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The Callisto Protocol - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Camera is good at focusing on events of interest
  • Atmospheric load-masking scenes
  • Can change difficulty level at any time
  • At least it's over soon

WHAT I DISLIKE

  • Predictable plot with cheap cliff-hanger ending
  • Difficult to tell which direction I should dodge
  • Constantly leeching player's health
  • No quick turn
  • Bullet-sponge boss(es)
  • Tactical Pistol
  • No map or waypoint indicator
  • Checkpoint system
  • Can't skip cutscenes
  • Myriad technical issues

Overall Impression : D
A weak imitator of an action horror classic

The Callisto Protocol - cover

Developer:
Striking Distance Studios

Publisher:
Krafton

Platforms:
PC (via Steam or Epic),
PlayStation 4, 5 < (via retail disc or PSN digital download),
XBox One, S, X (via retail disc or Live digital download).
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $60 USD last-gen and PC | $70 USD current-gen console

Original release date:
2 December, 2022

Genre:
sci-fi horror shooter

Player(s):
single player

Play time:
8-12 hours

ESRB Rating: M (for Mature 17+) for:
Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language

Official site:
callisto.sds.com/en-us/

I saw a lot of social media posts in the days after Callisto Protocol's release complaining about the game being awful. Some said it was buggy and riddled with performance issues. Others said it was just a bad game, and would be bad even if it were stable.

I didn't experience a lot of the technical issues (on PS5) that others were reporting. But I also didn't start playing till later that weekend, so had the benefit of the day-1 patch. Maybe that fixed a lot of the technical complaints? Yeah, there were still some lingering technical issues, but they were mostly nagging problems that I could look past.

So I went through most of the first half of the game thinking "This ain't so bad." It wasn't very good either. But it seemed like it was being unfairly maligned. It's Dead Space, but just ... not good.

Callisto Protocol is borderline plagiarism of Dead Space, but not a very good copy.

But as I got into the middle of the game's campaign, my opinion began to change. The issues and frustrations mounted until they boiled over in the game's first boss fight (which doesn't happen until more than halfway through the campaign). Callisto Protocol is just not very well designed or though-out. It suffers at fundamental levels of gameplay design.

Space Zombie Punchout

Callisto Protocol's problems start with the awful melee and dodge system -- which is kind of the whole gimmick of the game. Instead of pressing a button to trigger a dodge, the character automatically dodges left or right if the player is pressing the left analog stick left or right (respectively) when the enemy makes an attack. The character will also block if the player is pressing backwards when the enemy attacks.

It's a system that feels more like Mike Tyson's Punchout than any action shooter I've ever played. But where Punchout is a boxing game that features a stationary character ducking left or right to dodge the punches of a single opponent lined up directly in front of you, Callisto Protocol is ... not that. The character in Callisto Protocol is ambulatory, and attempting to navigate an environment while also fighting multiple enemies at both melee and at range.

I could not get the hang of which direction I should be dodging -- except against bosses.

I found it very difficult to get the hang of the melee combat -- at least outside of boss fights. Strangely, the boss fights seemed to have the most clearly telegraphed attacks and reliable dodging. Outside of boss fights, however, enemies are frequently zombie-like monsters that rush at the player and shamble around, making it difficult to read their movements. And that's assuming that they aren't coming from off-screen to begin with (and are therefore un-readable). As such, I never know which direction to dodge. And even when I do seem to correctly dodge, I sometimes take damage anyway, which leads to the next big problem. Pretty much every time I had to engage in melee combat, I would die and have to retry.

Quarter-munching leech

Callisto Protocol is constantly eating away at the player's health like an old quarter-munching arcade game. If it isn't leeching damage from imperfect dodges, then the game is constantly waylaying the player with surprise, unavoidable damage and deaths. Turn a corner and something jumps out and hits the player for a fifth of your health bar. Take 2 steps forward, and a zombie jumps out from a vent just behind you and gets a good hit or two before you can turn to attack it. A quick turn sure would help in some of these situations, but there is no quick turn in the game's controls -- at least not that I've found.

Callisto Protocol is constantly leeching the player's health -- often with actual leeches!

Later in the game, item chests and lockers will even harbor enemies that jump out and do a small amount of damage. And to add insult to injury, the chest itself will be empty.

