The pitch for The Callisto Protocol is enticing: the creators of the Dead Space series of sci-fi survival horror games would finally make a spiritual successor to this franchise, nearly 10 years after it was dormant at Electronic Arts. The Callisto Protocol would also draw on the elements of Dead Space – crawling through cold, abandoned space environments inspired by Extraterrestrial‘s Nostromo, being doused in gore ripped from Event horizon – with a decade of experience and maturity to hopefully improve something.
Developer Striking Distance Studios has instead created something widely divergent – a spiritual successor to Dead Space with some of the best parts of Dead Space, but not all of them. In some ways it’s a step backwards.
The Callisto Protocol opens with space trucker Jacob Lee, played by actor Josh Duhamel, carrying out One Last Job. This mission, naturally, goes awry when an apparent terrorist group sabotages their freighter, causing it to crash-land on Jupiter’s second-largest moon, Callisto. Jacob and his ship’s saboteur, Dani Nakamura (played by The boys‘ Karen Fukuhara), find themselves thrown into the moon’s black iron prison. Disaster doubles when Jacob awakens to find himself equipped with an invasive implant called CORE, in the midst of a catastrophic epidemic, and surrounded by mutated monsters wreaking havoc. Jacob, armed only with a stun staff, struggles to escape his wrongful and inexplicable imprisonment.
Where Dead Space focused on the high voltage shooter and the tactical section of the members of the grotesque zombies, The Callisto Protocol puts meaty, action-packed melee attacks at the center of his combat. Monsters in the game swing at Jacob with tedders, which he can dodge by leaning left or right. It’s a mechanism that is reminiscent of Nintendo’s Punch !!, where Jacob can dance and weave until he can find an opening to bludgeon his attacker into a bloody mess. Later, Jacob has access to pistols, shotguns, and rifles, which become complementary to melee combat, not wholesale replacements. He also gains Jedi-like powers, thanks to the battery-powered GRP, a glove that can grab and throw objects, including the monsters themselves.
At first, the fight can seem frustrating. Jacob’s heavy movement makes everything feel slow and inconsistent, and knowing when to dodge, or even when you’ve been hit by an attack, can be unclear. Understand game timing — find The Callisto Protocol‘s groove — takes time. Eventually, switching between melee, shooter, and GRP controls starts to click.
Even in one-on-one combat, a successful encounter might involve a series of dodges, punches, surgical pistol shots (yes, you can also remove limbs from enemies here), and telekinetically throw an enemy to give you space. GRP sometimes allows for one-hit kills, letting you launch enemies into whirling spikes or fans, turning them into a big jet of gore. But GRP is a very limited resource and should be used sparingly. Later encounters change things up, pitting Jacob against sentry robots that can instantly kill him from afar and mindless monsters where stealth kills with a shiv are not only preferred, they’re anything but necessary for success.
Still, the game has an overall feeling of slowness, a seemingly intentional choice to give Jacob and the enemies a sense of weight and impact. Some inputs, however, like quick weapon switching, don’t seem to register at times, which is a huge problem in difficult encounters. Activate “performance mode” in The Callisto ProtocolGraphics settings help alleviate that sluggish feeling. By default, the game uses a more cinematic and graphically impressive visual mode. But the improved frame rate – and more responsive inputs – offered by performance mode make a huge difference.
But even once you settle more into The Callisto Protocolrhythm, combat scenarios often feel unrefined. Smaller enemies spawn with little to no warning, for example locking Jacob into quick events that deplete his health. Monsters also spawn directly behind you, making some encounters downright unfair. Dead Space had its “monster closet” moments that caused fun and well-deserved jump scares – but mutated zombies emerging from grates in the floor out of your line of sight? Much less enjoyable, especially when paired with the game’s disorienting camera movement. That’s nothing compared to several times when the game throws throngs of enemies at you. These are the worst parts of The Callisto Protocol, where any tension gained shatters and immediately turns into pure aggravation. Multiple difficulty spikes pushed the game beyond the realm of “enjoyable challenge” and into that of “unfair masochism”. I finally switched to easy mode out of necessity.
