The Callisto Protocol’s Strength Seems To Lie In Its Satisfying Combat, Not Scares

Despite looking a whole lot like the spiritual successor to Dead Space, I was surprised by how little The Callisto Protocol terrified me. The setting and enemy designs are certainly unnerving but in a way I’ve seen before, and there is a sense of comfort in that familiarity. The Callisto Protocol stands out in what it does differently, in which it injects a compelling melee combat system into a survival-horror game. Many survival-horror games keep the monsters more than an arm’s length away, allowing you to keep them at bay with a handgun, plasma cutter, camera, or some other manner of clicking-and-shooting. The Callisto Protocol breaks that mold, amping its tension by encouraging you to aggressively deal with whatever gross monster you’re fighting.

Developed by Striking Distance Studios, The Callisto Protocol sees you play as Jacob Lee, who’s being kept in Black Iron, a prison located upon Callisto, one of Jupiter’s moons. Why Jacob is being held there hasn’t been revealed, only that he goes to prison following the death of his wife (I presume he’s blamed for her demise). Regardless of his reasons for being there, Jacob quickly finds himself needing to escape as a deadly infection sweeps Black Iron, transforming the former human inhabitants into monstrous mutations referred to as biophages.

Now Playing: The Callisto Protocol: Next-Gen Horror | Summer Game Fest 2022 Interview

“[Jacob] gets thrown into prison just before this outbreak [begins] and it’s kind of stunning for him,” Striking Distance Studios CEO Glen Schofield told me, following an hour and a half of time with the game during a preview event.

So far, Jacob seems to match the energy of the male survival-horror protagonists we’ve seen in recent years, often speaking to himself when figuring out where to go for his next objective or cursing out the monsters he’s going up against following an especially harrowing encounter. He certainly cuts the tension a tad more than I would like, but The Callisto Protocol’s atmosphere is so unsettling that it claws its way back under your skin quickly enough.

“The writers want more [dialogue] and I want less,” Schofield said, chuckling. “But we really had to kind of go back-and-forth through the process because you don’t want the talking to step on the atmosphere that you’ve created.”

Instead of cinematic cutscenes and regular conversations between Jacob and the other human survivors, The Callisto Protocol seems to build most of its story with audio logs, some of which detail truly unsettling events. These are all optional, so you can miss out on a lot of lore if you just speed through the events of the story.

“We highly recommend that people listen to all the audio logs ’cause they’ll fill in the story a little bit more,” Schofield said. “And they’ll tell you a little bit [about the world] like, ‘Hey, where’d that monster go?’ You’re going to learn something about the world you’re in.”

More so than the story, what struck me most about The Callisto Protocol is its combat. Lots of survival-horror protagonists are either trained in the use of firearms or are everyday people trying to make do with makeshift weapons that can keep the monsters at bay. Regardless, there’s a sense of precision to combat in those games, whether that means pulling off the perfect headshot or lining up a limb to sever. Similarly, The Callisto Protocol prioritizes precision as well, but by putting that emphasis on melee combat, you suddenly need to pull off exact movements in the heat of a brawl instead of from a distance. It’s not unlike the sensation of playing a game like For Honor, albeit in a sci-fi setting.

You’re also fighting some truly gross-looking monsters. In a lot of ways, the biophages are very similar to Dead Space’s necromorphs. Both enemies are heavily mutated creatures that stretch and contort the human form into something, while monstrous, manages to still be terrifyingly recognizable. The Callisto Protocol manages to break free from Dead Space’s shadow by changing how you deal with this threat, forcing you to act with precision within lunging range, which is a whole different kind of trepidation to deal with. This does lessen the fear factor of these creatures a bit, though. A zombie or necromorph or ghostly spirit that’s being kept at a distance can be viewed in all its ghastly glory. It’s far harder when the enemy is right in your face. I never really had the chance to be afraid of the enemy design in The Callisto Protocol with how in-your-face the biophages are, though their aggressive nature certainly makes for some tense combat encounters.

Enemies come at you hard and fast so it's best to beat them to the punch and attack first.
Enemies come at you hard and fast so it’s best to beat them to the punch and attack first.

