Content Type: Gaming Reviews
Date: December 2, 2022
The Callisto Protocol was made from the mutated corpses of its many predecessors, for better or worse. It took those predecessors – Dead Space, Alien: Isolation, Resident Evil, to name just a few – and ground them up, then swallowed what was left and let those bits roll around in its putrescent mouth until they formed into something polished and spectacular. But, shiny as it is, this new thing is still translucent, and all those old chunks from other sources are plainly visible inside, with nothing new to fill in the games. And, at the core of this pearl – despite whatever all the inevitable “Why The Callisto Protocol Isn’t Like Dead Space” articles and videos will say – is Dead Space.
And that’s the main contention behind The Callisto Protocol, isn’t it? Let’s let the guy that made Dead Space (Glen Schofield, director, for the unaware) make it again, but this time with sleek, modern technology, years of lessons learned from that original franchise, and an even deeper fixation on space-horror cinema and games. If the original Dead Space is the grit, and all the other inspirations for The Callisto Protocol are the hardening layers of mucous that forms around it, then what kind of pearl does that make The Callisto Protocol? What kind of game is made when all it has is what it has taken and a shiny coat of red paint?
Well, as it turns out, you get a damn good one.
I’ll be honest, I’m really tired of using the phrase “surprising depth” to describe the gameplay and progression of seemingly every game that comes out. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy gear upgrading, stat boosting, and point allocating as much as anyone. But it’s tiring just how complex games have gotten sometimes.
Enter The Callisto Protocol, which has taken all the systems that worked in other survival horror games of the last fifteen or so years, trimmed off the fat, and dropped the remains before us (with a wet and slightly disturbing “plop”). In The Callisto Protocol, you will be doing 3 things: killing monsters, looting their corpses, and applying simple upgrades to your gear to kill monsters better. That’s it.
Let’s start with the “killing monsters” bit, since it is what you will spend most of your time doing in the game. And it. Is. Satisfying. Everything in this game feels visceral and heavy, and the same goes for your weapons, to great effect. Whether you are shattering an alien-zombie’s limbs off with your Stun Baton or blowing one of a two-headed monstrosity’s brains to the wall, the combat here is disgusting, brutal, and weighty.
The nature of this game forces you to be up-close-and-personal with the horrifying creatures, making you much more active in your own survival than in any other survival horror game I can think of. You have to engage, after all, in order to use the precise dodge mechanics to avoid difficult attack combos while you try to get your meaty hits in. This creates a delicate back-and-forth where each move could be your last, but each success feels like bloody triumph. Each encounter feels dangerous and exciting, then, because you know that it will end in either you or your enemy exploding into gnarly bits, made even more savage and spectacular by the incredible death animations for both you and your foes.
Then, after combat ends, you’ll contend with the other two major systems: looting and upgrading. If you are familiar with the gameplay loop of the original Dead Space games, you will recognize these immediately, because they are nearly identical, even down to brutally stomping enemy corpses for loot and going to workbenches and stores for upgrades.
Except that there aren’t even suit variations and intricate “Power Nodes” to use that loot on this time. Instead, the progression system has been streamlined: you get a selection of powerful tools, and you can pay to improve them in clear, obvious, tangible ways. That’s it. Elegance is simplicity.
This simple approach, then, complements the equally simple combat system, and the clarity of the upgrades make their might and ferocity shine, since their effects are immediately apparent when you get back to biophage-killin’. It reminds me, in some ways, of the recent Doom games, which also take the approach of having gruesome combat accompanied by simple arsenal upgrades. And, though Callisto is in a different genre entirely, its systems are elevated for the same reason. By knowing what to cut, and being willing to keep the systems of the game as simple and intuitive as possible, The Callisto Protocol’s gameplay ends up being the best, purest distillation of the classic survival-horror formula.
Callisto brands itself as a “narrative-driven, third-person survival horror game,” and its marketing has heavily stressed the story of the game. The “Mastering Horror” docuseries, the “Helix Station” narrative podcast, and the use of words like “emotional” and “truly great” in interviews, The Callisto Protocol has put a lot of chips on having a compelling, well-written story. And does it live up to those promises?
Yes. But not much more.
You see, The Callisto Protocol’s narrative is stellar. Its world is deeply-considered, and every inch of it feels lived-in and real. Its characters are richly-realized, with complex motivations and backstories culminating in meaningful arcs and reveals, and those characters are portrayed with some of the best, most fascinating performances I’ve seen in years, rivaling even God of War: Ragnarök in quality (if not originality). The plotting is clear and effective, the dialog is grounded and enjoyable, and there are little details everywhere that bolster all the other parts.
