Nothing gets the Waypoint staff hooting and hollering faster than the announcement of a new space horror game. What, you didn’t ask for the video game industry to make a dozen of these games? Sorry, but we did, and we’re going to play every last one of them, thank you.
And though setting your game in space and dropping in gross mutations of humanity go a long way towards laying the groundwork for something that’ll get us playing, that’s not enough on its own. We’re not in the 90s anymore, where the setting is wholly novel for a video game. Dead Space, a game itself receiving a proper remake early next year, set a new standard for the subgenre. The Callisto Protocol, in part made of ex-Dead Space developers, attempts to revisit the success of that game with some extremely mixed results.
Both Rob and myself couldn’t have been more excited to spend parts of our Thanksgiving holiday sneaking away from family and food to shoot up some gross little dudes, but to our surprise, The Callisto Protocol left us wanting more. A few hours into the game, I find myself a little more taken by the combat and what it’s doing than Rob, but we both agree this is a game making up for a lack of a unique identity with an endless parade of unearned jump scares.
Anyway, we recently went back and forth about our thoughts on the game after playing through a decent chunk. We’re maybe a third through the game? Neither of us have finished it, so keep that in mind as you read on.
Rob: Sci-fi space horror is a can’t miss genre for me. Ever since System Shock 2, I have gone out of my way to try and get hold of every single variation on the basic theme of, “Humanity, in its hubris, has taken to the stars. Its sins have followed it there, and now a mighty space installation and its brave and ambitious crew have either been slain or reduced to monstrous parodies of themselves.” So imagine my dismay when I realized, about an hour into Callisto Protocol, that I was not having an ounce of fun.
For one thing, it’s often the opening stages of games like this that showcase them at their best. The setting is new and novel, so the early action is filled with tiny revelations about what is really going and what type of sci-fi universe forms the backdrop of the game’s action. Think about Prey’s incredible set of feints and reveals before you’re really turned loose aboard Talos I, or the history of Sevastopol that is sketched out in the earliest sequences of Alien: Isolation. It struck me as a very bad sign that, after more than an hour with Callisto Protocol, I really couldn’t latch onto anything exciting or mysterious. I was in a space prison that didn’t even feel much like a prison, just a lot of hallways LEGO’d together into a series of meandering loops, fighting creatures that were certainly ugly but not really scary. Occasionally the warden would get on the PA system to basically say, “Sorry about all this, I just think monsters are cool.”
Now admittedly I am comparing Callisto Protocol with some great games here and it is a challenge for anyone working in an established genre to come do something new with it, but them’s the breaks. Compared with the broader horror space or its own subgenre, Callisto Protocol feels like it is struggling to set itself apart or even be a memorable exercise in genre design. While it’s gotten more fun to play as I’ve gone deeper and unlocked more weapons and mechanics, I have yet to see anything that stands out from either the setting or the characters. I’m kind of playing the hopes that I’m about to hit the “real game” where there are characters with motivations and encounters that take place somewhere besides a wide hallway or a narrow utility closet. Honestly, it just hit me what the real comparison is: The Callisto Protocol feels a lot like the middle sections of The Thing game. Just a whole lot of posting up and taking on hordes of monsters while trying to get to the next cutscene.
Patrick, you love horror even more than I do and I think you have a lot of patience for the kind of wet and meaty grindhouse flicks that Callisto Protocol could be evoking, so I’m curious if you’re proving to be a more sympathetic and favorable audience for it.
Patrick: “Callisto Protocol” already sounds like a VHS you’d find at the back of the video store in the 80s, and while frequently that’s frankly an n appealing pitch, it can feel a bit more that Asylum company, the one who puts out movies like Transmorphers and Top Gunner, where you’re reminded of the other games in this specific sub-genre that you liked more.
That sounds meaner than I intended it to sound, btw.
But I am, in fact, the target audience for a game more interested in grossing you out and screaming “BOO!” than telling a worthwhile story. There are plenty of horror movies that I appreciate more for the craftsmen who built the sets, models, and animatronics than anything else. What other reason is there to watch endless Puppet Master movies, then? There are different reasons to enjoy a piece of media that appears “shallow” on the surface.
