Striking Distance Studios has made no secret of the fact that its inaugural effort, The Callisto Protocol, shares plenty of DNA with Visceral Games' genre-defining Dead Space franchise, and with a bunch of ex-Visceral staff, including Dead Space's co-creator, designer, animation director and co-developer all involved here, it should come as no surprise that there are plenty of similarities to be found, plenty of parallels to be drawn, between the two games. But has Glen Schofield's new dev team managed to deliver us a game that can stand toe to toe with 2008's Necromorph-hacking classic? Has Striking Distance Studios successfully extracted the essence of Visceral's breakout hit and reworked it into another standout survival horror experience?
As soon as you take control of protagonist Jacob Lee for the very first time you can immediately feel the deep connections to Isaac Clarke's adventure, with the same purposeful weight and heft to movement and tight third-person perspective that puts you close to the action whilst also allowing you to keep an eye on the game's clever diegetic interface. Just as in Dead Space, Jacob's health bar and various other gauges are represented on his body and suit via holographic elements rather than a more traditional HUD. It's still a super slick and satisfying way to convey vital information, and one that we'd have expected to see borrowed by far more games since we first clapped eyes on it some 14 years ago.
Jacob nicks a few moves directly from everyone's favourite systems engineer too. You'll instantly recognise the heavy stomp that spits goodies from the corpses of downed foes, his GRP glove is highly reminiscent of Isaac's kinesis ability and everything from how he winds up a heavy attack to how he fires a gun feels exactly as slow, deliberate and purposeful as it did when we hacked and blasted our way down the corridors of the USG Ishimura.
Of course, one of the standout elements of Dead Space was its unique combat system based around the dismemberment of Necromorphs, cutting off their limbs to slow them down and kill them using the least number of shots possible in order to conserve your ammo supplies. It's a system that holds up wonderfully well to this day, and one that's so well balanced and fun to tool around with that Dead Space and its superb sequel (and even number 3 to a certain extent) are still an absolute joy to return to over and over again.
Not to be outdone, and knowing full well that Dead Space thrived on the uniqueness of its combat, The Callisto Protocol brings its own action system to the table. Here you use timed dodges to move out of the way of incoming attacks, opening up windows of opportunity to strike back with melee weapons and guns. Your dodges, thankfully, don't need to be perfectly timed - simply hold the left stick to either side to match the direction of attacks as they come in, Jacob will move out of harm's way and you can then follow up with a swing of your electrified baton or pull out a firearm to blast your enemy as a reticule pops up to give you a small window to do extra damage. You can also pull directly back on the stick to have Jacob block, a move that incurs a little damage starting out, but with a few upgrades makes for a decent barrier to most normal enemy assaults.
Early enemy encounters take place at a slow and deliberate pace, giving you time to get used to stringing together dodges and then blasting back with violent ripostes; it feels heavy, it feels brutal, it feels good. Much like Dead Space, the exaggerated physicality of everything in this world, from how slowly and purposefully you move to how you interact with your environment and viciously batter enemies to a pulp, gives the action here a super-satisfying and violent feel. And boy, are these encounters violent by the way. The Callisto Protocol is not a game for the squeamish, with incredibly brutal death animations, face-stompings, beheadings, crushed skulls, dismemberments, eye-gouging and more besides. Heck, there's even DLC death animations for the real sickos amongst you.
However, as much as we enjoy the feeling of the combat here, as satisfying as it is to batter the Biophage to itty-bitty pieces, there are problems, problems that are exacerbated as the game shifts from an engaging opening to a latter half that drops the ball in rather spectacular fashion. Yes, it brings us absolutely no joy to report that The Callisto Protocol is a bit of a let-down overall. This is a game that puts all of the important pieces in place; the flashy motion capture and next-gen graphics, the fantastic cast, the cutting-edge lighting system and 3D audio tech, and a premise that's engaging enough to draw us into its world, but then it all just...kinda falls apart. We'd wager most players will be enjoying everything about this adventure for the first five hours, before becoming frustrated and underwhelmed as it winds to its conclusion.
Indeed, The Callisto Protocol really does feel like a game of two halves. The opening escape from Black Iron Prison sets things up beautifully with a handful of tight 1v1 scraps against Biophage and robotic enemies that gets us into the groove, sells the combat system well and had us excited to see what was coming next. From here we tumble out into the snow for a graphically stunning outdoor section that has some fun with hordes of frozen foes and eventually down into the blood and mud-caked bowels of the planet for some ultra-claustrophobic sequences where keeping quiet is key to survival. All of this stuff had us utterly engaged, it's hard not to be blown away by how incredible everything looks and sounds, but we were very aware that we were still waiting for something...for the game to feel as though it had properly kicked into gear.
Unfortunately, the descent into disappointment begins as soon as Jacob's adventure decides to shift things up a notch midway through its campaign, with larger confrontations involving multiple enemies proving problematic. As much as we enjoy what the combat system in The Callisto Protocol is going for, and as much as it works in 1v1 situations, it all begins to feel a little bit out of your control, a little bit clumsy, as soon as you're surrounded by foes. You can still manage, and no doubt some players will make it their business to dig in and practice until they excel, but for us encounters that involved multiple enemies quickly became a matter of trial and error, of dying repeatedly until we'd learned the patterns and eventually made it through. We know it's meant to convey a desperate situation, but a lot of the time this just ain't much fun.
