A proper remake might be rising from the grave next year, but the festering corpse of Dead Space has come lurching back to life early in the form of The Callisto Protocol. This spiritual successor to the sci-fi survival horror series recreates the haunting blood-streaked hallways and space zombie-slaying hallmarks first established on the USG Ishimura back in 2008, and injects the gore with more awe than ever before thanks to some strikingly detailed splashes of blood and guts. Unfortunately, while the mutant dismemberment has never been more vivid, The Callisto Protocol’s shortcomings appear just as clearly. Occasional control annoyances, imbalanced combat, and a general absence of innovation result in a roughly eight-hour massacre that’s gratifyingly gruesome, but never quite as great as the series that inspired it.
Catastrophe has struck the Black Iron Prison facility on the moon of Callisto, and the convicts are revolting; not just in the sense that they’ve escaped their cells and are causing a riot, but also because they’ve been infected by a mysterious virus that’s mutated them all into twisted toxic avengers. It’s up to wrongly incarcerated cargo pilot Jacob Lee to get to the root of the resident evil and find a way off the prison planet, undergoing a claustrophobic crawl through an exceptionally well realized facility in ruin and overrun by lunar-based lunatics. What follows is a fairly linear gauntlet run, but thankfully the team at developer Striking Distance Studios has proven itself to be masterful makers of creepy corridors – rarely are any two passages ever the same and each area is given a distinct sense of place, from the maintenance room decorated with dangling corpses that look like prison guard pinatas, to the frosted-over facilities that lie beyond the prison walls.
Josh Duhamel from the Transformers movies does a commendable job in the lead role, as does The Boys’ Karen Fukuhara as his main ally Dani Nakamura, but the majority of the desperation and discomfort of the pair’s plight is conveyed through the impressive art direction and audio design. With the third-person camera tight on Jacob at all times, you get a clear look at the sweat sheen on his scalp in the humid laundry area, the blood-spatter that soaks his coveralls after each brutal encounter, and the especially icky sewerage that coats his body after he’s forced to wade waist-deep through waste management. Everything is thick and gross in a genuinely palpable way and reinforced by unsettling scrapes and sickening squelches in the darkness around you. And while it’s become a common technique for developers to mask the loading of new areas with the use of narrow gaps in the terrain for players to shimmy through, here they fortify the feeling of dread rather than becoming a drag. As Jacob inched his way through the disgusting pus-boil and tendril-covered caves of Black Iron’s lower levels, his winces on screen mirrored my own looks of unease. The Callisto Protocol’s putrid penitentiary had me locked in a state of maximum insecurity.
Let’s address the elephant-sized mutant monster in the room, though; The Callisto Protocol is effectively a Dead Space game in everything but name, with Striking Distance Studios even being lead by Dead Space co-creator Glen Schofield. From the neatly minimalistic HUD which grafts Jacob’s health bar into the back of his neck like a phone battery indicator, to the stomping of crates and corpses to uncover precious resources, to the combat system that heavily relies on a battery-powered telekinesis ability that allows you to hurl objects around with a flick of Jacob’s wrist. There’s even evidence of a mysterious religious cult that’s somehow involved in the outbreak, and instructions on how to kill enemies left in blood smeared on the walls. It stops short of introducing Isaac Clarke’s stasis ability, and swaps his collection of weaponised mining implements for a more conventional arsenal of pistols and shotguns, but it otherwise feels very familiar – and as someone who’s played all of the Dead Space games, it made for a campaign that was heavy on startling jump scares but light on any major story or gameplay surprises.
The biggest deviation that The Callisto Protocol makes from Dead Space’s terror-fueled template is it’s increased emphasis on melee combat, at least during the opening hours. With weapons and ammunition initially scarce, dispatching each snarling cellmate demands that you lure them into an uncomfortably close proximity, sway out of the way of their clawing attacks, and then counter with a flurry of blows from Jacob’s stun baton. The thumbstick-based dodging and blocking of incoming attacks feels a bit like ducking and weaving in a boxing game – except your opponent is less like Holyfield and more like ‘Holy crap!’ – and it feels satisfyingly weighty to bash their limbs off one by one and bludgeon baton-shaped grooves into their skulls.
Even as Jacob’s arsenal grows, melee combat remains a smart way to conserve ammo since each successful combo string you land opens up a brief window to perform a ‘skill shot’, allowing you to automatically lock-on to a weak spot with your firearm and down them in a few shots instead of a full clip. I enjoyed the risk-reward choice involved in getting up close and personal rather than trying to more safely pick enemies off from afar, not least because the already tight-in camera pulls even closer to really highlight the carnage as you administer each infected inmate with a lethal injection of hot lead.