But, like the rest of the game, nothing about the story The Callisto Protocol is trying to tell is new, no matter how well it does it. The game is filled to the brim with science-fiction tropes, and its narrative and world borrow very directly from the original Dead Space in several places, especially as you get closer and closer to the end. And what it doesn’t take from its spiritual predecessor, it takes from Alien or the Thing or the Expanse, and other horror and science-fiction properties. Its amazingly-acted cutscenes and beautifully-rendered environments are vehicles for a story you’ve seen before, if you are even passingly familiar with the genre and its conventions.
This is not necessarily a flaw, of course. A story can be compelling, even exceptional, even if it is a pastiche. And the creative team behind the story clearly understood what they were making, going even so far as to lean into some obvious tropes, like scientists that consider the biophage to be “an evolution of mankind” or the main protagonist just being on “one final job before retirement.” Because of this, it is hard to dislike the story on display at all: it was made with genuine passion and enthusiasm for the genre. Its recycling of old ideas might not imply much originality, but it more than makes up for it due to its authenticity, commitment, and quality.
The story, then, might be, essentially, a retread of ground Dead Space already walked, with bits from other classic sci-fi and horror slapped on. But, unlike Dead Space, The Callisto Protocol doesn’t rely on twists to make its story work, so it doesn’t matter as much that it is predictable and samey. It feels like a love letter to the space-horror genre, and in so doing it turns out to be far deeper and more resonant than Dead Space ever was. What it lacks in originality or subversion, it makes up for in emotional resonance, spectacle, and genuine reverence.
A discussion of The Callisto Protocol would not be complete without a discussion on its art direction, no matter how brief. Of this, I have little to say that wouldn’t be repeating myself. The art in The Callisto Protocol, from the ghoulish designs of the monstrous biophage to the haunting vistas of the moon Callisto and everything in between, is exactly what it looks like in the trailers. Once again, the team behind The Callisto Protocol isn’t remaking the wheel, they are just shining the hubcaps. How much is there to say?
Everything in this game looks like something from another game or movie. The biophage look like creatures designed for a John Carpenter movie from the 80s. The locations look like something made for any big-budget dark sci-fi TV show or movie, like the Expanse or Raised by Wolves. The human characters are a diverse cast of conventionally attractive people, outfitted in fitting, grounded futuristic equipment. The music includes tension-making drums, shocking violin wails, and exciting orchestral arrangements, with just enough synthesized sounds to make you think it sounds futuristic. Hell, even the sound design lifts seemingly half its catalog from Dead Space itself, because I’ve played that game enough to know when a “door opening” or “monster moaning” sound has been recreated.
The only thing that elevates The Callisto Protocol in this regard, then, is the fidelity and quality with which it recreates those things. And, like everything else in the game, it does so perfectly, to the extent where the lack of freshness is made up for.
In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that The Callisto Protocol is the best-looking and best-sounding horror game ever made, even if what it looks and sounds like isn’t particularly groundbreaking. The human characters actually do look like they are real, live-action actors; the creatures actually do look like they are made of real decaying flesh and blood; the environments actually do look like real-world sets for high-budget movies. The trailers blew me away because of the realism and attention to detail on display, and those graphics were not smoke-and-mirrors; the game actually does look that good. What else is there to say? If you want to see the most grotesquely gorgeous realization of those myriad influences, look no further. Just don’t expect it to depict anything but that.
At the end of the day, part of me wants The Callisto Protocol to be worse. After all, I cherish originality, innovation, and evolution of the medium and genre! And The Callisto Protocol is the opposite of that. It is safe, uninterested in moving forward except to say that it has perfected the old, wearing machine that is survival horror. I should, by all accounts, be dismissive of any game with so tired a formula, no matter how perfect.
But that’s the thing: it does perfect that old formula. It excels in every area. Its streamlined, combat is visceral and fast, while still retaining the brutality and heft that its progenitors had. Its other mechanics are made powerful by its masterful simplicity. Its story is compelling and emotional, even if it ultimately takes the shape of every other space-horror story ever told. Its art direction and graphical fidelity are unparalleled, even if they are in service of designs that are lovingly crafted, but ultimately uninspired.
And, if that is all the game wants to be – the pinnacle of space-horror rather than the evolution of it – who am I to say that it doesn’t deserve praise for accomplishing that iterative task exceptionally well? The fact is, The Callisto Protocol is the perfect, ideal version of what it tries to be, even if what it tries to be isn’t exactly original. It is the amalgamation of dozens of things into a single entity, made pure by distilling the best elements of those things (Hey, where have I heard that before? I thought the Markers were destroyed). It is the art project that gets an “A+”, even if the assignment was just to make something emulating an old style.
Perhaps, then, this should be looked at in another way. If Dead Space was the flawed maverick that established how amazing space-horror could be in gaming, then the Callisto Protocol is the swan song masterpiece that fully realizes its dream, making it the perfect game to send off this iteration of survival-horror, having mastered everything that its progenitor sought out to achieve.