The dreadful sound of my weapon clicking spells disaster.
I’m out of ammo, with no way to stop the two-headed half-man, half-mutant that pursues me.
Sure, I could use my telekinesis to chuck objects, but there’s nothing useful in sight. And with that, I realize The Callisto Protocol wants me to use my melee weapon, a baton that requires me to get up close and personal. As I approach, the beast immediately rips my head off, ending the battle abruptly. This happened time and time again, until finally, everything went perfectly. It felt more like a fluke than a triumph, which left a bad taste in my mouth.
The Callisto Protocol succeeds as a desolate and brutal survival horror experience in its opening hours. But the second half is hindered by massive difficulty spikes and clunky melee combat. Callisto will likely hook you at first, but it fails to stick the landing due to its excessively frustrating late-game enemies.
The Callisto Protocol wears its inspirations on its sleeve. It’s a spiritual successor to Dead Space, directed by series co-creator Glen Schofield. Callisto puts you in the shoes of Jacob Lee, a transporter who becomes an inmate at Black Iron Prison on Jupiter’s moon. It’s your job to uncover the dark secrets of the facility, while surviving the deadly hordes of mutated creatures known as biophages.
The Callisto Protocol is easy on the eyes, with life-like character models, animations, and memorable performances. Josh Duhamel and Karen Fukuhara, who play Jacob Lee and Dani Nakamura, create a level of realism that enhances the immersion of the experience.
Lee will often react to the biophages by screaming in fear, giving his character more believability. He’s not a warrior — like Dead Space’s Isaac Clarke, he’s never had combat training, which intensifies the feeling of constant danger. This game also borrows Dead Space’s diegetic HUD — Lee’s health bar is built into his suit and his ammo count displayed on his weapon. It’s a nice nod that also prevents your screen from becoming too cluttered.
The areas within and beyond Black Iron Prison are packed to the brim with environmental storytelling, impacting a distinct sense of personality and history to Callisto’s world. At one point, Lee must traverse the slums deep within the prison, discovering cans of food, reading material, and other household items. You truly get the sense that people lived here.
While much of the experience takes place in cramped quarters bursting with detail, the team at Striking Distance Studio also has a flair for dramatic setpiece moments. In a particularly remarkable scene, Lee must endure the weather on the surface of Callisto. The way the snow flies everywhere is true to life, and Lee’s reaction bolsters the realism, as he shields his face from the weather. The scene left me awestruck.
It’s a shame that Callisto’s combat isn’t as enjoyable or refined as its presentation. You’ll be armed with a baton and ranged weapons, like assault rifles and shotguns. You also eventually unlock the GRP (AKA “Grip”) weapon that gives you telekinetic powers, allowing you to throw enemies or objects. But too often, you’re forced to use the melee weapon, which is slow and frustrating, because it frequently results in you taking damage.
The clunky melee combat doesn’t pose much of an issue when you only have a couple of standard enemies to defeat. In these circumstances, battles are challenging yet rewarding — especially since they usually result in useful rewards such as ammo, credits, or health.
But melee combat is downright terrible against more powerful enemies. You’ll die in one or two hits on the “normal” difficulty, requiring you to play perfectly to advance. This simply isn’t fun, especially since your success sometimes hinges on random chance ammo drops. Too often, this results in a maddening series of retries that can feel neverending.
In many of these sequences, the checkpoint begins with the boss standing right in front of you, giving you very little wiggle room. It does not help that Callisto’s dodge mechanic only seems to work about half the time. Sometimes, you simply can’t run away fast enough from an instantaneous barrage of damage, resulting in a frustrating, cheap death.
Realism doesn’t equal fun
The Callisto Protocol is a mostly linear experience, with a handful of optional areas to explore. At 10 to 14 hours, this should feel like a tightly-paced adventure. Yet many of the game’s animations are painfully slow, making the experience consistently plodding and sluggish.
Reloading weapons takes an eternity, and there’s a lengthy animation for swapping to a different gun as well. This makes it inconvenient — and potentially deadly — to switch your guns. Likewise, healing brings Lee to a complete stop, leaving you wide open for an attack. Running feels like a crawl, and the game frequently won’t let you run for what feels like arbitrary reasons. Other times, when you try to turn around to run away from an enemy, the camera gets wonky and blocks your view, causing you to get taken out.
Striking Distance emphasizes realistic grit and real-deal peril in The Callisto Protocol, which is an intriguing premise on paper. In practice, this hard-line commitment to realism usually gets in the way of fun. The experience would greatly benefit from quality-of-life updates that speed up many animations, while also tweaking health sliders to give you more of a fighting chance.
As it stands, The Callisto Protocol is equally as fun as it is frustrating, making it tough to recommend, especially with the Dead Space remake lurking around the corner.
The Callisto Protocol is available for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC. Inverse reviewed the game on PS5.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.