Unavoidable damage like this is something that is completely antithetical to the spirit of survival horror. And at the risk of sounding gate-keeping or stubborn: anybody who says otherwise is wrong and probably just doesn't understand the genre. These games rely on damage coming from player mistakes, such that carefully managing health and resources is critical to survival. In fact, I think even the developers realized that they had kind of fucked up with all this cheap damage, because every 2 or 3 enemies drops a health pickup, and healing injectors are stashed around every other corner. The proliferation of healing supplies seems like a last-minute band-aid to make the game playable and even remotely fair, because they probably didn't realize the problem until it was too late in development to change the fundamental design of the game.

Healing Gel is handed out like candy -- presumably to offset all the cheap hits the player will suffer.

Spongiest of bullet sponges

Oh, and as for those aforementioned bosses: they are some of the worst that I've ever played. The same boss is recycled multiple times, and is just a huge bullet-sponge in a tiny arena. On the normal difficulty, despite having a full inventory of Healing Injections and ammo going into the first fight with this boss, I ran out of bullets before I killed the boss. I can't attack it at melee either, since it will insta-kill me if I try. So I honestly don't see how this boss fight is possible to beat if the player runs out of ammo. After a couple failed attempts, I settled on the strategy of shooting it until it is stunned, and then running up and hitting it 2 or 3 times in melee. I could consistently get past the first phase of the fight, but would die in the second phase.

Usually those deaths would come while I'm trying to switch guns. The process of switching guns is also a frustrating chore in this game. The gun in the game is modular, so each new weapon is really just a different attachment for the same gun. This is a neat sci-fi shooter concept, but in practice, it has some serious issues. Switching guns is not just a simple matter of holstering the old gun and pulling out the new gun, ready to immediately fire. Instead, the character has to go through a laborious animation of pulling out the new module and attaching it to the gun. If I press the aim button before this animation has finished, the game switches back to the old gun, which is usually out of ammo. This is another thing that leads to taking a lot of unfair and cheap deaths.

Switching guns involves a lengthy animation, which can be canceled if you draw the gun too soon.

Anyway, for that bullet-spongey boss, I eventually had to lower the difficulty to "easy", just so that I would have enough ammo to actually kill it. Even then, it still took another half dozen tries (and well over an hour, cumulatively). It's not that the fight itself is hard from a mechanical standpoint. It's actually tedious and easy. The entire fight consists of circle-strafing around an obstacle in the center of the arena and taking pot-shots whenever I have any clearance to do so. Since I'm always circle-strafing, I'm always moving like 30 or 45 degrees to one side or another, which means the character almost always successfully dodges automatically.

Despite the relative ease of the fight's mechanics, the boss's heavy attacks are still one-hit-kills (even on easy mode). One screw up, and it's back to the beginning of the fight. Since the boss is a bullet sponge, it requires a lot of dodges. But getting caught backing up instead of circle-strafing, or getting stuck on part of the arena geometry just once, and it's Game Over.

I even tried looking online to see if there is some alternative, less bullet-spongey way to beat this boss. During the fight, a voice on the intercom keeps repeating "Do not approach platform edge". It made it seem like there should be some trick to damage or kill the boss by luring it to the edges of the platform and pushing it off. But no. This is only relevant for the gauntlet of enemies that you have to fight before the boss. Yes, there is a gauntlet of enemies prior to this boss fight, with no opportunity to heal or restock ammo in between! Fortunately, it checkpoints between the gauntlet and boss, but it's still outright cruel and malicious encounter design.

The Two-Head boss is simple, but is a grueling marathon of a fight.

Everything wrong with Dead Space

So Callisto Protocol blunders almost everything that it tries to do to separate itself from Dead Space. Unfortunately, it also manages to blunder much of what it tries to borrow from Dead Space. When I think back to Dead Space and the things that I liked from that game, almost none of it actually made it into Callisto Protocol. For example:

  • Callisto Protocol does not have Dead Space's variety of fun and exotic weapons that allows player to strategically dismember enemies. All the weapons in Callisto Protocol are just simple point-and-shoot guns: a pistol, shotgun, and assault rifle, plus a smaller shotgun and another, weaker, pistol (for some reason).
  • Callisto Protocol lacks the Immersive environment that feels like an actual, functioning space ship in Dead Space. Callisto Protocol is just linear corridor after linear corridor, with little-to-no logical structure, and frequent, immersion-breaking set-piece design. Like, what possible reason is there for so many walls to have spikes sticking out of them?! Does the game even try to give an explanation for what these spiky walls are for?
  • Callisto Protocol doesn't have any kind of objective marker or mini-map, let alone one that is as useful as the one in Dead Space.
Callisto Protocol lacks the awesome and strategically robust arsenal of Dead Space.

