There’s an immediacy to The Callisto Protocol that feels familiar, as if the new horror game from the former Dead Space developers is eager to showcase its pedigree right out of the gate.
Your main character visually evokes an unarmored Isaac Clarke, returning to a derelict space station ensconced by death and debris. All at once, The Callisto Protocol insists that it is a return to Dead Space in tone, but begins to differ in structure after just a few minutes. While slow-paced horror is still very much on the menu, Striking Distance Studio’s debut title revels in being an action puzzle box.
“Debut” actually may not be an entirely accurate term for The Callisto Protocol. While Striking Distance is a new name for the company, the Glenn Schofield-led studio was previously known as Sledgehammer Games under Activision while working on the Call of Duty series and Visceral Games under Electronic Arts creating the aforementioned Dead Space. The Callisto Protocol is the studio’s first work under publisher Krafton, behind games like PUBG: Battlegrounds, and looks to evolve video game horror beyond just jump scares and ambient sounds.
Striking Distance invited me to play The Callisto Protocol in the basement of San Francisco’s treasury building, which itself was dark, dank, and oozing with an appropriate sense of forsaken atmosphere before even touching a controller. The two-hour demo started with protagonist Jacob Lee in the game’s second chapter, as he explored the possibility of escaping from the ruined space prison in which he found himself alone. Well, except for the mutated and infected murderous former people abounding through the walls and vents all around him.
To even things up, Lee takes a few guns with a smattering of ammo spread across the facility, a baton for melee, and a gravity manipulator that brings objects or enemies close to him or repels them with force. It’s a bit more Control than Dead Space, but the tool is key to Lee’s survival. While The Callisto Protocol indulges in the creepy hallways and spooky industrial rot that sci-fi horror fans have come to expect, gameplay is interspersed with combat scenarios that feel like the true focus, and making use of all the available options is necessary to make progress through them.
In one combat scenario, I saw an enemy — a large, brutish mutant — come through a vent to my left. My physical attacks succeeded until the monster fought back and I missed my parry window, resulting in a scene where Jacob’s head was thoroughly bashed in. On the next try, I beat that enemy, walked to the next one with low health, and was treated to Jacob being stomped to death. Retained my health the next time, Jacob’s head was ripped off. The next time I threw a bucket from a distance, made it a little further. Then I started throwing enemies at each other the time after that while scampering up ladders to get some necessary height and distance. Then I found an explosive in the hallway that allowed me to defeat two enemies at once.
All told, it took about fourteen tries to fully complete the room as I stacked various strategies and lessons on top of each other, and I suspect that is the intentional design. Players are not expected to waltz through every combat scenario on the first try. Most scenarios, perhaps, but there are clearly chokepoints where the game wants you to slow down and repeatedly try new strategies. I never had enough ammo to shoot my way out of a situation, so I had to get creative to solve the combat puzzles The Callisto Protocol kept throwing at me.
The execution matters less than the thought process that gets you there. Once I know an enemy is coming from a vent to my left, he ceases to be a threat alone. But dealing with him fast enough and doing so without panicking is the first test. Incorporating that encounter into the flowchart of how I am going to deal with the eight other enemies that come after him is the rest of it.
There is absolutely a visible effort within The Callisto Protocol to build on what games like Dead Space offered by creating a tense combat puzzle for players to figure out. How those players will feel after getting killed the fifth, seventh, or tenth times in a room is a question that may still need answering.
The Callisto Protocol comes to PlayStation, Xbox, and PC on December 2.