The Callisto Protocol is beautiful. Please keep this fact in mind while consuming the numerous criticisms that follow in this review. When I mention how imprecise the mechanics are during horde combat, know that the ensuing death screens are pristine. As I talk about my protagonist stalling at the base of a short wall while I frantically mash the vault button, remember that the festering wounds of the monster that rips off my head are juicy and gorgeously rendered. While I try and fail to swap weapons or dodge, remember, through all of this frustration, The Callisto Protocol is stunning on PlayStation 5. Unfortunately, it’s just not a great video game.
I had high hopes for The Callisto Protocol. I played an hour-long preview a few months ago, and I walked away with stars in my eyes and visions of blood-soaked mutants dancing through my head. The portion that I tried was horrific, mechanically satisfying and gorgeous, and it laid the foundation for an expansive world of familiar sci-fi terror. The Callisto Protocol comes from Striking Distance Studios and Dead Space co-creator Glen Schofield, and it shares DNA with that classic horror hit, including its lack of a HUD, the stomping and gravity-controlling abilities, and a de-emphasis on headshots overall.
Despite these touchstones, Callisto doesn’t feel like Dead Space for long. It eventually introduces a snowy alien world and a massive mining operation, but the first third of the game is the most familiar: tight metal corridors dotted with debris and dead bodies, sparking wires, malfunctioning security systems and vents where mutated creatures can hide. This section is set in Black Iron, a prison colony on Jupiter’s moon that’s run by an evil organization with grand plans for the future of humanity. A mysterious plague has swept through the prison, transforming inmates and guards into violent monsters, and smothering some areas in fleshy alien goo.
This is the section I played in preview and it’s easily the best part of the game. The Callisto Protocol steadily introduces enemies, abilities, weapons and beautiful, mazelike environments – until, eventually, the game collapses under the weight of its own mechanics.
Dodging is a core aspect of Callisto, and this is the move that disappointed me most clearly and most often. There’s no dodge button; you hold left or right before an enemy hits you, and then hold the opposite direction if there’s another attack incoming. It’s a simple back-and-forth mechanic, but it’s inconsistent, especially when surrounded by multiple enemies. Dodges just don’t land sometimes, even when the animation goes through. This is incredibly frustrating when most bosses kill you in one hit. It’s not only dodging, either: Vaulting over short walls doesn’t always work on the first tap, and this seems to be an issue with an overly sensitive camera.
Other basic mechanics, like melee attacks, firing a gun or swapping weapons, are often too sluggish to be effective, or they simply don’t happen, or their timing is variable for no discernable reason at all. This isn’t every time, but it’s enough to destroy the rhythm of the game. Callisto quickly abandons its sci-fi horror foundation and tries to become an action experience with horde rushes and boss fights against overly powerful enemies, but imprecise mechanics drag the whole thing down.