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'The Callisto Protocol' review: good unclean fun

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The Callisto Protocol is not a subtle game. Within a few minutes you'll have been manhandled by security robots, slapped about a bit by a security officer and had an implant wired to the back of your head to remind you that this is a body horror game.

Then you're hurled into Black Iron Prison, one of Jupiter's moons. Black Iron Prison is the sort of place Riddick would look to escape from. It's full of squirrely corridors, industrial accidents waiting to happen and a few metric tons of body-horror beasties: mutated prisoners that want to kill you with blades, bashes or bites. And that's without even mentioning the bosses. The environmental design in The Callisto Protocol is excellent, but the end result of an incredibly talented art department trying to make so unrelentingly unpleasant is that B.I.P is not a place anyone wants to visit.

Sadly Jacob Lee - the game's main character, played by Josh Duhamel - quickly goes from innocent transport pilot to prisoner, for reasons that are nearly impossible to understand but feel distinctly unreasonable because Lee is an instantly likeable character. Chatting away as he comes to terms with the horror he's been hurled into, it's hard not to warm to him.

The Callisto Protocol. Credit: Striking Distance Studios.

Another not-subtle thing? The influence of Dead Space, EA's space-horror directed by Glen Schofield, who is also behind this remake. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, Dead Space should feel pretty pleased with itself: the look, feel and inventory system will feel immediately familiar to fans of that game, in addition to the health bar stapled to the back of Lee's spine. Remember Dead Space's anti-gravity glove? The Callisto Protocol has that, too. You can toss enemies into a fan or into a hole with it, though, so I'm okay with the addition.

The big difference between the two games is that The Callisto Protocol is a lot heavier on melee combat. The game is unforgiving, getting twatted by a bad guy will often obliterate your health bar and most of the enemies attack in a combo, so you can quickly go from healthy to "very nearly dead" in, seconds. Your only real answer to that is the game's dodge function: a flick of your stick to the left or right at the exact moment to dodge the attack. Get this wrong and you'll strafe using the movement controls rather than the dodging controls, strafing right into the attack.

The Callisto Protocol. Credit: Striking Distance Studios.

I got this wrong a lot, and it meant I was constantly low on healing supplies. The combat system feels punishing, but it feels even more unreasonable when you consider how frail and human Lee feels. Movement is cumbersome, winding up for attacks feels sluggish and while that's all a-okay with me, everything feels distinctly imprecise. It feels like the game would be more fun if it was more forgiving, particularly because the enemies you're facing are so durable, and the combat system feels so loose.

You'll get more ranged weaponry later and the game opens up to give you more freedom in combat encounters, but it never really gives me the level of control I wanted to feel to fight the game's enemies.

I feel that lack of control most of the time. Enemies don't have any clear visual or audio clues so you don't really know who is getting up in your grill until you're pressed into that squishy disgusting flesh. These villains will, often, mutate as you're fighting them if you don't shoot them in their weak spot to stop the evolution. But, just like the rest of combat, this also feels so imprecise.

The Callisto Protocol. Credit: Striking Distance Studios.

Lee is a regular human so I'm not expecting commando skills, but I don't expect to feel so hindered by my stupid fleshy body, especially when my enemies are deriving so much strength from theirs. It just doesn't feel very fair, and this frustration made me enjoy the game a lot less. A saving grace is that Callisto Protocol's death animations are equal parts horrifying and brillliant, with Lee getting some truly brutal death scenes. While some go big, my favourite involves you just getting punched to death from the brute strength of the mutant killing you. Your skull cracks like an egg, and I giggled in disgusted delight the first time I saw it. There's also some half-baked stealth mechanics that can lead to some satisfying stealth kills or the chance to get mauled as soon as you finish your kill animation.

The weapon upgrades are particularly enjoyable. This, too, is lifted almost wholesale from Dead Space - but putting your weapons into a 3D-printer and getting to watch the printer spray upgrades onto it is excellent, and the upgrades do feel like they offer a meaningful upgrade, which makes it exciting to slap new bits and pieces into it.

All of these combat systems, combined with the fact the game really isn't that scary, add up to make The Callisto Protocol more of an action game than a genuine horror. From the big book of horror influences The Callisto Protocol is less Event Horizon or Aliens and more Alien Resurrection: janky, action-packed and, well, fun. A whole lot of fun. Like Alien Resurrection, it also would have been endlessly improved by the appearance of Ron Perlman.

I imagine The Callisto Protocol's developers would have been happy with that too. The biggest issue is that The Callisto Protocol doesn't realise it's this tropey horror bloodbath, and thinks that it can turn this cornucopia of horror references into a work of art. Quite frankly, it can't.

The Callisto Protocol is out now, for PC, PlayStation and Xbox. We reviewed it on PS5. 

Verdict

The Callisto Protocol is big dumb fun. Sadly, there's so much middling combat that it blots out all of the great work in characterisation, art and atmosphere. The Callisto Protocol is a love letter to video game and cinematic horror that fails to be more than a scrapbook, a pale imitation of the genre's best bits.

Pros

Cons

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