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Friday, December 2, 2022

‘The Callisto Protocol’ Review – ‘Dead Space’ Throwback Could’ve Used More Time in Development

I liked The Callisto Protocol a little more on my second time through it.

My first run was frustrating, with a lot of sudden violence and cheap deaths. Even on its medium setting, Callisto is unforgiving, and one missed dodge or block at the wrong time can get you decapitated, or dismembered, or impaled, or torn in half at the waist. It’s the sort of game that takes a real glee in murdering you, because that’s another chance to show you one of its dozens of elaborate death animations.

My problem, which I only really realized on my second time through the game, was that I’d screwed up my upgrades. Callisto feels a lot better once you’ve got access to its more powerful tools, because that puts you closer to an even keel with the monsters that’re trying to kill you. If you’re indecisively trying out a little bit of everything like me, you’ll hit the endgame without the necessary firepower to handle it, and there’s nothing in the game that will tell you that.

It’s a lot like Dead Space that way. Just as advertised.

The Callisto Protocol is a new game from some of the creators behind Dead Space, and it wears that influence on its sleeve. If you’re at all familiar with Dead Space, especially the first two games, you’ve already got a good grip on how Callisto feels to play.

That also means that Callisto has inherited a couple of Dead Space‘s problems, along with having a few that are all its own. It’s not impossible to have fun with The Callisto Protocol, but it takes more work than a video game ought to require.

It’s the 24th century, and humanity’s settled throughout most of the outer solar system. Jacob Lee (Josh Duhamel) is a cargo pilot who’s running a load of medical supplies to the Black Iron Prison, built on Jupiter’s moon Callisto.

On approach to Black Iron, Jacob finds a terrorist (Grace Fukuhara) has boarded his ship, and his attempts to fight her off end in a crash. When the guards show up, they unexpectedly arrest and imprison them both.

The next time Jacob wakes up, he’s in a cell, right as an unknown illness has turned many of the inmates and guards at Black Iron into hostile, mutated “biophages.” Jacob’s forced to team up with the last couple of uninfected people in the prison to find a way off Callisto.

Like Dead Space before it, there’s a real sense of dark glee in how hard Callisto is trying to kill you. Every individual enemy is a serious threat, and they can come from almost anywhere at any time. If you see one biophage, there’s probably at least one more waiting in a nearby ventilation shaft, and there are a few sudden ambushes that are very clearly meant to kill you on a blind run.

That’s meant to encourage you to be brutal, clever, and direct, as soon as you’ve got the tools for it. You start the game with a shiv, ideal for stealth kills or forcing locks open, and a club, which quickly gets upgraded to a riot baton. One on one, a biophage can kill you in a couple quick hits, but Callisto features a melee combat system that lets you bait enemy attacks, then dodge/block and counter.

When it works out, there’s a great feel to it, and Jacob’s melee finishers have an amazing sense of weight and finality to them. If there was an award for Most Satisfyingly Crushed Skull, Callisto would be a top contender for it.

The problem I consistently had with the melee in Callisto is that your defensive abilities are keyed to the left stick on controllers. You hold left or right to dodge in that direction, or down to block. In practice, I found I often got a block when I wanted a dodge, which is a lot of fun when you start routinely running into enemies with unblockable attacks. The overall timing on the mechanic also seems off, to the point where I’d sometimes get hit by something I saw coming from a mile away.

As you get further into the game, you’re given a few more tools that keep you from having to get into melee in the first place, which is also, not coincidentally, when Callisto is at its best. The highlight is the GRP, a gravity glove that lets you pick up and throw distant objects and enemies, which is great for evening the odds before you enter a fight. You can chuck fuel tanks as improvised grenades, toss biophages into spikes or off cliffs, or simply bowl one over with another to buy yourself a few seconds.

The guns are also more effective than they looked in Callisto‘s earlier trailers, particularly once you’ve gotten their damage upgrades. Ammunition’s at a premium in Callisto, but as long as you focus on one or two go-to weapons and keep upgrading them, you generally get enough bullets to get by. Around the end of Chapter 3, you can reach a point where you drop enemies as fast as they come at you, with a combination of creative GRP shenanigans, focused gunfire, stealth kills, and the occasional baton to the taint.

As I said above, though, it feels more like a system that I’m working around than one that I’m working with. Callisto‘s combat—and it’s almost entirely combat—is at its best when you have as many options as possible to keep you from having to use the dodge mechanic, or hit something with the baton. They’re by far the most elaborate feature in Callisto and you never want to use them if you don’t have to, especially if there’s more than one enemy nearby. Both the baton and evasion rely on auto-targeting, and Jacob sometimes has his own ideas about who he’s supposed to be dealing with at any given time.

It’s the first of several strange decisions that drag Callisto down. Switching weapons in the middle of a fight is a chore and often doesn’t actually work the first time; healing requires a mandatory, lengthy animation that leaves you vulnerable for several seconds; and as I noted above, there is absolutely a right way to upgrade your weapons and gear, but Callisto doesn’t tell you what it is.

If you figure all that out, you do hit a sweet spot around the middle of the game. While Callisto could use one more solid combat tool for variety’s sake, like how Dead Space had the stasis module, you do get a wide enough arsenal that you can have some fun.

Then you hit the endgame, and you start fighting enemies who aren’t affected by the GRP and barely react to gunfire. They’re just big meat walls, there to drain your resources, and they drag a lot of the game down with them.

My overall impression of The Callisto Protocol is that it could’ve used some more time in development, if not some more iteration. From its mechanics to its controls to its storyline, there are a lot of little things that don’t work, or don’t work as well as they should, or as well as they’re clearly meant to.

(I’ve also heard in passing that the PC version of Callisto is, at time of writing, not doing very well. I can’t speak to that; I played through the game on console, where I had minimal performance difficulties before the day-one patch and no difficulties after that.)

There’s a decent, bloody beat-’em-up in here somewhere, where you beat your way through the space zombie apocalypse with a riot baton in one hand and a revolver in the other, where any enemy who survives the first couple of hits gets telekinetically punted into a running exhaust fan. You can sort of see it, in Callisto‘s best moments, but it works very hard to keep them away from you.

Review code provided by Krafton/Striking Distance, for Xbox Series X & PlayStation 5.

The post ‘The Callisto Protocol’ Review – ‘Dead Space’ Throwback Could’ve Used More Time in Development appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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