The Callisto Protocol Review: Survival-Horror Without Depth

The Callisto Protocol could have been a lot better than it is. In the absence of Dead Space and other games like it over the past decade, The Callisto Protocol is releasing here at the end of 2022 to give a shot in the arm to the survival-horror genre. And while Callisto largely hits all of the basic benchmarks that you'd expect from a game of this type, it doesn't do anything special to make it a memorable experience. 

Much like the Dead Space series which The Callisto Protocol director Glen Schofield helped establish back in 2008, The Callisto Protocol is a sci-fi horror game that takes players to the titular moon on Callisto. It's here that the central protagonist Jacob Lee (portrayed by Josh Duhamel) finds himself trapped within Black Iron Prison as it's overrun with vicious, mysterious monsters. Through the aid of a number of other characters that Lee comes across, you're tasked with trying to find a way off of Callisto while also uncovering how this monstrous outbreak began in the first place. 

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(Photo: Striking Distance Studios)

The story of The Callisto Protocol is very straightforward, and for the most part, I don't have a problem with this. I think horror stories often work best when their central conflicts are quite basic, so to have the vast majority of The Callisto Protocol center around this idea of escaping Black Iron Prison works pretty well. Still, without much depth, Callisto becomes pretty predictable and unengaging. So much so, in fact, that I was able to determine what would happen at the game's conclusion hours before reaching it. 

One of my bigger issues with the storytelling of The Callisto Protocol is that many of the finer details and lore of this world are fleshed out via audio logs that can be collected over the course of the game. And while this is a perfectly adequate way of filling in the gaps, my main annoyance on this front is that audio logs can't even be listened to unless you access them manually from the game's menu. Rather than being able to listen to these recordings while moving onward through a given level, you instead have to stop everything you're doing, find the audio log in question that you just picked up, and then activate it. It's an annoying feature and is one that I'm shocked to see is present in a 2022 video game. 

When it comes to the characters in The Callisto Protocol, the best thing I can say is that the performances across the board are quite strong. Duhamel, in particular, adds a lot of weight to Lee's character and does a great job in the game's more emotional moments. Karen Fukuhara, who portrays Dani Nakamura, also serves as a standout presence throughout. 

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(Photo: Striking Distance Studios)

Gameplay is the part of The Callisto Protocol that I find myself most disappointed with. In a general sense, Lee acquires a number of tools over the course of the game, each of which are pretty varied from one another. Much of the combat in The Callisto Protocol encourages you to use melee attacks in an attempt to save ammo. This is a fine idea on paper, but the melee combat seen in the game is far too basic to ever be fun beyond the first hour. Lee's hand-to-hand attacks remain one-note for the entirety of the game, and the added dodging and blocking mechanics don't do much to shake things up. 

Guns are also present in The Callisto Protocol, but unlike what was seen with Dead Space, there aren't any weapons that feel unique or fun to use. Every gun you'll obtain over the course of The Callisto Protocol is some variant of a pistol, shotgun, or assault rifle. These guns can be upgraded over time and can unlock variant firing modes, but even then, they still largely operate in the same ways. For a game that wanted to be a spiritual successor to Dead Space, I was shocked to see just how trite its weapons were. 

The most unique attack that Lee has in his arsenal in The Callisto Protocol is known as GRP. Essentially, GRP allows you to pick up various objects or enemies and fling them about the environment. While simply tossing enemies around deals damage on its own, environmental hazards are also frequent and can be used to dispatch foes quickly. GRP isn't necessarily a game-changing feature of Callisto, but snatching up a monster and tossing it into spinning propeller blades was consistently entertaining. 

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Boss fights aren't very common in The Callisto Protocol, but when they do show up, they aren't amusing. My primary annoyance with bosses in Callisto is that they can all basically one-shot you at a moment's notice. If you get too close to them and fail to dodge in time, you'll quickly be greeted by one of the game's many death animations (which are comically violent to the point of hilarity). Bosses only served to amplify many of my complaints with the gameplay mechanics of The Callisto Protocol, with the game's final baddie proving to be frustrating beyond the point of enjoyment. 

On its merits as a horror game, The Callisto Protocol at least does a solid job of crafting eerie environments and gruesome monsters. Striking Distance Studios has really nailed the tone and vibe that I was hoping The Callisto Protocol would feature ever since it was first unveiled. Still, I have to say that I never found myself really scared by the game in the same way that other survival-horror titles have instilled fear in me. There's a pretty notable lack of jump scares and those that are featured are often relied upon more than once.

Far and away my biggest difficulty with The Callisto Protocol came with its performance and other technical struggles. I primarily played the game with its high-fidelity mode toggled on (as this was the default option) and consistently saw the framerate coming in under 30fps on Xbox Series X. This was amplified the most during combat sequences, but some levels of the game were far worse in this realm as I wasn't able to reach 30fps when doing the most basic tasks. In short, I can't recommend that you play Callisto on anything other than the high-performance graphical option. 

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(Photo: Striking Distance Studios)

To go along with this, I found myself having a fair number of other small glitches with the game as well. In addition to one outright crash, I would often find myself unable to pick up items or even fail to see certain items respawn when starting over from a checkpoint. I can't speak to how the Day One patch might improve some of these errors, but my own time with the game was quite rough. 

The Callisto Protocol isn't necessarily bad, but it doesn't do much to verify why survival-horror fans wanted these types of games back in the first place. With a bit more depth to its various systems and mechanics, The Callisto Protocol could have been far more enjoyable from start to finish. Instead, my main takeaway from Callisto has simply been that I'm now that much more excited to play a number of other survival-horror games that are set to release in 2023. 

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Rating: 3 out of 5

The Callisto Protocol is available now across PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X, Xbox One, and PC platforms. A review copy was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review and the game was played on Xbox Series X.