A prison is a scary place; that’s an indisputable fact. Looking past the controversies that come with the penal system, the idea of placing hardened criminals in a small, contained space just doesn’t seem all that wise. It’s surprising then that more horror projects aren’t set within the confined walls of a penitentiary; with their enclosed spaces and dim lights, it’s the perfect place to manifest dread. The Callisto Protocol takes this concept and stretches it to its breaking point by not only having the prison isolated on a dead moon but by also inserting hordes of mindless monsters intent on killing wantonly. The result is a tense, moody experience that harkens back to the glory days of survival horror with an experience that’s both fresh, familiar, and utterly terrifying.
The Callisto Protocol follows protagonist Jacob Lee (Josh Duhamel), a freelance pilot working on a contract to deliver a volatile substance to Black Iron Prison. After his ship is boarded by a group known as The Outer Way, he’s forced to crash the ship on Callisto and is promptly arrested. Having done no wrong and suspecting foul play, Jacob is forced to band together with a group of like-minded inmates and survive when the facility is overrun by grotesque monstrosities. Yet the arrival of these creatures isn’t a coincidence as the embattled prisoners discover a grim conspiracy with dire consequences for the galaxy.
Let’s get this out of the way now: The Callisto Protocol is, effectively, a spiritual successor to the Dead Space games. They share a lot of the same DNA, not least of which includes the tight rear-shoulder camera, mutating abominations, brutal combat, and (of course) stomping. Glen Schoefield, who created Dead Space and is widely recognized as a master of survival horror, stepped back into the genre for The Callisto Protocol — and it shows.
The game’s biggest selling point is its tense, gruesome, claustrophobic atmosphere. Black Iron Prison is an imposing location, consisting of a heavy-industrial aesthetic that always feels hostile even when bathed in the warm light of an officer’s lounge. It creaks and groans as monsters scuttle through its air vents, disappearing around nooks only to burst forth from a grate in the ground. Making the world all the more tangible are the graphics which are, simply put, beautiful. Even in the dark, environments pop with detail and little touches that capitalize on the potential of a space prison. The same thing can be said for the animations and character models, lending a level of high production that makes a captivating world even more compelling.
When The Callisto Protocol‘s abominations aren’t skittering around in the dark, they’ll be charging you head-on, forcing players into combat. Making use of a slow yet satisfying cycle of melee and ranged attacks, Jacob isn’t a warrior. It’s clear in how he swings his baton that he’s not trained; he’s just doing the best with what he has available. That doesn’t make the experience frustrating, mind you. In fact, it’s all the more rewarding. Dispatching a small group of creatures with some strategically placed shots before finishing off the last one standing with a vicious blow to the skull is a breathless moment thanks to the rising soundtrack and barbaric sound effects.
Despite giving you a wealth of weapons and tools, The Callisto Protocol makes you feel vulnerable at all times. Whether it be the lack of healing items or Jacob’s truly creative death animations (seriously, reloading a save is worth the time to see them all), it’s difficult to not feel like you’re just scraping by. However, this only really applies to the hard difficulty. Playing on medium difficulty, I found there to be more resources than I could reasonably deal with, making many encounters feel trivial.
The lower challenge levels aren’t the only thing that lessened the experience of bashing around space zombies. The Callisto Protocol has a small problem with variety, in that there’s not a great deal of it. Jacob’s weapons, while all satisfying to use, lack a sense of sci-fi imagination. The Riot Gun is great for close-range shooting, but it’s effectively just a bigger Skunk Gun, one of the earlier weapons. The same goes for the starter pistol and its later-acquired improvement. They’re all fun, but a wide range would have gone a long way.
The same goes for the enemies. The shambling, shrieking, tentacle-spewing corpses are imposing and genuinely unnerving but the “special” variants are few and far between. The bulk of The Callisto Protocol is spent killing off the same grunts and the occasional spitter, both of which begin to feel rote when your kill count is starting to near the scores.
Yet that lack of variety never took away from the fun. Despite knowing what to expect around the next corner, I was still excited to make the turn, weapon drawn in preparation. It helps that the story keeps things moving at a brisk pace, allowing players to really absorb the mystery of Black Iron alongside Jacob. The shared experience is a good thing because Jacob isn’t exactly an interesting protagonist. There’s a compelling angle to his regret that his actions inadvertently led to the death of his friend and co-pilot Max, but it’s never really explored enough to have a real impact. Fortunately, Duhamel’s grounded performance of man just trying to survive and an interesting team-up later in the game help drive the story to a compelling (if somewhat cliché) finale.
The Callisto Protocol is the sum of its inspirations. While it’s easy to write it off as a Dead Space clone that implements The Last of Us‘ combat, that would be a grave disservice to everything else it accomplishes. Its satisfying combat system, meaningful progression, and spectacular atmosphere should be more than enough to satisfy survival horror fans if they can stomach some repetitive sequences. Oh, and all the gore, although that’s more a win than anything else.
Developed by Striking Distance Studios and Published by Krafton, The Callisto Protocol releases Dec. 2 for PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. A review copy was provided by the publisher.