There's also a curious insistence throughout The Callisto Protocol on hitting you with jump scare attacks from small enemies, little guys who pop out of alien sacs or from chests you're opening in search of ammo. There's absolutely no way to defend yourself from these things, to know they're about to occur the first time you play through the game, and they very quickly become irritating as a result. By all means attack us with the scary face on a tentacle, but come on, give us a chance to avoid it or kill it before it hits us, eh.
It's frustrating stuff, and it gets worse. The final third of Jacob's ordeal is peppered with dull and repetitive showpiece encounters that make the already strained combat feel like a tedious ordeal. There's a large mutated enemy with two heads that shows up during a moving platform sequence, a huge beast that takes an age - and all of your ammo - to kill. Fair enough, but the only way to deal with this thing is to circle around and around the available play area, get enough distance, turn around and shoot a few times then keep moving, rinse and repeat. Getting anywhere near to your foe ends in instant death. It's a combat sequence that throws away all of the game's best action hooks in favour of very basic, messy and frustrating shooting.
What's more, the game decides to throw this very same enemy at you a total of three times during its final few hours, alongside another excruciating battle that tests your dodging techniques to the limit against a foe who ends up being the final confrontation in the game, a confrontation that once again involves little more than running around and around in circles, making space, firing at your foe then running away again lest you succumb to an instant death - and boy oh boy, do those ultra-violent death animations grow tedious when you've seen them forty times in quick succession. We never want to see a man have his head curb-stomped into mush ever again, thanks.
As this deterioration with regards to the action side of things is taking place, as you begin to realise there really aren't that many enemy types, fighting multiple foes is frustrating and boss fights are badly designed, the narrative aspects of the game also begin to fall apart. A setup that was initially full of promise - we were so excited during that opening prison escape sequence - reveals itself to be mostly full of hot air, there's really not a lot happening here, certainly nothing you haven't seen plenty of times before, and the whole thing is explained away in a few short bursts of hackneyed exposition before ending rather abruptly at around the 12 hour mark.
There are other issues too, unfortunately. The game's GRP system, a glove that allows Jacob to pull and fling enemies and objects, has lots of potential but it never feels as though it gets fully explored. There are a few areas with walls composed of spikes or great big fans for you to chuck foes at, but it's barebones stuff that never gets more creative than "hey look, a wall of spikes right behind the enemy that just spawned!" The dodging mechanic and crunchy melee combat too, once you've got your hands on a few guns, well, we barely used them, it felt much more advisable to keep enemies at arm's length. There is a neat combat system here, for sure, at times it shines and we get a taste of how things could have been, and we'd love to see it carried over into a sequel and improved upon, but this first roll of the dice just feels messy.
We've also got to mention the crazy amount of time Jacob spends squeezing himself through tight spaces during the campaign. We're all for a bit of claustrophobia, we don't mind crawling through a vent or pushing our way through a small gap in a wall here and there, but they've really gone overboard. There's one level in particular where you spend an inordinate amount of time slowly squeezing your body through barely opened doors and along walls as you bypass pipes. This stuff always looks cool, it makes you feel grounded in your surroundings, but it should be used a little more sparingly than it is here, surely.
In terms of performance, we're aware that the PC version of the game has notable problems at launch, but on Series X things are looking better, although not entirely without drawbacks. As is par for the course these days, you can choose to play in a quality mode that runs at 30FPS with a higher resolution and a few more graphical bells and whistles, or run with a performance setting that dials back the visuals to hit 60FPS. We mixed things up during our run through and we highly recommend you stick to performance as, apart from a few little dips here and there, it's a smooth experience.
The same, however, can't quite be said for that quality mode. The Callisto Protocol is already a rather sluggish-feeling game by its very nature and dropping the framerate to 30FPS - a 30FPS that occasionally struggles in a few areas on Series X, most notably during the game's Habitat chapter - just makes the combat feel a bit too stodgy for our liking. This is a shame for Series S players too, as it's become clear they don't have any other option but to play at this lower framerate right now, which means they're pretty much stuck with an inferior version in our opinion - the difference between 30FPS and 60FPS really is that noticeable during combat sequences.
Another downside of the Series X quality mode, as highlighted by Digital Foundry, is that ray traced reflections don't work properly at launch. Let's hope this feature gets patched in sooner rather than later, as the PS5 version currently offers the superior visual experience compared to Xbox's premium console (Update: this feature is now working as intended on Xbox Series X following a recent patch).
In the end, what you've got here is still a superb looking slice of sci-fi/horror on Series X - this really is one of the best-looking games we've played so far this generation. It's a game that starts well, it's got a pretty thrilling first half, the performances from all of the actors involved are on point, the combat system shows promise and feels great. However, the reality is that The Callisto Protocol falls apart quite noticeably the further into it you venture. This is a short game with little in the way of replayability, it's not particularly scary so much as it is violent, the story is unsatisfying and the combat struggles as the enemy count increases and a handful of badly designed boss encounters are introduced to the mix. Take away those fancy next-gen visuals and you're left with a pretty average experience all things told, a game that we were beyond excited about, and one that we now can't help but feel underwhelmed by.
The Callisto Protocol really is a game of two halves. Striking Distance Studios has served up a slice of sci-fi/horror that gets off to a reasonably strong start, introducing a jaw-dropping world and punchy new combat system that impresses until it becomes strained by busy enemy encounters, a handful of miserable boss confrontations and a narrative that goes absolutely nowhere. As much as this one dazzles from a graphical perspective, overall it's a shadow of the game that it most closely seeks to emulate. With little in the way of replayability and a final act we genuinely never want to sit through again, we'll be returning to the USG Ishimura for our action horror kicks long before we set down on Callisto again.