The game’s checkpoint system is also inconsistent. There are frequent checkpoints, thankfully, but they often occur seconds into a boss battle, with no time to heal, reload, or reach a safe position to recompose.
You unlock upgrades over time that make Jacob slightly more powerful. At 3D Printing Stations, you can spend money acquired from chests, corpses, and selling contraband to upgrade weapons and GRP. But no upgrade makes Jacob a monster-slaying god, and the credits are handed out sparingly enough that it seems impossible to upgrade and unlock everything in one playthrough. (Or, currently, in a second part, as The Callisto Protocol does not yet have a new game mode plus where upgrades will be postponed. According to the developer, this should be done early next year.) Deciding which weapon or device to upgrade might seem difficult: a few extra seconds of battery life for the GRP is worth- more than a more powerful stun baton? Do I need to detonate credits on the increased ammo count node to open the damage increase for bullets later?
The Callisto Protocol3D Printing Stations, operated by the United Jupiter Corporation which runs the Black Iron Prison, may offer my favorite piece of world-building/commentary in an otherwise fairly straightforward sci-fi horror thread. Posters scattered throughout the prison inform security guards that they can spend their so-called Callisto Credits to upgrade their equipment, requiring them to spend their own money on the very supplies needed to protect themselves against inmates.
Beyond that, the story of The Callisto Protocol and the Black Iron disaster is told primarily through Jacob’s interactions with fellow prisoners Elias and Dani, as well as the warden and his sadistic captain Ferris. Players can also acquire audio recordings of inmates and guards, but unlike similar audio logs in Dead Space games, which played through the games diegetic holographic user interface, The Callisto Protocol forces the player to stop whatever they’re doing and devote their full attention to listening to each recording. Since some of the recordings I listened to added nominally to the story, they started to feel inessential to the game’s narrative. I came away satisfied, but not surprised, The Callisto Protocolthe story.
Where The Callisto Protocol excels in its atmosphere and surroundings. The game’s cold, metallic, industrial world is beautifully realized, giving Black Iron Prison a gritty, tangible, and weighty feel. Jacob fights his way through air ducts, through sewage puddles, and between dangerous machines that can tear him (and his enemies) to shreds in an instant. Beyond the prison walls, players will explore an equally dark and terrifying lunar surface, where they are battered by snow and wind. The Callisto Protocol presents an impressive and painstakingly created world; it’s a game that looks expensive, and not just for its Hollywood flair. (In addition to Duhamel and Fukuhara, Striking Distance and publisher Krafton have also enlisted actors Gwendoline Christie and Michael Ironside for a six-episode podcast prequel to The Callisto Protocol.)
The Callisto Protocol is extremely linear, with only a few twists, very few backtracking, and almost no puzzle solving. the original dead spaceAbsent is the holographic wayfinding system here, but there are plenty of arrows and graffiti acting as literal road signs to your next objective. In other words, the game doesn’t want you to get lost, although I can’t imagine doing that anyway. After completing The Callisto Protocol in about eight hours – not counting the dozens of failed attempts in the section that led me to select easy mode – I see no reason to return to the game until Striking Distance adds the new game mode plus or a additional story content. Also, the manual save system doesn’t make it easy to go back to previous chapters, meaning I’d have to do a full trail to pick up everything I missed.
With The Callisto Protocol, Striking Distance proves it can create moments of nerve-racking tension and horror with a well-crafted combination of sights, sounds, and atmosphere. The studio was smart not to create an individual copy of Dead Space – especially with original publisher Electronic Arts now returning to the franchise with a remake due next month. But remains: The Callisto Protocol could have borrowed a few more lessons from its witty inspiration and further refined its mechanics to create a game that plays as well as it looks.
The Callisto Protocol was released on December 2 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PS5 using a pre-release download code provided by Krafton. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased through affiliate links. You can find additional information on Polygon’s ethics policy here.