Striking Distance's debut AAA horror title is here, and does not disappoint.
It happens only on those rare occasions that we get a AAA-looking, big-budget heavy-hitter from a brand new developer. So entrenched are the established goliaths in this business, that those who command the budgets often are names we know, and they work with known intellectual properties too.
So most established press, as well as consumers it would seem, have had their interest piqued by The Callisto Protocol from the beginning. A brand new IP, one with no multiplayer or social aspects, no loot boxes or microtransactions, no sprawling open world or heaps of additional side content to keep players indefinitely busy. No, The Callisto Protocol is a new IP, a new horror IP mind you, which seems content with entertaining you for something along the lines of 12-15 hours, and offers no way for you to interact with it subsequently, beyond taking on an additional playthrough - because it's fun. What a novel concept.
Already, this is rather refreshing, as we all have to navigate the slog that is our live service-oriented reality, filled with endless filler and incessant monetisation. It feels cheap to say The Callisto Protocol gets top marks on principle on this particular front, but it kind of must. Others may follow its example - please.
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So let's dive into what it is rather than what it isn't. The Callisto Protocol is developed by Striking Distance Studios, a team lead by Sledgehammer founder Glen Schofield. It's a team of veterans, but this IP is brand new, even if it started out in life as semi-attached to PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds of all things. The game is also the opening salvo for publisher Krafton, who's no longer content with just banking on aforementioned PUBG. They want in on the AAA action. And AAA action, this is.
Schofield was also the executive producer on Dead Space, and that DNA is felt throughout the entirety of Callisto. Third-person horror? Check. Close over-the-shoulder camera? Check. Stomping mechanic? Check. Disease spreading through an Alien-like sci-fi location? Check. It wears its inspirations on its sleeve, is what I'm saying, but it never comes off as lack of imagination - it's not like we're swimming in these kinds of titles anyways, right?
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The Callisto Protocol takes place on Callisto, a Jupiter moon, where the inmates of a super prison are suddenly turned into horrible monsters thanks to something called the "Biophage". It's up to new inmate Jacob Lee, played by Josh Duhamel, to escape. Of course the plot only deepens from there, both the origins of the Biophage, as well as Jacob's life prior to landing in the prison, unfolds. But it's a simple story, really; "escape Callisto", and the game never narratively overindulges in its own setting.
In fact, The Callisto Protocol kind of makes a selling point out of never wasting your time. It's lean, it's focused and it never ever asks you, or even fleetingly suggests deviating from the main path, and even if you're adventurous, deviations are few and far between.
That focus also allows the team at Striking Distance to throw one proprietary section and environment after the next at the player. Each layer of the Black Iron Prison is unique, and each façade, room or space looks and feels handcrafted, with no copy/pasting or uninspired environmental design. There's depth everywhere you look; a flickering lamp illuminating a severed head on a control console, a helpless victim writing goodbyes in blood on the wall, the snowflakes melting on the hot exterior glass walls of the upper sections of the structure. It's all detail, detail that can only ever be achieved with a truly linear structure. The Callisto Protocol is linear with a capital L, only rarely, if ever, offering up alternative paths forward.
The Callisto Protocol is scary in the way Dead Space, or Resident Evil Village, is scary. There's terrible monsters lurking around every corner, and clever lighting, sound design and enemy placement will keep you on your toes, but you're quickly given the tools to survive, and because you have tools, the degree to which you feel threatened diminishes somewhat. That didn't bother me personally, but those looking for Amnesia- or Outlast-levels of vulnerability won't find it here. Jacob has a stun baton, a handgun and the GRIP glove as his main tools, and even though his arsenal gradually expands, those can be upgraded through terminals throughout the game, using sparse resources found on bodies and in the environment. There's a really limited inventory system, which constantly forces you to think about what you can carry, and what you can't, and through the upgrades you get access to more abilities.
It all funnels into a pretty satisfying and visceral combat system, which asks the player to perform well-timed dodges, or block by pressing the analogue stick down, and then strike back insistently through a combination of melee and ranged attacks. It's up n' close, brutal and works well most of the time. Again, some might consider it rudimentary, but it comes off as refreshingly focused, rather than uninspired and simplistic - that too is a sign of the times. The array of enemies gradually expands too, and because resources can be increasingly sparse, you're going to have to cleverly combine the GRIP glove (which lets you pull an enemy towards you and let you fling it into an environmental hazard for an instant kill), limited amounts of ammunition and stun baton flurries, and even though controls are heavy (as in heavy) and the camera is really close, you can get some semblance of a flow up and running.
But in The Callisto Protocol it's all really about the spectacle of that first run, and it does this so very, very well. From established set pieces to dialogue between characters, from combat encounters to scrambling for resources, the game never overreaches but consistently hits its stride when combining these scenarios into one fluid sci-fi action horror experience, like Dead Space, and to an extent Dead Space 2, did so many years ago.
That does not mean that it's all hunky dory. There are small pacing problems throughout, and particularly the opening hour or so does feel rushed next to the more deliberate pacing of the remainder of the game. Furthermore, while I didn't personally experience any technical issues during my playthrough on Xbox Series X on Performance Mode (which offers up a pretty smooth 60fps experience), my Swedish colleague did experience quite a few bugs and glitches, which did end up affecting his experience.
But ultimately, The Callisto Protocol is a triumph. It's not only a triumph because it refuses to include some of the both predatory and bloated mechanics and systems which almost seems ubiquitous in game design today, it's a triumph because it's an entertaining thrill ride, which reaches its goals thanks to understanding the balance between ambition and practical grasp. It's beautiful to look at, superbly acted, nicely put together and above all it's seeped in atmosphere and tense moments. Striking Distance and Krafton has made a damn good one.