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The Callisto Protocol, The Kotaku Review

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Bizarrely, after a biophage mutant, limbs falling off it as easily as scooping into a pudding, puts its hands into my mouth and rips my jaw from my face for the fifth time, it comes to me: Oh, this is a transportation game.

The Callisto Protocol takes place on a moon run by tentacled enemies with loose limbs, but Dead Space game designer Glen Schofield's so-called spiritual successor would rather lead you by the hand through its squishy, wet, visually impressive labyrinth than let you revel in killing those enemies. Killing is never really the point, getting to the next location so that you can escape is. It's more Death Stranding than Dead Space.

As cargo ship pilot Jacob—who I thought really looked like soap opera star Josh Duhamel before realizing it was soap opera star Josh Duhamel replicated in sweaty, heroic detail—you need all the help you can get in order to escape the Black Iron Prison on Jupiter's moon, Callisto. You don't know why you were thrown into one of its inhospitable cells to begin with, why something called a CORE device has been jammed into your neck, syncing to your thoughts and health, why there are monsters everywhere, or if you should trust inmates Elias (Zeke Alton) or Dani (Karen Fukuhara), the latter of whom crashed your ship and got you into this shit.

Screenshot: Striking Distance Studios / Kotaku

But when they tell you to meet them at the tram, or take an intimidatingly tall ladder underground, or activate this or that control panel, you listen, and you start running. What else are you going to do? You're trapped, there's blood everywhere, do you have a better idea?

No, not really. You do what Elias and Dani tell you, their voices crackling through your DualSense controller (or your CORE device) while the prison creaks and falls apart. The sound design is impressively meticulous—Black Iron is filled with an ambient whine, pieces of metal crashing and clanging, while your zombified enemies, or biophages, take on the low notes, the scuttling, screaming, and gurgling all around you.

I don't think Callisto is a particularly scary horror game—watching Jacob's neck get twisted around and cracked like a knuckle is entertaining the first time, then an inconvenience once I realize this death scene repeats and is unskippable—but its multilayered audio keeps me at a giddy low-level anxiety. Like waiting for a text, or looking at the sun and realizing you can't see, for a moment, after you look away.

More hit or miss but still often admirable is the getting there, which the game is most interested in—fighting a biophage is a temporary distraction. Your plan to escape Black Iron sends you flying down sewer drains, trudging through a snowstorm, and through dim hallways glossed in organic matter, fleshy pods, sinuous tendrils, and slime. It sends you everywhere, in front of gorgeous lunar vistas and lit-up desktop screens and hurtling through space. Pristine white walls. Sticky floors. Air vents smeared with blood and loaves of glistening pink flesh. It makes you want to see more. And on the PS5, Callisto is able to deliver every high-shine, nitty-gritty detail with zero issues. Or, close to zero—sometimes my gun would mysteriously vanish before reappearing.

The Callisto Protocol also plays with the pace of this journey, often forcing Jacob to crawl quietly through tight cave walls or around blind biophages or thud his large, spacesuited body into a heavy sprint. Confronting so many different textures at so many different speeds feels great with haptic feedback—even grabbing an ammunition box or in-game currency, Callisto Credits, triggers a satisfying, unique thwack. Callisto is like tangible cinema in this way, slow and steady, which might require readjusting some expectations if you were hoping for on-your-toes horror.

But as varied and masterful as the getting there often looks and physically feels, I eventually tire of hearing my companions tell me I'm getting close only to fall through a collapsed walkway, or finally reach Callisto's cold surface just to be immediately instructed back inside by the Herculean zombies. At these points, the game feels aimless, and I have no sense of the progress I've made. My frustration only heightens when I'm stuck in a room full of unrelenting zombies.

Nothing a little concealer can't help.Screenshot: Striking Distance Studios / Kotaku

The zombies might be the least enjoyable part of Callisto's journey, which is not ideal, considering they're Jacob's motivation for getting out, and presumably your motivation to be curious and find out where they came from. As I learn by dying so, so, so many times—so many times, that around halfway through the game, I turn on the easiest setting, which still inexplicably lets some enemies kill you in two lazy hits—the zombies are coming from everywhere.

