*video coming Monday December 5th*
From one of the creators of Dead Space comes The Callisto Protocol, a gorgeous but derivative knock-off. Dead Space is one of my favorite franchises in gaming, so I had high hopes after recent previews showed the game in a far different and better light than its original announcement trailer. This game supposedly started as a Battle Royal set in the future of the PUBG universe. In three short years it changed into a slow, melee-heavy action-horror title. What did they nail and where did they miss, and is it worth the $70 asking price at launch?
Set roughly 300 years in the future, you are Jacob Cole. Jacob is voiced and features the likeness of Josh Duhamel and the first thing you’ll see are the incredible, photo-realistic character models in cutscenes. This is a gorgeous game and pushes Unreal Engine 4 to its limits. I played through the game in the performance mode on my Series X with motion blur disabled. A patch one day after launch fixed a lot of performance issues and restored missing screen-space reflections, and the game is stunning at almost all times. As Jacob, you’ll find yourself stuck in Black Iron prison, located on Jupiter’s moon of Callisto. Quickly a deadly virus spread through the facility, turning its inmates into monsters who evolve into bigger and more grotesque versions over time. Without spoiling much, the story feels like a really bad Dead Space knock-off in all the major ways. By the end, I found myself impressed with the voice acting and emotions on display through mo-cap, but the actual plot itself was bland, predictable, and let down what otherwise is a stellar production.
The dialogue is well-written for the most part. It is brought down by a reliance on cliché for the sci-fi horror genre and hurts what otherwise is stellar acting across the board. By the end, it somehow managed to take someone as talented as Sam Whitmer (Darth Maul in SW Cartoons, lead actor in Days Gone, etc.) and had me groaning every time his awful character showed up. There is nothing truly scary in this game. The environment is gorgeous but boring. It’s empty, showing signs of massive carnage but never actually showing things as they happen. Your character deaths are hilarious in their over-the-top goofiness, and the reliance on jump scares as the only means of being frightful wears itself out early on. Mission objectives are repetitive as well. Most areas find you see the way out right away, you then walk to point B to repair point A then slowly work back to point A as more monsters appear. Levels are tiny but designed in a way to make them see far larger. The number of times you need to find a fuse must rise into the dozens throughout the 10 or so hours it takes to beat the title. It becomes predictable and boring quickly. Most shortcuts just lead you back to where you started after you collect a few items or data logs. Those data logs require you to sit in the inventory screen to listen to them, which is infuriating.
Turn-based 3rd Person Melee
Another major area that was a letdown was the combat. Jacob is a pilot, but thanks to video game logic he’s also a supremely capable fighter with a deep knowledge of firearms. Combat is built as a one-on-one dance. Melee attacks are crunchy and both Jacob and his enemies can kill in only a few hits on the higher difficulties. My main issue is how dodging works, especially when fighting multiple enemies. Combat is an almost turn-based, automated affair. If you try to attack an enemy with either your normal swing (right trigger) or unlockable heavy attack (right bumper) it will only stunlock them if they aren’t already attacking. To avoid enemy attacks you must either dodge or block. Dodging is preferred as blocking causes you to take chip damage but does offer up counterattacks if you unlock that upgrade.
To dodge you hold a direction, either left or right, and then quickly swap to the opposite side as enemies take swings at you. Once their combo is over you can then attack with your own combo, which will stunlock them most of the time. At certain points during a combo, a blue reticle will quickly appear on an enemy, allowing you to quickly hold the left trigger and shoot them for high damage. For the first half or so of the game, you’ll only have your hand cannon pistol. By the end, I had five guns and each felt different, though the shotgun variants were by far the most powerful. Ammo is scarce, so you’ll need to upgrade your melee weapon often, and learn to be extremely patient. If you mess up even a few times against the weakest of enemies you will either be low health or just straight dead on normal difficulty.
The worst part of this system is how bad it is if you’re surrounded by enemies. The camera is too close and you get zero visual clue when enemies are behind you. Your only defense is the GRP system, which is a gravity glove-style device that is extremely weak before you upgrade it. It allows you by far the easiest path through the game as you can pick up enemies and fling them into environmental hazards and the enemy AI will never react to it if you’re still in stealth mode. Unfortunately, there are larger enemy and boss types that this does not work on, and the “two-head” enemy type is one of the more frustrating encounters I’ve had in gaming in a long time.
I’ve talked a lot about upgrades. It’s a basic system that works on an in-game currency found in enemy drops, which you get by stomping their body with the Y button Dead Space style), or through selling valuable items you pick up in the environment. The currency is hilariously called “Callisto Credits”. I don’t know why it made me laugh so hard, but the 3D printers that dot the levels requiring this dead moon-only currency cracked me up. There’s a lot of video game suspension of disbelief required here, and it’s paired with an unbelievably serious and dour story. Once you have upgraded items like your gravity glove and acquired the suit shown in all the promotional material the game’s combat goes from being bad to almost ok. Your inventory size will double and you’ll take noticeably less damage per hit, but this doesn’t happen until halfway through the story.
Exploration is encouraged as you will find a lot of currency and healing items. Those healing items are either an instant pick-up or an injector that is tied to a frustratingly long animation. Every health injector, ammo stack, and valuable item takes up one inventory slot. Outside of ammo, nothing can stack, much like in Dead Space.
Early Bugs and Quick Patches
On my first day of playing the game, it was a bug-ridden mess. Enemies would teleport in and out of existence, it ran horrendously in quality mode and crashed on me constantly. Day two saw a massive patch that led to a much smoother experience. Not only did quality mode seem better but performance mode felt far closer to sixty frames per second and seemingly had better reflection quality in puddles and glass. I still had a lot of clipping in animations, especially death ones. Hilariously a monster would step into my body as he was about to rip my arm off, teleport 10 feet away, and then my arm would pop off seemingly of its own accord as my character quickly bled to death.
It is always impressive to see a game so quickly be patched, but it makes you question why it had to happen in the first place. Publisher Krafton bet big on this franchise but I don’t see how three years is enough anymore in the AAA gaming space. The Callisto Protocol is $70 at launch, and I do not recommend it at that price. The story is derivative of a series that is just about to get a good-looking remake (Dead Space), and the combat only becomes tolerable at the easiest settings with the multiple assists available turned on.
Speaking of said assists you can have the game auto-dodge for you (you still need to hold a direction, but you don’t need to rotate sides) as well as removing things like requiring multiple button presses for quick time events. You can even have it auto-complete quick time events and put things into various color blindness and hard-of-site modes like a full high contrast one that makes it easy to know what is happening at all times. It’s always good to see these types of accessibility options in a game, though even on easy difficulty the game is anything but.
The Callisto Protocol is a gorgeous mess. I cannot recommend it at the full launch price. The combat is miserable, and the story is simply not interesting. If you are a massive fan of survival horror it lets you down by not being scary either, instead relying on jump scares the entire time. It is highly competent technically though, and I hope the team at Striking Distance gets more time for their next title, which very well could be a sequel to this one.
The Callisto Protocol
Xbox Series X
- Stunningly Gorgeous
- Great Acting
- Interesting Setting
- Frustrating Combat
- Derivative Plot
- Poor Performance