“I really couldn’t latch onto anything exciting or mysterious. I was in a space prison that didn’t even feel much like a prison, just a lot of hallways LEGO’d together into a series of meandering loops, fighting creatures that were certainly ugly but not really scary. Occasionally the warden would get on the PA system to basically say, ‘Sorry about all this, I just think monsters are cool.’”
But there’s something about Callisto Protocol that rarely clicks on that level. I do think a huge part of it is owed to the game’s (so far) bland and repetitive setting, as there’s nothing to convince me we’re on some super cool futuristic space prison beyond knowing that’s a fact, and the monsters, maybe because they’re forced to be built around the game’s dodge-focused melee combat, come across as little more than zombies with pus bubbles.
And woof, I have a confession to make, though you already know this Rob, per our podcast discussion from earlier this week: I’ve been playing this video game wrong for something like four or five hours now! Callisto Protocol has guns, but it’s a melee-centric game. You are going to spend a lot of time causing enormous trauma by smashing screaming creatures in the face with blunt objects. The rhythm of combat works like this: enemies approach you, prompting the game to switch into a combat mode, where the left analog stick no longer moves the caracter around, but instead lets you dodge attacks to the left and right or block.
There is a slug of tutorial text explaining how the combat works when the game opens, but I must have skipped past the finer details, because my assumption was this: you should dodge away from attacks. This makes sense, right? You don’t want to get hit. Dodge away from an attack, then land a hit in return. The problem was that Callisto Protocol is largely set in the dark, and it made it exceptionally hard for me to read the attack animations with any real consistency. Over and over, I’d dodge in the wrong direction, take the precious few hits the game allows, and die. I was tearing my hair out. I’ve played and finished everything FromSoftware has released. (Except the final boss in Sekiro.) I’m okay with difficult games!
As it turns out, and as you pointed out to my great surprise, the game doesn’t care which direction you dodge in, you simply have to dodge in a direction and then weave to the other.
Mother of God.
And yet, while this reveal makes me feel better about my own inadequacies and struggles in the game’s opening hour, it simultaneously revealed a shallower form of combat, too? The enemies are clearly designed to swing in specific directions, which is why I absolutely assumed it had something to do with how I should dodge, and instead it’s a rhythm game.
I will say, a few hours in the game drops some new tools and abilities in the player’s hands—several guns, a gravity weapon that lets you whip around objects and enemies—and more complex combos. You can even mix-and-match melee and gunplay in some really satisfying ways. Even though I was playing Callisto Protocol wrong for an embarrassing length of time (I was actually forced to drop the difficulty down to easy to compensate, yeesh!), eventually it gave me enough options that while melee remained the “focus,” I had enough other options on the table at any given moment that I could go in another direction.
The melee stuff is a cool idea, I get why they did it. I’m just not convinced it all works.
Rob: I am pretty convinced it doesn’t. I understood the melee system just fine in theory but it took a long time for my brain to stop trying to respond to enemy attack patterns rather than just toggling my dodges between left and right. QTE systems aren’t as rote as this. It really takes away from a lot of the suspense of being swarmed by monsters when you know that ultimately you can just keep doing “dodge, dodge, strike, strike, dodge” and it will be irrelevant how you position yourself or how many enemies there are. The Dead Space comparison is relevant here: that basic laser cutter never stops being relevant to most enemies and it’s kind of neat how you just need to apply it differently as the game goes on, shifting your aim points and learning how different enemies will approach you or launch counter attacks. It’s simple up front but it’s mostly engaging to apply for the duration of the game. Callisto Protocol doesn’t seem to have that fun “core loop” that you hear a lot of developers talk about when it comes to action games.
Maybe the force glove that you get, “the grip”, is supposed to be the star of the show here. It certainly was the star of a lot of trailers, a kind of gravity gun for launching enemies into spinning fan blades and turning them into monster slurry. I don’t know that I’m feeling it though. For one thing, the environmental hazards you’re meant to use are so obvious that there’s none of that feeling of creativity that you associate with stuff like Half-Life’s gravity gun, nor is the grip useful in unexpected ways like the glue gun of Prey. Instead you’ll enter a room with a giant spinning blade or an enormous wood chipper and you’re just kind of meant to feed enemies into those things. Since that is so easy, however, the grip glove starts out with a really short battery life so I ended up being really choosy about when I used it.