If the designers couldn't successfully adapt any of the substantial concepts from Dead Space, then what superficial elements of Dead Space's design did Callisto Protocol bother to replicate? And how did they manage to fail to understand why those design elements worked in Dead Space?

The kinesis mechanic is copied almost verbatim. The player can force pull objects and throw them at enemies for various effects. You can also force pull enemies and throw them around or into environmental hazards. The big difference in Callisto Protocol is that there's a greater focus here on force pulling enemies and throwing them out of the arena or into hazards for insta-kills, instead of pulling objects from the environment and throwing them at enemies for damage.

Callisto Protocol also doesn't adapt the "statis" element of Dead Space' Kinesis mechanic. So there's no puzzles or environmental obstacles for the player to solve. Heck, there aren't even any puzzles or environmental obstacles that use the force pulling mechanic in Callisto Protocol. I don't recall ever once having to pull a bridge or walkway to make a path, or pull a macguffin that's just out of reach, or anything similar to that.

Arenas are littered with spiky walls to throw enemies into.

Remember that tentacle monster in Dead Space that would occasionally grab the character and drag him along by his foot to insta-death unless you shoot the glowy weak spot? Well that's back. Sort of. Except this time, it's a single-button-mashing QuickTime event, and it leeches the character's health gradually while the player is mashing the button to escape. Unlike Dead Space's analogous sequences, these sequences in Callisto Protocol do not utilize any of the game's core mechanics, and so just feels like superfluous, health-leeching bullshit.

And of course, there's the boot stomp. That's back. In fact, now you have to use the boot stomp to force enemy corpses to drop loot. So if you defeat an enemy in a more clever way like force pushing them off a ledge or into an environmental hazard, you don't get the reward of being able to boot stomp them for loot. It feels like Callisto Protocol is punishing me for clever, efficient solutions to combat scenarios, and rewarding me for just brute forcing my way through with melee and guns, in complete contrast to what the game's mechanics want me to do.

The little things

As I said at the top of this review, I didn't experience the game-breaking bugs, technical problems, and performance issues that others reported on social media in the days following the game's release. But that doesn't mean I didn't come across any technical issues at all. Quite the contrary.

Sometimes, after dying and reloading a checkpoint, item pick-ups that were in the room before aren't there anymore. And this isn't a case of item drops from defeated enemies. No. These are pick-ups that were in the room already, but which don't respawn when re-loading a checkpoint. I don't know what the hell is being loaded when the game is re-loading a checkpoint, but it sure as hell isn't item pick-ups.

Sometimes item pick-ups will also clip through the environment and be unable to be picked up at all.

Sometimes, when trying to throw an enemy out of the arena or into a hazard, they just bounce off an invisible wall and fall back to the ground right in front of me. Hey, at least I get to boot-stomp them and collect loot. Even so, it's frustrating to think I've eliminated to enemy, only to have him fall to the floor right in front of me and immediately get up and start attacking me. This also lead to several cheap deaths, especially in the "Colony" chapter.

Sometimes the gun doesn't point in the correct direction, especially after melee attacks. So I end up wasting a round or two of ammunition because I either fire wherever the gun ends up, or (anticipating the gun not aligning correctly) I over-compensate, and whiff.

Buying items and upgrades at the Refabricator can be tedious.

I guess it's not really a technical issue, but the lack of a quick turn command also caused a lot of problems. There were multiple occasions in which I was ambushed from behind, and took multiple hits in the back while I was trying to turn the character around to attack the enemy. Similarly, trying to engage in melee frequently resulted in me being pinned into corners.

The checkpoint system also gave me occasional headaches. Some checkpoints are way too early and force me to have to replay several minutes of gameplay, or re-watch lengthy, unskippable cutscenes. Other times, they spawn me right at the start of a combat encounter or boss fight, with the enemy charging right at me as soon as the game starts. I have no opportunity in this case to switch weapons (because switching takes so long) before the enemy is right on top of me.

