It's rare that a game as special as The Callisto Protocol comes around. After the noughties were dominated by the survival horror frolics of Resident Evil and Silent Hill, it's been rare for new IPs to burst onto the scene. In fact, since Konami's fog-based horror series took a backseat after the ill-fated P.T., it's pretty much been free real estate for Resident Evil.
With the release of The Callisto Protocol, that all changes. Dead Space veteran Glen Schofield, alongside legacy devs now under the Striking Distance Studios banner, has created a fresh and exciting survival horror experience that basks in its gruesome imagery and perfectly atmospheric gameplay - even if it still evokes memories of EA's intergalactic horror trilogy.
Simply put, The Callisto Protocol is the best horror game of the year, tapping into everything that makes horror games tick with lovely allusions to classics of the genre. You'll squirm, jump, and breathe a heavy sigh of relief each time a gruelling encounter is done. That's exactly what horror should do.
An intergalactic conspiracy
Akin to the everyman protagonists of the Silent Hill series, The Callisto Protocol follows a lowly intergalactic cargo-haulier named Jacob Lee (Josh Duhamel), quite conveniently on his last big drop-off before his partner retires. A raid by freedom fighters leads to his eventual imprisonment in the Black Iron facility on Callisto, a snowy Jupiter moon. But there's far more to Callisto than it initially seems, as Jacob's time in custody soon turns into a fight for survival as increasingly horrific biophage monsters tear the prison apart.
It's not a groundbreaking story, but the simple setup and Uncharted-style set pieces ensure you're consistently invested in The Callisto Protocol. What starts off as a straightforward battle for survival becomes a deeper, conspiracy-laden thread, with the third act in particular blowing the narrative open with teases that certainly establish a long-running franchise to come.
In some ways it feels reminiscent of the story in Resident Evil 2: both with two regular people thrust into levels of violence and depravity they'd never expect, uncovering massive secrets as they go. The deeper specifics of The Callisto Protocol's plot are best uncovered first-hand, but it boldly unpacks corporate greed, the depths of human degeneracy, and the unexpected consequences of morality. Also worth mentioning is freedom fighter Dani Nakamura (played by Karen Fukuhara), whose character is far more complex than you're initially led to believe.
Fighting the dead in space
Thanks to the contributions of Dead Space alumni, the gameplay in The Callisto Protocol is as taut and razor-sharp as you'd expect - if a little derivative in its design and presentation. It's more focused on gunplay than a lot of survival horror games, but melee combat forms a crucial part, too. Jacob has an electrified baton that can eviscerate the biophage creatures lurking within Black Iron and its surrounding outposts, but it's a weapon you'll need plenty of practice with to master.
Yes, The Callisto Protocol is significantly harder than most of its contemporaries. Your first encounter with the biophages will no doubt be one laden with restarts, as you have to perfectly predict enemy hits and dodge accordingly to avoid dying. The dodge mechanic itself is fairly clunky, mapped to the left stick rather than a dedicated button input. At first, it's quite frustrating to use, but as boss fights and mini-tank enemies become tougher towards the end of your 10-11 hour playthrough, it's crucial to use dodges to buy you time and space. Alongside revolvers, shotguns, and plenty of other firearms, you've got a nicely developed roster of weapons.
The game fully embraces its difficulty though, which nicely mirrors Jacob's minuscule chances of survival. Health has to be manually restored using injectors, but they take upwards of five seconds to use, meaning you need to ensure you've got time to do so without being caught. Enemies can be fast, and others spew out projectiles, so each encounter comes with its own set of stipulations to bear in mind. That makes combat consistently challenging, as you'll feel yourself getting better and more prepared as you go.
No one can hear you scream
But of course, none of this would mean anything if The Callisto Protocol couldn't nail its scares. Fortunately, that's not a problem at all, because the game is bloody terrifying. As with so many survival horror games, it leans into more action towards the end, but the first seven or eight hours are a thrill ride.
The Callisto Protocol relies quite heavily on jumpscares, with a lot of enemies bursting out at you while opening doors, or sprinting at you from the darkness. At times I was concerned this would grow stale, but even right up until the end I found myself jumping and constantly on edge with The Callisto Protocol. It nails environmental tension too, with the decrepit prison reminiscent of Alien's Nostromo ship, and frozen or otherwise mummified biophages always threatening to burst out of their stasis to attack you.
Those decomposing monsters have been a focus of The Callisto Protocol's marketing, and fortunately, they're just as terrifying and downright repulsive as pre-release footage suggests. My only complaints when it comes to the neophages are the lack of overall variety and some points where they feel too similar to unique monsters from other horror games.
There are only five or so different types of biophage, and given the potential for this infection to completely mutilate the human carcass, it would've been nice to see even more disturbing and sickening designs. On top of that, there's one particular enemy type that is totally blind, meaning you have to sneak up on them to stealth kill - this felt incredibly reminiscent of the clickers in The Last of Us.
One thing The Callisto Protocol revels in is its gore - the extent to which a Japanese release was canned due to the grisly nature of the death animations. I don't think I've ever played a game as gory as this, and it all adds to the horror and ultimate weakness of Jacob compared to his adversaries. Some of his death animations are truly sickening, and it's great fun to discover them all as you go.
Generally speaking The Callisto Protocol is a technical marvel, with stunning visuals, best-in-class character models, and zippy load times. The only problems I experienced with this pre-release build of the game were serious frame-rate issues. At times tanking to the single-digits and completely unplayable territory. It seems to be a known problem that should be resolved by the time the day-one patch releases, but it did ruin the tension at some points. Especially if you're playing on the excellent performance mode that prioritises 60 FPS visuals, let's all hope that gets solved.
Equally, one could easily argue that it's a little too similar to Dead Space, on a visual and thematic level more than anything. Having never played those games myself, it wasn't a problem, but those well-versed in Isaac Clarke's adventures may feel in very familiar territory.
But none of that can detract from just how much I love The Callisto Protocol. As a survival horror fanatic, it was everything I could've hoped for, with astoundingly polished gameplay and a story that reminds me of some of my all-time favourite games. As the first entry in what could become a new franchise, it's bold enough to distinguish itself with gruesome enemies and even more gorier deaths, and I really can't wait to see where the franchise goes.
There is one piece of praise that I can give The Callisto Protocol that simply outshines anything else I've said so far. The night after I first played The Callisto Protocol, I had nightmares, for the first time in so long that I can't even remember the last instance. That's how affecting, scary, and unforgettable it is.
Reviewed on PlayStation 5. A code was provided by the publisher.