- The Callisto Protocol was a horror game developed by Striking Distance Studios, a studio led by the creative mind behind the Dead Space games.
- The Callisto Protocol was maligned at launch for its linearity, simple combat and frustrating encounters.
- Today, after numerous patches, The Callisto Protocol is a competent action horror title that deserves a second chance.
As someone whose childhood and teenage years were very much defined by horror — both in games and in life — the first two Dead Space games were some of the most definitive experiences of my adolescence. Being an adult now, they are games I return to on an annual basis. Sometimes I am in the mood of slowly traversing the claustrophobic, viscera-infested hallways of Dead Space 1, and at other times I feel the urge to blast through Necromorphs in Dead Space 2.
My fondness for these two games has remained infinitely consistent over the course of my 21 years in this world. I played both games at the time of their respective launch and their memories have sort of etched themselves into my brain, not unlike the corruption seeping through the hallways of the USG-Ishimura. Unfortunately, Dead Space 2 was followed by an overwhelmingly disappointingly sequel, marred by publisher mismanagement.
So I found myself dealing with a void in my heart. There was really nothing like Dead Space and the only way I could actually get my “fix” of Dead Space was by replaying the first two games over and over again (and well, also by replaying Resident Evil 4 every single year). This was until last year when I heard about The Callisto Protocol, a sci-fi survival horror game made by the mind behind Dead Space, Glen Schofield.
We all know how that turned out.
The Callisto Protocol was panned on release by critics and gamers alike. Criticized for its overly strict linearity, the mediocre story, the simplistic gameplay, the shoddy PC port, and its brief length. Rest assured, I did not play The Callisto Protocol, even though I still wanted to. I knew there was a respectable following for the game that was really into it. DUSK developer David Szymanski even included it in one of his top 5 games of last year.
I am extremely glad then, that I finally got the chance to try the game out through PS Plus recently. I went in with low expectations, sure in my mind that I would drop the game after an hour or two of playing. I could not have been more wrong.
The Callisto Protocol Is Pretty Good Actually
I ended up blazing through The Callisto Protocol within 2 sessions. It definitely helps that it was a short game but as someone with a low attention span, I typically don’t finish a lot of my games if I’m not engaged in them. The Callisto Protocol, even at its worst, still had me invested. It was a surprise how well-paced the experience really is. There is always a new challenge or a new enemy and if the game’s feeling really freaky, a crazy set-piece.
Of course you still have to wade through some boring chaff but the game picks up considerably once you get the suit. The added inventory slots and extra health make a ton of difference and the game starts picking up considerably.
(There were 2 whole paragraphs here where I talked about the frustrating vent and shimmy sequences but I felt that it wasn’t necessary to make it such a big deal as it isn’t really an issue past the halfway mark).
An aspect of The Callisto Protocol that I greatly appreciate is that it takes gimmicks that shouldn’t really work in a game like this and makes them fun instead. I think a testament to this is the fact that one of my favorite parts of the game is a multiple hours long forced stealth section. It is very obvious that the section is a riffing off The Last of Us, with its clicker-like enemies that locate you using sound but it is actually fun in Callisto.
How does The Callisto Protocol make it fun? Simple, you throw enemies into walls of spikes littered around the area with your telekinesis powers. Its a direct middle finger to everything that sucks about forced stealth sequences.
I think one of the major sins of The Callisto Protocol is that it markets itself as a survival horror game while riding the coattails of Dead Space and its hype. Before the launch, most of its marketing suggested that The Callisto Protocol would be a survival horror experience about resource management and ammo conservation. Let me get this out of the way, this is a blatant lie.
The Callisto Protocol is a horror-themed melee beat-em-up that just happens to have guns in it. It is not a survival horror game. Guns are usually reserved to cap off your melee combos, something that the game vaguely hints at with an early upgrade for the stun baton.
Combat itself is simple, you alternate between tilting the stick left and right and your character automatically dodges all of the attacks. You don’t even have to time the dodge, you can just hold the stick forever and John Callisto will dodge the attack whenever it lands. This might all sound as a bad thing but I say it serves the game well, especially when you have to juggle multiple enemies late into the game.
I personally got a lot of enjoyment out of throwing enemies away using my telekinesis so I could quickly burst down the enemy right next to me. There are a lot of moments where the game puts a lot of pressure on the player which is when Callisto is at its best.
Speaking of at its best, it is time to talk about the worst parts of the game. I think I’ve made an honest case of why I like this game but I also don’t want to sound like it’s a great or fantastic game, because it is absolutely not.
The Callisto Protocol Kinda Sucks Too Actually
Part of the reason I called Callisto a “horror-themed” beat-em-up earlier, rather than just a horror beat-em-up is that I do not believe that this is meant to be a scary game. As someone who is scared very easily by horror games, The Callisto Protocol managed to do the impossible and made a horror game where I perpetually had a stone-cold poker face from start to finish.
Callisto also has this very bizarre jumpscare enemy that is impossible to predict, it always takes a small chunk of your health and it is a button-mash QTE every single time that is way longer than it should be. It is by far, the worst part of the entire game and one of the three things (the first being the plentiful vent/shimmy sections) that I believe come close to ruining the entire experience.
But wait! What about the third?
As far as bosses go, horror games tend to be fairly disappointing. Most of the bosses across Dead Space 1 and 2 were also just “run around and shoot the glowing exposed bits” and I expected something similar for Callisto. Bosses that are basic and simple but are just quick breaks between the gameplay. Turns out I was right…until the final boss.
I’ve fought plenty of bad final bosses in my time. Bosses that chew out your soul and spit out an empty, hollow shell of a human. Even with all of these bosses, The Callisto Protocol has the worst final boss I have ever fought in a video game. A boss so irredeemably awful that for the first time in my life I felt the urge to quit the game at the end and just watch the conclusion on YouTube.
I did beat him, but I think I lost something of myself in the process which I won’t quite recover…
What’s the Bottom Line?
You might be thinking, hey, wasn’t this guy writing this in defense of this game? Why is he spending multiple paragraphs just nailing it to the cross? And that’s because despite all this frustration and a sequence so bad it almost made me quit the game at the end, I can still look back and recommend The Callisto Protocol. It is a game that tries to fly to the sun but falls down just before it has a chance to even burn.
The only shame about The Callisto Protocol is that a proper sequel that irons out some of its problems will actually be a very popular and successful title. However, with the departure of CEO and Founder Glen Schofield(although that might be for the better based on some of his statements on game development), that possibility sounds like a pipe dream when you stop to think about it.
Almost a full year after its launch, it is easy to appreciate The Callisto Protocol for what it is rather than malign it for what it is not. Today the game is sold at a reasonable price, and if you’re subscribed to PS Plus Extra, you’re essentially getting it for free (or “free” I suppose). I imagine history will be kind to The Callisto Protocol, as an ambitious ultra-high budget (or AAAA) game that was a flawed but ultimately a very fun experience.
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