Sometimes, the checkpoint puts me back in a safe room with a refabricator (which can be used to upgrade weapons or buy ammo and health injectors). But the checkpoint doesn't save anything that I had previously bought at the refabricator. So every time I die and reload from the checkpoint, I have to buy everything again. Manually saving doesn't even resolve this, as the manual save seems to start the game from the same exact checkpoint with the same exact game state as the original checkpoint.

The fabricator also has some nagging problems. It doesn't show how many of a given item I currently have in my inventory. If I want to buy some ammo, but forget which guns have low ammo, I have to exit the refabricator, open my inventory menu, and check my ammo stock. The refabricator also won't let me print multiple copies of the same ammo or health injector. If I want to stockpile ammo for an upcoming boss fight, I have to buy the ammo one clip at a time. And it's not even a clip with the expanded magazine upgrade that every gun can take. No, each ammo clip is the default ammount of bullets, which means that just re-filling an upgraded gun's clip requires buying two clips from the refabricator. Ugh, so tedious!

The Tactical Pistol is so weak! Why is it in the game?

And honestly, what the hell is the Tactical Pistol even for? Why is it in the game? It has so little stopping power that it can't even stagger an enemy before that enemy has run across one of the game's narrow hallways to reach the player. And I can unload two whole clips into a single enemy and still not kill that enemy. What is the intended purpose of this gun?!

And lastly, even if I felt inclined to try to get a Platinum Trophy by finding all the collectibles, there's no Game Summary screen to tell me which collectibles I missed. And even if there were, there's no Chapter Select menu to go back and get those collectibles. I would have to restart the entire game, with a wiki or guide open, in order to find all the collectibles that I would need to Platinum the game. Basic stuff like that is just missing, which feels like a testament to either the lack of experience of the team and its leads, or the game being rushed to meet a release deadline.

AAA, grade-A garbage

I honestly can't think of much good to say about Callisto Protocol. Honestly, I'm mostly just thankful that it was over as soon as it was. Even though Callisto Protocol isn't very long (it's only 8 chapters), it still somehow feels padded by frequent, predictable complications shifting the goal posts back another half hour. Not to mention all the constant trial-and-error of dying, and restarting, which considerably pads the game's length.

I will say that the camera is good at highlighting [attempts at] scares and the occasional event of interest. Even the over-played sequences of pulling open bulkheads or shimmying through narrow openings (which are usually used by AAA games to mask loading times) will sometimes use that time to focus the camera on a jump scare or tension-building event or hint at what's to come. But unfortunately, the level designers stop doing this by about halfway through the game. I mean, yeah sure, the attempts at jump scares are often kind of pathetic, but at least the designers try to use the time during this technical compromise to do something atmospheric. It's a good effort; it just doesn't quite achieve the desired effect.

Furthermore, Callisto Protocol never really works as a "horror" game because it's never really scary. The quick, repeated deaths from melee combat and ambushes prevents any real tension from building. Pretty much right from the moment I walk out of the prison cell in the first chapter of the game, there is just an expectation that I'm going to die a lot and have to re-do set piece after setpiece. Death is never really a fear, so the frequent ambushes and quick deaths just become annoying and frustrating instead of scary.

Load-masking sequences are utilized for occasional atmospheric effects.

I'd love to at least be able to praise the game for it's visual fidelity, voice-acting, and other aspects of artistic and production design. But I just can't do that either. Yeah, sure the visuals are crisp and detailed. Josh Duhamel's face is very well modeled, and the character seems to be constantly turning back towards the camera in order to make sure that the player sees how detailed his facial model is. But the overall artistic design is un-inspired and non-distinct. So many areas are just drab gray and brown and difficult to tell apart from the places I've just been. So many objects in the environment shine and reflect light, which is distracting and makes me think there's item pick-ups that aren't there. And the creature design just isn't particularly threatening, grotesque, or interesting.

Even though the level designers often literally write notes and paint arrows on the walls to tell me where to go, I still, somehow, often had trouble figuring out where I'm supposed to go next. Which path is the optional path versus the path to the next objective or set piece? It often seems completely arbitrary. If I get turned around, I often don't notice it till I've walked 2 or 3 hallways back in the direction I came.

All the personality immersive detail that helped make Dead Space so good and memorable is just absent from Callisto Protocol.

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