Mechanically, The Callisto Protocol uses a combat system composed of attacks and dodges that are meant to encourage you to be hyper-aggressive against whatever you’re fighting. Jacob also comes equipped with a futuristic firearm, but ammo is limited and the gun doesn’t do nearly as much damage as your melee attacks, save for when an enemy is momentarily stunned. When this occurs, you have a brief moment (and I do mean brief) to quickly pull out your gun and fire at the highlighted weak spot. Doing so deals a tremendous amount of damage to whatever you’re fighting, even potentially carving off the limbs or head of your foe. This can alter your situation by quite a bit–a biophage without legs will have to slowly crawl its way towards you, while one missing an arm doesn’t have as much offensive potential–but with no means (at least as far as I saw) of being able to strategically target specific spots on an enemy’s body, there’s no way to dictate how you want to deal with a threat. You just hope the highlighted spot shows up on a part of the body advantageous to you.

There was one exception during my preview, which I hope is an indication that we’ll see more strategic dismemberment in the full release. In what I can only imagine is a cheeky reference back to Dead Space, there is a moment in The Callisto Protocol where you find a message written in blood on the wall that says, “Shoot the tentacles.” This event precedes encountering biophages with tentacle-lined stomachs that will mutate into more powerful forms once weakened. To deal with them, you have to damage them enough to start mutating, which begins with their tentacles coming out of their stomachs to reshape their body. At this moment, you have precious time to shoot and destroy the tentacles, stopping the transformation. It adds a bit more strategy to the combat since you want to keep a little distance from the biophages that can mutate just so you can actually see when the process is starting. If they get too close, the animation is oftentimes lost in the flurry of limbs.

Initially, I approached The Callisto Protocol much like Dead Space, Resident Evil, or The Evil Within, carefully weighing the situation and warily approaching each fight, trying to take out one enemy at a time and then pulling back to reassess. That saw me die a lot because you can’t instantly heal in The Callisto Protocol. To heal, Jacob crouches, takes out a syringe, and slowly injects himself–you’re a sitting duck for a good while. In a game where the enemies might lumber towards you, even within a group, a healing system like this would be no problem. But enemies in The Callisto Protocol hit hardest when they’re in your face, and they’ll do all they can to close the distance on you quickly. With very little room to breathe, I quickly found that it is best to heal after a fight has ended, not during. That means you also have to hit hard and fast, ending the battle as quickly as you can. In this way, The Callisto Protocol encourages you to turn the tables on your foes. You have the be the monster in the room, pursuing the biophages with murderous abandon.

You don’t want to be overly reckless, of course, as that’ll see you end up dead in no time. But I found far more success in The Callisto Protocol when I threw caution to the wind and risked a few hits to land half a dozen of my own. Instead of using the telekinetic Grip device to grab objects and throw them at enemies, I most often used it to pull enemies towards me and land an early strike. During an especially harrowing moment in a very narrow hallway featuring a murderous parade of enemies, I only succeeded when I decided to push forward through the deadly onslaught and meet the aliens head-on, quickly bashing the first few into the walls to give me the precious seconds necessary to dodge the blows of those who came right after and then start fighting them all at once, stunning each in quick succession. Playing it safe and being careful only gave the enemies enough time to bunch together and overwhelm me, but being aggressive helped turn the tables on them.

You know the 2011 movie The Raid? And that scene when Rama takes on multiple guys in a hallway by expertly dodging their attacks and managing quick stunning strikes long enough to land final blows? The Callisto Protocol’s combat feels like that, though Jacob is notably not as nimble a fighter as Rama. It was a pleasant surprise to see how precise and rhythmic the combat in The Callisto Protocol is.

For Schofield, The Callisto Protocol’s brutal violence is just a reflection of the direction he sees the horror genre going–both in games and otherwise. “The trend that I’ve seen in the horror genre, mostly in movies, is they’re more brutal nowadays,” Schofield said. “It used to be you would try and predict who’s going to live, right? Now you just predict who’s going to die next because they all die. American horror, Western horror, and even some of the Eastern horror [stories] are more brutal. So we try to bring a [similar] brutality.”

The brutality is accentuated by the grossness of the enemy design and the environments you have to travel through. The preview regularly forced me to wade through the pipes responsible for dispensing people’s poo, for example.

“I try and push as far as possible,” Schofield said. “You don’t want to offend anybody, although you want to bring it close to that dock. We got close here and there, but we kind of pulled back a little bit. It was more to be scary than be, ‘Oh, look how edgy we are.’”

Between all the brutality and grossness, I wasn’t all that scared of The Callisto Protocol. The violence in the game is brutal and super gross, but in a way that feels geared towards producing shock as opposed to genuine fear. The death animations–whether it was Jacob ripping off an alien’s head or an alien repeatedly pounding Jacob’s face until it was a pulpy mess–are disgusting, but in the same vein that Lara Croft’s deaths in 2013’s Tomb Raider are unsettling to watch. They’re shocking to look at initially, but after a while, you grow a bit numb to seeing the same animations pop up, and then they’re just an unnecessary cutscene preventing you from being able to immediately reload your last checkpoint and try again.

