Let’s address the monstrous alien elephant in The Callisto Protocol’s room. The Callisto Protocol is a spiritual successor to Dead Space. It’s even directed by Glen Schofield, who was the executive producer of the soon-to-be-remade horror game. He’s joined by Steve Papoutsis, who led the Dead Space franchise after he left, and several other key team members from Visceral Games have joined to work on that successor to their horror classic.
This wouldn’t be an issue, normally, – we haven’t had a Dead Space game in years, and that westernised splatter-punk style of horror has been sadly absent. But, now EA is bringing a Dead Space remake out in January – we’ve played it – so it feels a little bit like that year when White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen came out, except instead of White House Down’s vest-wearing Channing Tatum we’ve got Callisto Protocol’s Josh Duhamel.
Callisto Protocol wears its inspiration pretty openly, too. There’s a glowing health bar on the back of main character Jacob Lee’s head, that over the shoulder camera will feel immediately recognisable, and even the fact that you stomp on enemies to make sure they’re dead and get their loot is a mechanic lifted straight out of Dead Space 2.
But, now that that elephant has been crushed with vigorous stomping, I’m here to deliver the good news: The Callisto Protocol is a grindhouse gorefest that feels distinct from Dead Space and plays totally different. There’s an emphasis on melee combat and a push to have the player conserve ammo. Black Iron Prison, located on Jupiter’s moon Callisto, has a grim concrete vibe that makes it feel more like Brawl in Cell Block 99 than Event Horizon, especially when you start scuffling with the alien beasties that have assailed the prison.
Combat also feels a fair bit more difficult, with combat often feeling like a desperate struggle to survive as enemies descend on you from all directions. Using the game’s GRP tool, an anti-gravity glove that lets you pick up enemies – exactly like the similar device from Dead Space – you can often turn the tide in interesting ways by tossing an enemy into a big hole, or lobbing an explosive barrel into the midst of them.
The beasties you fight in Callisto Protocol are uniquely spooky too: infected with some sort of alien virus that causes them to sprout tentacles and then mutate, you’ll have to prioritise shooting the mutation-causing tentacles before they mutate in real-time in front of you. This is cool to see, but that’s before the creature you were fighting up close grows a giant mouth and tries to eat your entire head.
This new combat means it’s even likely you’ll see some of The Callisto Protocol‘s savage death animations. These are slickly produced and often wince-inducing, as you watch Lee get bitten, sliced, torn, eaten, and sometimes just straight-up punched to death in the goriest way possible.
Otherwise, it all plays as you might expect, and is a perfect love letter to an era of mid-00s horror games. Sadly, this does include a shocking sequence where you’re tumbling headlong down a chute filled with water, trying to roll your character left and right to avoid some spinning fan blades. Miss, and you’ll die instantly. I missed a lot and it felt incredibly unfair until I realised that trying to avoid the fans themselves is a distraction and you basically just need to hurl yourself toward one wall and then the other to get through. This sort of puzzle solving – by hurling your own corpses at the problem – is frustrating, and was a low point of my demo.
So far, I’d say The Callisto Protocol was “pretty alright” – it’s fun to play and has a few decent scares. My worry is that it feels like a slightly remixed greatest hits collection and I would want to see some more original ideas that show that Callisto can mutate into something a little more interesting.