rap sheet and prisoner info. It's a little thing, but one of those painstakingly crafted things that makes the experience more immersive than most games.

The immersion and uncomfortable feeling only gets enhanced by the excellent sound design. Think of the nastiest squelched, screeches, burps, bubbles and monstrous audio sounds possible—it's all here and often the protagonist has the same reaction and facial expressions as the player. Ditto for dialogue transmitted through the speaker of the PlayStation 5 controller, which again expertly uses haptic feedback to drive immersion.

Make no mistake, the game toys with these immersion-setting features to make the player uncomfortable, too. There's a memorable, although predictable section where the power continues to flicker on and off...while the player navigates alone in a space riddled with monstrosities.

Much of this game is about melee combat, which is visceral and impactful. It's fun, if not a little strange that dodges aren't based on timing. Simply hold left and Jacob will dodge left. Swing it back right and he'll automatically dodge the next. Especially early, melee combat gets a little too simple once players learn what types of enemies will perform each attack. After a battle, players can stomp on corpses to find helpful items.

Interestingly, players quickly get rather strong. A successful dodge opens up monsters for a shot from a gun, which players don't really have to aim.

And then there are the telekinesis abilities powered by batteries. The GRP is cool but presents problems, too. On one hand, throwing enemies around like a Jedi from Star Wars is a blast. On the other, if players are smart with battery economy and skill usage, the tool can feel a little overpowered and trivialize what should otherwise be tough encounters. The trick is to find explosive things to pick up or traps to throw monsters into for one-hit kills.

As cool as some of the abilities are, the sense of dread and fun seemed more potent early in the game when ammo was scarce and players had to scratch and claw their way through melee-based encounters with monsters. Melee combat just feels the most rewarding too because of the fun dodge mechanic that, when properly executed, sets up monster-ruining counterattacks.

In order to ramp up difficulty and understandably create more dire tension, enemy groupings go from two to three to many per fight. But the game's combat mechanics felt especially tailored toward the smaller numbers and the gameplay suffers as a result. Players can sometimes get stuck fighting one monster, only for another to inflict damage from off-screen. It seems problematic checkpoints pop up whenever that happens, too. But again, in an almost weird way, it makes sense given what the character is going through, right?

Still, the game does a nice job with enemy variety (the same can't be said for bosses), presenting enemies more vulnerable to stealth attacks and even machines that can only be felled with a precision shot. But the combat greatly suffers from the lack of a targeting system, quick turn or some modern things to make multi-enemy fights more bearable -- never mind cutting down on the very long player death animations that are cool the first time but impossibly frustrating thereafter.

Calling the game "linear" is fair but it doesn't deserve the negative connotation some might apply to it. Players do navigate a claustrophobic, terrifying sci-fi setting with many corridors and doors, yes.

But for those brave enough to slow down, there is a stunning attention to detail in each and every passage. While some passages might feel familiar, no two are really the same. This isn't "linear" in the sense of reused assets and everything blurring together on recall.

And frankly, it's refreshing that this linearity is done so well. It better suits this horror genre and in an era of open-world games with massive checklists, many might discover they find it a welcome endeavor.

Sprinkle in some jaw-dropping shots of the outside lunar landscape and space itself to really separate the setting from any other game out there, and The Callisto Protocol stands tall as a game with an unforgettable, welcoming and horrifying setting.

If there's a big drawback to exploration it's that there isn't much in the way of puzzles or mixups other than crawling through vents. The game is so gorgeous, the setting so enthralling that only getting what feels like a guided tour instead of turned loose is a little disappointing.

Story and More

The setup for The Callisto Protocol sounds amazing. Take players, shoot them into distant space, trap them on a station with zombies and ask them to escape.

And frankly? It is. Cargo hauler Jacob Lee gets stranded on the moon of Callisto orbiting Jupiter within Black Iron Prison facility, where naturally, shady things have gone down. Turns out there are prisoners infected with a mutagen virus (called Biophages). He links up with Dani Nakamura, who's not exactly a friend, and away players go just trying to survive.

As an overall narrative, The Callisto Protocol shies away from giving out a ton of lore, background or details about, well, anything. Much is left to player imagination and little gets answered in the name of everything being so hyper-focused on keeping players on their toes. There aren't even really that many characters, which is good for the immersion of feeling lonely but bad in a storytelling sense. There's not much to bounce off Jacob to develop him other than his reactions to undead monsters.

The game does keep tension high in brilliant ways, at least. There is little in the way of levity to speak of here. No zingers or one-liners or anything that provides a chuckle to break up the tension. Much of it has been done before -- jump scares, shadows on the walls, monsters soon to encounter viewed off in the distance, etc.

Besides the GRP, there is a weapon upgrade system for a rather traditional arsenal that asks players to sell items at a kiosk in exchange for currency. It's a by-the-books thing that is a fine way of approaching the player-agency question. Some players will go for melee-heavy builds, others might ride the GRP. There's no wrong way.

The game isn't without some noteworthy problems that feel a tad strange in near-2023. Inventory management can be a slog and only being able to listen to audio logs while in a menu is a little immersion-breaking. And the quick swap weapon feature relies on the character actually holstering one gun for another, which can be interrupted. Sounds nice and realistic, but provides a little too much frustration in the video game realm, especially when combat is as relentless as it is here.

As an aside, the game has leaned heavily on the idea players will replay it for the sake of doing so, perhaps on a higher difficulty or with a different playstyle. Otherwise, there aren't a ton of unlocks or new-game plus features to encourage repeated playthroughs at launch, though it will be added in February. Not the end of the world, but worth pointing out.

Speedrunning Tips

The Callisto Protocol should have a healthy speedrunning community for at least a little while because of the location, enemy types and the different levels of difficulty. But the linearity of it might mean it has rather short legs.

That, and the melee combat. It's overpowered with a little practice, especially if players can find ways to manipulate encounters so they can get stealth kills early or not alert other enemies.

It's also easy, especially in areas with climbable objects in the environment, to trick the A.I. into giving the player free shot after free shot while they try to chase up boxes or over debris.

But overall, the melee weapon is a free, unlimited-use workhorse. Buffing into that and only that makes sense on the skill trees. The gun and GRP will still see some use in key areas, but runners will use them sparingly enough to always have ammo. In really tough instances, it's all about using the environment against enemies, both in cheesy unintended ways and via very dangerous traps.

Conclusion

The Callisto Protocol might fall back on the familiar tropes, but there's one major thing going for it—the sense of unease and dread, if not outright disgust is pervasive from start to finish.

That isn't to say it is difficult or without frustration. There is a hiccup in the combat when fighting multiple enemies, almost as if the intention was never for players to stumble into that by taking enemies out one at a time with the GRP and traps. But that's not how most players will experience it.

Luckily for The Callisto Protocol, it exists in a niche that isn't done nearly often enough and is drop-dead gorgeous. It's worth experiencing, though frustrating combat and the wish for so much more lore and storytelling means most players might stop at only a single playthrough.

An ambitious title that comes this close to being a classic, The Callisto Protocol is a good example of a next-generation experiment gone right. It's worth a play and impossible not to root that something even bigger happens with a sequel.