Even when the game is encouraging you to let loose with everything you have, there isn’t a ton of awesome ways to play Callisto Protocol. There is a small set-piece battle where you have to hold out while a power generator comes back on and enemies come at you in waves, and plentiful ammo and batteries are scattered around the area so that you can just go wild. It should be a showcase of what’s cool and special in Callisto Protocol, but instead it ended up feeling kind of inert and boring. Your character is too slow and clumsy to maneuver well, and the game mechanics explicitly discourage that, so instead the big battle sequence highlighted how much of this game is just standing in place alternating dodge moves and then occasionally launching someone into a garbage disposal.
I don’t think this would bother me much if there were a story or a setting here that could fire that imagination. You know, it was early this year I was replaying Alan Wake, and combat in that game is rarely more than a one-trick pony. But the trick feels better even as you see it repeated a million times and, more importantly, there is such a distinctive sense of Bright Falls being an interesting place full of compellingly weird characters that you come away with a lot of strong impressions that eclipse the serviceable combat. Callisto Protocol doesn’t have that.
‘“‘Callisto Protocol’ already sounds like a VHS you’d find at the back of the video store in the 80s, and while frequently that’s frankly an n appealing pitch, it can feel a bit more that Asylum company, the one who puts out movies like Transmorphers and Top Gunner, where you’re reminded of the other games in this specific sub-genre that you liked more. That sounds meaner than I intended it to sound, btw.”
It kinda starts with your character. Of the two space freight pilots you meet at the start, it’s the guy with a family and distinctive motivations and doubts who gets killed in the opening. Jake, your character, is just a guy chasing a paycheck with really no apparent relationships or context to speak of. You’re immediately tossed into a prison that you never see operate as a prison, but it doesn’t have the identity of an Arkham that makes the Arkham Aslylum work. Who are the prisoners here? What’s life like here? No idea, doesn’t matter, everything is broken and everyone is dead inside of five minutes. There’s a woman you were imprisoned with, a resistant leader of some sort that we meet in the intro cinematic for the game. Who is she? What is her organization fighting against? No idea, and I don’t mean that the game has dropped hints and implications that we’re meant to weave into some kind of backstory. I mean that we know nothing about the conflict she is a part of, or how it relates to the people who run this prison. She is a stock character alongside “prison guard” “warden” and “space trucker.”
That’s workable if the combat feels incredible and the world is fun to explore, and vice versa if the characters and setting are fascinating then you can forgive bad mechanics and level design. But Callisto Protocol’s doesn’t really offer much in any category, and there are a lot of places where I can say that what it offers is actively off-putting. To be honest, if this were not a current-gen game with a Dead Space lineage, I don’t think I’d still be here giving it chances.
Patrick: Isaac Clarke didn’t say jack in Dead Space except grunt, and that’s already more specific characterization than you get from the protagonist in this one, and this is a game that spent a lot of time paying and motion capturing Hollywood actors for the story. (Without knowing how this ends, I think they chose the wrong character to play? It’d be way more interesting if you were playing as the terrorist/rebel who’s investigating what’s going on!)
But ultimately, I think you’re right, and might go a long way towards explaining why I stick with the game, while you wait for the Dead Space remake that’s literally around the corner early next year. I can easily see myself picking Callisto Protocol up again when the holiday break kicks in, keeping the game on its easiest difficulty, and making my way through this generically yuck landscape while sipping on some beers over a few nights. There’s nothing fundamentally transformative going on here, and I might not remember the name of the main character by the end, but we’ve all got our aesthetic kinks, and hey, mine is horror games.
I mean this sincerely. Despite horror movies being one of the most reliable ways of making money, horror is routinely ignored by games. (It’s probably cheaper to make movies, granted.) There are plenty of indie horror, but I’m sorry, sometimes I want the big boy graphics!!! When you want to see the grossest shit imaginable at the highest possible fidelity, I’m left wanting! I’ve been playing through God of War Ragnarok the past few weeks, and while it looks stunning, it’s largely due to tremendous art direction. Callisto Protocol might be stuck rendering vents with blood stains, but goddamnit, they’re the best vents with blood stains I’ve seen in a game, and I intend to see all of them before the credits start rolling.
That’s not an especially persuasive reason to play a video game, but it’s the one I’ve got.
This content was originally published here.