Getting a GRP
Unfortunately that high level of tension isn’t sustained once the GRP is introduced. Powerful enough to lift most enemies into the air, this gravity-defying gauntlet can certainly make for some dynamic combat encounters, particularly in tandem with the various deathtraps and volatile objects that are handily positioned around each area. You might enter a room full of ghouls, lift up one and impale him on a spiked wall, throw another into an exposed grinding mechanism, before finishing off a third by hurling a saw blade through their midsection, all before they’ve realised you were ever there. It can be a lot of fun in a jailbreaking Jedi sort of way and it often produces some gloriously gory results, but it also means that major threats are often too swiftly snuffed out, like you’re Indiana Jones bringing a gun to a swordfight.
GRP is an ability that depletes and must either be recharged over time or instantly topped up with batteries should you have one in your inventory, so I couldn’t constantly use it as a crutch, but I certainly felt it gave me the force-flinging upper hand in the bulk of enemy encounters even on the ‘maximum security’ difficulty setting – at times making me wonder if the most dangerous monster lurking in Black Iron was actually me.
The overpowered nature of the GRP meant I didn’t really bother investing too much in The Callisto Protocol’s weapon upgrade system. I certainly splurged on basic augmentations like expanded clip sizes and recoil dampening, but never felt the need to scrounge up enough Callisto credits to buy the more exotic enhancements. After all, what use are explosive rounds for the riot gun or the homing bullets for the assault rifle, when the ability to throw the ever-present explosive canisters or pick an enemy up and drop them over a ledge is the only alternate fire mode I ever really required?
Similarly, stealth sequences fail to induce much in the way of stress. Midway through Jacob’s great escape The Callisto Protocol introduces a deadly blind variant of the infected that are reminiscent of the clickers from The Last of Us. However, although they’re purported to possess an elevated sense of hearing, I found it surprisingly easy to violently shiv them to death right under the nose of other enemies who seemingly wouldn’t bat an eyelid – assuming they have eyes – despite the loud death squeals of their freshly dispatched friends. A far more serious threat are the towering terminator-style security droids that can only be destroyed with a pinpoint headshot – mess it up and you’ll likely be swiftly minced by their high-powered canons – but strangely these genuinely formidable foes are introduced early on and then rarely encountered again.
Hell in a Cell
That’s not to say there isn’t a healthy variety of enemy types to tackle in The Callisto Protocol. Although they embody a fairly customary set of survival horror archetypes – standard zombie-types, suicide bombers that rush you, spider-like creatures that scramble on all fours up walls and along ceilings – they all look wonderfully repulsive, and even better when you’re making space jam out of their space guts. Before too long a regenerative ability is introduced that enables basic enemy grunts to transform into more resilient brutes if you wound them without finishing them off completely, which brings a welcome sense of urgency to fights with groups of agitated foes. This is perhaps best exemplified by a late game ride on an underground drilling platform, with hordes of attackers that set upon you from all sides and instantly power-up as a result of being lashed by the shards of flying rock. It’s definitely one of the most heartrate-ratcheting sequences of the entire journey.
But elsewhere my anxiety was stirred by the surprisingly slow so-called ‘quick weapon swap’ function. It routinely let me down during the repeated fights against The Callisto Protocol’s twin-headed tank-like mini-boss in which my ammunition reserves were rapidly drained. Tapping left on the D-pad swaps out one equipped weapon for another, but the animation of Jacob holstering a weapon and drawing the next is too long and can be accidentally interrupted, meaning there were many times I’d start a weapon switch but perform a dodge to evade an enemy attack immediately afterwards, and then spring back up into a shooting stance to find myself still armed with the exact same weapon I was attempting to holster. Clumsy control issues aside, The Callisto Protocol’s handful of boss fights are disappointingly one-dimensional and never really blew my mind (although they certainly smashed Jacob’s skull on a number of occasions).
There are a number of other smaller quibbles that plague The Callisto Protocol. It’s frustrating that opening chests automatically picks up everything inside, meaning I had to continually hop into the inventory screen to drop the skunk gun ammo I never asked for in order to clear space. It seems a bit antiquated that you can only listen to audio logs while you’re standing still with your head stuck in a menu, instead of having them serve as eerie accompaniments to your exploration as they are in games like Dead Space and BioShock. And although having a facehugger leap out of the locker you’re searching might have been a great idea for a jump scare the first time, by the sixth or seventh time it’s just plain annoying, and feels like you’re being forced to endure the same repeated office pranks of an alien April Fool’s day.
Lastly, while its eight-hour runtime feels about right in terms of pacing, there’s precious little to do in The Callisto Protocol after you’ve beaten the story. While a New Game+ mode is apparently coming via a free patch at a later date, for now there are no interesting unlockables to speak of that might encourage repeat playthroughs, or any alternative modes to try, making the overall package at launch feel almost as slim as a prison cell mattress.