The Callisto Protocol is certainly a survival experience, with scarce resources and hard-hitting enemies always encouraging you to forage for ammo or a health pack, but the section I played lacked the unnerving sense of discomfort I love in my favorite survival-horror games. I never really felt like Jacob was ever on the back foot. The dude is an exceptionally capable brawler, and once I got used to the combat, I was holding my own against the biophages. I never felt like I was a dominant force, but I wasn’t just some guy totally out of his league either.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as I really enjoyed what I played of The Callisto Protocol’s combat. I just want to warn folks that if you’re expecting The Callisto Protocol to be this terrifying horror experience, that’s not the vibe I got from the snippet of the game I played. The setting is spooky. The monsters are gross. But this game doesn’t seem to match the truly horrific tone of its cinematic announcement trailer.

Granted, almost the entire preview was combat gauntlet after combat gauntlet. I didn’t have much chance to see elements of The Callisto Protocol’s story play out, or whether or not the game featured much in the ways of puzzles or horrifying mysteries to solve. And, most notably, the section I played didn’t feature opportunities to see how the game’s stealth moments worked. If they’re there, these elements could be where a lot of The Callisto Protocol’s fear factor comes from.

There was one moment during the session where I was able to sneak around, as I slowly crouch-walked past a robotic guard. It was nerve-wracking, but the section came and went in a flash–hardly enough time to get a good idea as to how The Callisto Protocol’s stealth sections play and feel more broadly, but it was just enough time to offer an intriguing glimpse at what could be quite scary.

“This level doesn’t really showcase [stealth],” Schofield admitted. “And it’s not like, ‘Oh, this is the stealth level. You have to stealth kill.’ It just so happens that in this level, [stealth] does not really manifest itself because all [the enemies] come at you. But there are other places within the game that you’re going to want to [be sneaky]. There may be six [enemies] and you’re like, ‘I can’t take all six out at once, so I’ll approach it differently.'”

Something that I did notice during that small stealth section that gives me pause is that you have very little control over the camera in The Callisto Protocol, making it very difficult to see anything over Jacob’s left shoulder, which is where his character model takes up the most screen real estate. You really only have peripheral vision on your right. Schofield said that this design decision is purposeful so that the camera situation makes the player feel “a little bit uncomfortable.” In that regard, the game succeeds. I did not like how restricted that limitation made me feel.

Personally, I’m worried that this could result in frustrating deaths during stealth segments, as a big part of stealth games is the ability to look around and plan. I imagine that’s much harder to do in The Callisto Protocol given the limits of the camera. Thankfully, the camera didn’t create any huge problems for me during the combat, but I think this restriction will be something to look out for once the full game launches and we get a chance to play through the stealth sections, especially if there are scenarios where, if you’re not careful, you just die.

“As you go further in the game, yes, you got to be even more careful,” Schofield warned. “There’s a couple of places here and there that can be an instant death because you were just caught off guard.”

You want to shoot the tentacles on special biophages before they cause it to mutate further and become stronger.
You want to shoot the tentacles on special biophages before they cause it to mutate further and become stronger.

The terrifying prospect of insta-kill deaths aside, I came away from The Callisto Protocol feeling tense from the pressure of the enclosed setting and more than a little unnerved by the game’s enemy design. But I wasn’t scared or terrified of the situation I played through. Jacob is a beast once you get the hang of his dodges and melee strikes, and pulling foes into your mighty swing makes quick enough work of them to make you feel at least on par with these monsters. At least in this one level, The Callisto Protocol seems to be a survival game that prioritizes the challenge of its action-focused combat, aiming to create horror in the prospect that you have to get into an enemy’s grill to do the most damage and suffer a disgusting death animation if you mess up. Once you’ve grasped how combat works, however, you seem to be one of the scariest monsters in the prison.

Obviously, since this is just a preview and I only got to play through a presumably small section of the game, it’s way too early to make a definitive call on The Callisto Protocol. A lot of what could make the game more horrifying and scary might be tucked away in parts of The Callisto Protocol I’ve yet to see. We don’t have long to wait to find out–The Callisto Protocol launches on December 2.

If you’re in the mood to read up on some more horror games, you can read my Dead Space remake preview, GameSpot video producer Kurt Indovina’s Resident Evil 4 remake preview, and Alessandro Barbossa’s Scorn review.

The products discussed here were independently chosen by our editors.
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