With Striking Distance Studios CEO Glen Schofield being an alum of the now-defunct Visceral Games, it wasn’t surprising to see that the company’s debut title, The Callisto Protocol, drew so many parallels to Dead Space. While The Callisto Protocol certainly serves as a spiritual successor to the beloved franchise, it also manages to forge its own path as one of the best sci-fi horror games in several years.
A job gone bad
The Callisto Protocol finds freight transporter Jacob Lee a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time when his ship is boarded by a group of terrorists, which ultimately results in it crash-landing on one of Jupiter’s moons, Callisto. Jacob is promptly tossed in Black Iron Prison, a maximum security facility reserved for the worst offenders. Not long after he arrives at Black Iron, the prison becomes overrun with a parasitic alien species that leads to absolute anarchy and chaos.
The Callisto Protocol wastes little time in getting to the meat of its story. Once we’ve established Jacob’s incredibly unfortunate circumstance, it’s not long before all hell breaks loose at Black Iron. While Jacob himself isn’t the most compelling protagonist, I couldn’t help but root for this down-on-his-luck freight transporter to make it out in one piece. With the alien outbreak seemingly happening out of nowhere, there was also a mystery element in getting to the bottom of it all.
While the majority of Black Iron Prison’s inhabitants have either died or been turned into one of the zombified creatures, Jacob’s not the only right-minded human being left. Elias and Dani are a couple of recurring characters throughout the adventure that help to expand the universe with meaningful insight while increasing the stakes for Jacob. I dug that this trio isn’t just immediately the best of friends, instead they're unsure how much they can trust each other despite their shared motive of escaping the prison.
A full-course meal of gore
Combat in The Callisto Protocol requires players to frequently dodge enemy attacks. However, it’s not timing-based. Instead, players simply need to be holding the left stick in either horizontal direction by the time an enemy delivers a physical blow. In most cases, you have to chain together two to three dodges before there’s an opportunity to get in some strikes of your own. There’s an incredibly smooth rhythm to the combat that rewards players for being patient and methodical.
While there are firearms in The Callisto Protocol, combat is heavily melee-based. With how quickly resources can run out, even the guns are best used as a capper to a deadly barrage of melee attacks. Whether I was firing a pistol or swinging a baton, there was a real weight to combat that made every engagement feel impactful.
You can also mix things up by using the GRP, a gravity weapon than can be used to pull enemies and objects into the air and then send them flying. Black Iron is filled with environmental hazards like fans, spike walls, and exposed machinery that you can hurl enemies into to make quick work of them. With how draining some combat sequences can be, it was always satisfying to dispatch an enemy by simply grinding them to shreds in one quick maneuver.
I loved how brutal the combat was in The Callisto Protocol. While I surely died over a hundred times during my playthrough, I felt like I was constantly learning how to better approach the different scenarios the game threw out. I just wish that there was better pacing with checkpoints regarding the game’s combat encounters. I would often reach a new area, apply some upgrades to my gear, and sell the energy converters that I found in the previous area. After venturing forth and inevitably dying in a new encounter, nothing I had done after initially reaching the checkpoint would save. I had to repeatedly complete the same task over and over before redoing the combat encounter. Even when manually saving, the game would take me back to the same checkpoint, failing to restore the progress I made.
A large portion of The Callisto Protocol’s marketing revolved around the game’s excessive gore and intricate death sequences for both Jacob and the various alien creatures found in Black Iron. I had my head sliced in half, my limbs removed, and plenty of other death scenes that continued to surprise me throughout my playthrough. Striking Distance Studios thoroughly delivers all the blood and guts a horror fan could want, and then some.
No one can hear you scream
Black Iron Prison works as the perfect sci-fi horror setting. Its seemingly endless corridors and vents encouraged exploration, even though I knew some serious horrors were awaiting me at every turn. I was impressed by how scary The Callisto Protocol was without relying on jump scares to get my heart pumping. Instead, ominously quiet hallways, haunting silhouettes, and unsettling sound design made me grit my teeth as I turned every corner. There are a handful of instances where I said “nope” out loud to myself after entering a new area for the first time.
The Callisto Protocol is able to work because of how well it immerses players in the world. The specter of death is always present, forcing you to keep your guard up at all times. The tutorial even tells you that it’s possible to be attacked while in the middle of a healing animation, in case you thought that would offer a few seconds of reprieve.
Further contributing to the immersion in The Callisto Protocol is the fact that the game has no HUD. There’s no ever-present stamina bar, mission objective, or anything else. That said, the game cleverly gives you a health bar in the device attached to the back of Jacob’s neck upon being incarcerated.
Kill me now
While making their way through The Callisto Protocol, players won’t have to worry about stopping for loading screens every time they reach a new area. The developers do an excellent job of organically hiding all of this as players move throughout Black Iron.
That said, I ran into consistent performance issues when the game took on a heavy load. The frame drops made it clear that new areas were being loaded, as it often happened when entering doors and accessing new locations. Luckily this never happened during combat.
The sweet release
The Callisto Protocol is a deeply immersive sci-fi horror experience that firmly grabs you at the start and doesn’t let go. While this immersion shows its cracks during the transition into new areas, it’s not enough to ruin the overall experience. The Callisto Protocol is an impressive first outing for Striking Distance Studios, and the latest entry in the pantheon of excellent sci-fi horror stories.
This review is based on an Xbox Series X code for The Callisto Protocol provided by the publisher. The Callisto Protocol launches on December 2, 2022, for PC, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X, and Xbox One.
The Callisto Protocol
- Thoroughly challenging
- Fluid combat system
- Gore galore
- Inventive scares
- Enthralling narrative
- Checkpoint structure is frustrating
- Performance drops when entering new areas
Donovan Erskine posted a new article, The Callisto Protocol review: 1,000 ways to die in space
There must be 1000 ways to die in space...
You just slip out the airlock, Jaques
Meet a facehugger, Tucker
You don't need to be tethered, Leonard
Just get yourself free
The performance issues sound like shader compiling in the DX12 version. I wonder if anyone tried the DX11 version and had the same performance problems?
I'm having the performance issues (3090 card) so I might try DX11. Everytime I walk into a new room I get 5fps for a few seconds
Donovan liked it, good enough for me! Still going to wait for a sale and patches though
Fantastic article, can't wait to get my grubby little hands on this!