It’s always annoying when a game designer refuses to admit their game is like someone else’s. “So, it’s a sci-fi first-person shooter in which a genetically-modified super soldier in power armor fights religious aliens on a circular world…and you don’t think it’s like Halo? Really?” Thankfully, the good people at Striking Distance Studios who made The Callisto Protocol (PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X / S, Xbox One, PC) aren’t afraid to admit that their third-person sci-fi survival horror action game is a lot like 2008’s third-person sci-fi survival horror action game Dead Space. And not just because some of them worked on both games. But while The Callisto Protocol is very Dead Space-y, it does add some new elements that make it more compelling than a clone.
Set in 2320,
The Callisto Protocol casts you as Jacob Lee, a freighter pilot who, thanks to a terrorist attack, crashes on Jupiter’s moon Callisto. Instead of being rescued, though, he’s mistaken for one of the terrorists, and thrown into nearby Black Iron Prison. And then things go really wrong. Before he even has his first good night’s sleep, he wakes up to find the prison’s been badly damaged by his fellow inmates, who have become mutant space zombies. Good thing he still has his wits about him; it’s the only way he’ll be able to…survive…this…horror.
In other words, it’s Resident Evil meets The Chronicles Of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay. Or, well, Dead Space.
Regardless, The Callisto Protocol utilizes a lot of the same mechanics as the Dead Space games. For starters, your enemies don’t die when you shoot them once in the head or a couple times in the chest. You have to really beat the crap out of them until they can’t move at all.
Just remember to then stomp their corpses since, like in Dead Space, they sometimes have ammo, health packs, and other things…hidden in their chest cavities? Gross.
As for your health,
Jacob has a series of colored lights on the back of his neck, which indicates how healthy he is (or isn’t, as the case may be). Y’know, like the lights Isaac Clarke had running down his spine in Dead Space.
Getting around the prison can also be somewhat Dead Space-like in how you face a lot of situational puzzles that are less about pattern recognition and more about mechanical engineering. Plus, the prison feels a lot like the space station from Dead Space 2.
Even the story in The Callisto Protocol is rather Dead Space-ish. Not only does the warden make some rather religious-like proclamations, but the rather cinematic story is told with a Space-y mix of visual and aural trickery, jump scares, and atmospheric sound effects, all designed to keep you on edge.
Even Dead Space‘s steering-while-falling bit makes a comeback here.
But while The Callisto Protocol deserves all of these comparisons to Dead Space, there are also a lot of ways in which it distinguishes itself.
Jacob’s weapons in The Callisto Protocol aren’t repurposed or reconfigured mining tools. And they’re also not all projectile weapons, either. While you do have some guns, your main weapon is actually a stun baton. This is not to say you don’t shoot some zombies sometimes; it’s more that you can’t really go weapons free. Even more than Resident Evil Village, The Last Of Us, Part I, and especially Dead Space, ammo in The Callisto Protocol is in short supply. You also can’t carry that much. I guess prison scrubs don’t have a lot of pockets.
In fact, there’s so few bullets to be found, and you can carry so few of them at a time, that even when you’ve upgraded your carrying capacity or gotten another gun, it’s still more practical to just use your gun to finish off enemies, or maybe kneecap them, after you’ve smacked them around a bit. Which may seem ill-advised, since zombies tend to be a bit bitey, but it actually works out well since, after you whacked someone a couple times, you just have to hit the left and then right triggers in rapid succession to blow off their heads. Or legs. Just don’t forget that zombies don’t need heads or legs to hurt you.
It also helps that melee combat in The Callisto Protocol is deeper than it was in Dead Space, where you were just swinging your gun wildly. Here, you have both light and fast attacks, as well as slow but strong ones, and the ability to dodge. Jacob will even take advantage of the environment, slamming enemies into the wall or other structures in the same way Nathan Drake did in the Uncharted games.
The Callisto Protocol even lets you expand Jacob’s pugilistic skills by fabricating attachments for your stun baton that add the ability to counter-attack or automatically targeting vulnerable parts of the body. And yes, similar upgrades can also be made to your guns…if you have enough Callisto Credits.
Oh, and just so you know, The Callisto Protocol doesn’t have a stamina meter, nor does your stun baton suffer from wear and tear, neither of which have ever been fun in any game ever.
Further making The Callisto Protocol feel…
more like an evolution of Dead Space than a rip-off is that the zombies are often different. Not always, some will be rather familiar. But some are rather unique, especially when they start mutating.
Plus, you’re not just fighting zombies. Occasionally, in The Callisto Protocol, you’ll run across one of the robots that had been used to keep order in the prison, but are now just killing anything that moves. As tough as the ‘bots may be, though, they’re not very observant. They only attack if they spot you, something they telegraph by having flashlights on their shoulders.
Now, the game tells you these robots can be taken out with a couple shots to the head. But whenever I tried to do that, it just pissed them off. Thankfully, Jacob knows how to crouch and walk at the same time, and be quiet about it.
Also ineffective against robots, but not zombies, is your GRP, a gravity glove that pulls enemies towards you and holds them in place until you decide if you’d like to drop them or toss them into some exposed gears that seem like a workplace accident waiting to happen. Or, if you prefer, you can use it to pick up a can or something else lying around and fling it at your enemy.
these elements work well to make The Callisto Protocol an engaging, and terrifying, action game. You never know when a zombie might pop out at you, and it doesn’t always happen when you expect it, which really puts you in a constant state of “WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT!?!” And while I would’ve preferred to have an arsenal of projectile weapons at my disposal, the melee combat is still effective and, when punctuated by your pistol, rather satisfying.
Having said that, though, there are some things about The Callisto Protocol that are annoying. Including one instance in which I wish this was more Dead Space-y.
For starters, The Callisto Protocol is stingy when it comes to supplies, not just ammo for your gun. While never having enough is always a tenet of survival horror games, Callisto takes it too far by never letting you have enough of anything at any given time, and that includes after you get a suit with bigger pockets.
Though, in all fairness, I think that about every game where you have to find supplies to survive.
Then there’s your ability to dodge incoming attacks. While helpful, it doesn’t work as well as, say, blocking attacks did in Ghost Of Tsushima, in which blocking was easy and fluid as slashing.
It also would’ve been helpful…
if they had co-opted Dead Space‘s point-to-point navigation system, which drew a line on the ground to show you which way to go. With so many of Black Iron Prison’s lights broken, it’s really easy to get lost.
There’s also some rare occasions when the difficulty spikes disproportionately (a certain two-headed bastard comes to mind). It also doesn’t help that switching guns isn’t as quick as it is in most games, and the same is true for using the health hypo.
Also, people playing The Callisto Protocol on PC have reportedly had a lot of performance problems, stuttering video and whatnot. Though having played on PlayStation 5, where I encountered no serious technical glitches, I can neither confirm nor deny these issues.
And then there’s the real Dead Space, an updated remake of which is coming out January 27. While the original Dead Space is better than The Callisto Protocol, it’s not better by a lot, and having not played the remake, I can’t say if the same will be true for the new version. But it’s worth keeping in mind, especially if you’re on a budget.
If you do decide to get The Callisto Protocol, though,
you won’t be disappointed. You’ll be freaked out, excited, unnerved, thrilled, nicely challenged, and maybe even scared straight, especially where space prisons are concerned…and you won’t be afraid to admit it.