I love Dark Souls, the famous benchmark for difficult games, but unlike a FromSoftware boss fight, you can't "learn" how to progress past Callisto Protocol's vitriolic biophage hordes because they seem to spawn randomly and out of nowhere. "Are they invisible now?!" I scream at my PS5, either before or after I screamed, "I hate this fucking game!!!"

Biophages will pop out suddenly from rattling vents or from an otherwise empty room. They will look like they're frozen, encased in ice, and then suddenly be very alive, warm, and murderous. They come in many different shapes: standard decaying, decaying with armor on, decaying and projectile vomiting, wriggling at you with with snowball-sized, erupting pustules on their backs, coming at you looking like evil mutant axolotl and then turning invisible (?!).

You are given an arsenal to deal with them, primarily a sizzling stun baton for close combat, a hand cannon pistol and brain-blasting riot gun, and a gravity restraint projector (GRP) sleeve that bends gravity to hold enemies captive in the air until you throw them into a spiked wall, or spinning fan blade, or off a ledge.

In the game's early stages, only the baton and its characteristic whack feel like they're actually doing anything useful—enemies soak up your shrimpy default bullets like you're flicking marbles into a funeral pyre, which also makes it impossible to efficiently manage hordes. But as you progress, you can find the blueprints for additional weapons like an assault rifle and skunk gun, and use Callisto Credits to buy upgrades from Reforge locations throughout the game which, much to my amusement, doesn't let you buy more than one thing at a time. Before every boss fight, I'd spend five minutes individually buying ten ammo boxes.

Callisto wastes your time in small, unnecessary ways like that. Audio logs you collect from corpses throughout the game should help you unravel the story's secrets, but they don't play automatically—you have to enter your menu manually, select them, and stay in the menu. If you exit, they'll stop playing.

But the most irritating waste of time that made me consider, at my lowest moments, throwing my PS5 controller into the sludgy depths of the Gowanus Canal, is Callisto's sometimes faulty dodge mechanic.

When you confront any enemy, you are expected to dodge their attacks by holding your left stick in the opposite direction of their swing, or down if you're blocking it. The game tells you that there is no timing window, just get it done, but I dodge so many times and get yet another long, unskippable death animation—Jacob's skull getting stamped on and turned into an ocean spray of blood, Jacob's eyes getting gouged by fat zombie thumbs, Jacob's nose turning concave from all the fat zombie hits to the face—to know that can't be true.

Callisto's two-headed bosses are the worst at fumbling your dodge mechanic. So much as thinking about hitting them with your stun baton instead of staying far away and shooting them will lead to an immediate skewer through the chest. Make sure you spend five minutes collecting bullets or health top-ups from the Reforge, too. Found resources are limited, and manually saving the game starts you from your last checkpoint, so if you start a fight with low health and an unloaded gun, consider your fate sealed.

But for all these momentary irritations, I finish the game on a high. "There's always a price to pay," a villain repeats throughout The Callisto Protocol, reminding Jacob that making fallible, flabby humans great necessitates sacrifice. And in pursuit of video game greatness, I loved what I saw, so much so that I was willing to pay the price in faulty dodge mechanics. But as far as actual price goes, I don't think anyone should buy a $60 game, full stop, but especially not one that currently seems to be running abysmally on PC and won't get PlayStation's New Game Plus until a free update lands on February 7, 2023. But.

I consider The Callisto Protocol one of the most ambitious games I played this year, maybe even the most next to Elden Ring (though I think Elden Ring is in a league of its own—I don't know if anything will be able to approach its depth and sophistication for a long time). Its thoughtful attention to environment, sound, and touch is what, I think, next-gen gaming should be like: an experiment with the senses and with story. The game has its issues, too, which can't be ignored. But at least it feels human.

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