The Callisto Protocol Review (PS5) – With well-worn comparisons to a certain other space outing ever present, The Callisto Protocol arrives with expectations to be more than just a nod to the older foundational elephant in the room.
And with a promise to avoid referring to the game with descriptors such as ‘visceral’ for obvious reasons, it would be a touch unfair to dismiss developer Striking Distance Studios’ maiden effort as simply derivative given its shared DNA with what’s come before.
That’s not to say the game doesn’t have its fair share of touchpoints because it certainly does, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing when it’s broadly successful in doing so.
The Callisto Protocol Review (PS5) – Necro Expanse
A Confident Debut From Developer Striking Distance Studios
From the outset, one of the game’s triumphs is undoubtedly its atmosphere, a nauseating mix of decay and desolation. There is a level of intrigue, too, as your character Jacob, an unassuming interplanetary cargo transporter, is taken captive at Black Iron Prison on the moon Callisto for no apparent reason.
What follows is of course an exercise in Murphy’s law, as Jacob descends into the underbelly of the prison while a mysterious disease rampages through its population. With a variety of locales, namely the aforementioned prison under duress, sterile steel labs, snowy outposts and underground dwellings, there is enough diversity to punctuate the moment-to-moment gameplay.
A Primarily Linear Affair With Small Pockets Of Exploration
Indeed, oftentimes said gameplay will involve exploration for fuses to open inactive doors or circuit breakers to reroute power to inaccessible areas. But to assist in that respect are that of the environments, many of which look positively remarkable, with their pervasive fog and piercing lighting setting the scene appropriately.
And though a predominantly linear affair, there are small off-the-beaten-path pockets to explore, for which you are rewarded mainly with weapon schematics and other more standard resources, such as health and ammunition. This is discouraged somewhat, however, owing to the limited inventory space afforded to you, doubly so because the likes of health injectors and GRP battery packs for your telekinesis arm attachment don’t stack and each take up a space.
The result is that you can often find yourself unable to pick up what you’ve come across – you can either leave it, drop what you have, or find an upgrade terminal to sell an item to make space and trek on back to collect it.
It’s a fine balance and difficult to get right, mind, as the developers have to anticipate your weapon usage throughout to ensure there is a level of scarcity and resultant tension but for players who are used to conserving ammunition in survival horror games you may find yourself leaving items unwillingly behind, especially in the first half of the game.
And as the game’s melee and targeting mechanics actively promote a cautious approach where you’re encouraged to use multiple avenues to dispatch enemies – including making use of environmental hazards with your GRP – rather than just going gung-ho, it feels as if the balance isn’t as refined as it perhaps could be.
In an effort to amplify the tension, The Callisto Protocol employs a duck and slip-style melee system whereby you telegraph enemy swings to evade with the left analogue stick and open up opportunities to counter with your baton. As enemies hit quite hard and you’re always conscious of using your ammunition, this fraught dance can play well into the game’s tension and sense of suffocation.
In addition to this is the ‘strategic targeting system’ which allows for a quick-fire targeted gunshot upon successful completion of a melee combination. Everything has a decidedly weighted feel to it and it syncs up well with the foreboding, exploratory pace that developer Striking Distance Studios has set.
The Callisto Protocol Shines In Its Isolated Encounters
In practice, these systems are successful in the more isolated encounters within narrow corridors where you have no choice but to engage directly at a moment’s notice, but in the more enemy-laden areas – worse yet in areas where you are in lockdown and have to survive waves of them for a period of time – it feels as if the game is putting you in scenarios that the gameplay isn’t fully attuned to.
For example, the animation that plays when you use a health injector is quite protracted and can be interrupted by enemies if you haven’t got sufficient space, similarly for weapon changes, you need to select a weapon and wait for the animation to finish otherwise you’ll still have the old gun equipped, though there is a quick switch to mitigate this but it doesn’t seem to concern all available weapons.
When you combine this with swathes of enemies bearing down on you it forces you into uncomfortable situations that the game doesn’t feel well equipped for, and though the intention is clear there is an incongruence by which The Callisto Protocol manages to get in its own way rather than play to the strengths that it has crafted.
Where it’s at its best, however, is in those aforementioned crawl spaces and narrow walkways where the tension is ramped up by the weight of the controls and the fact that you’re forced to straddle the line between conservation of your provisions and the use of the environment to your advantage.
The game eases you in with single enemy encounters and then ramps up as you would expect, though it does quickly teach you that most enemies are not simply cannon fodder and will require some forethought to dispatch. As a result, by the time you encounter three enemies in one enclosed area it’s embedded in you to not engage directly and instead formulate a different approach.
Use The Environment To Your Advantage
In one instance, the first of which the aforementioned set of three enemies appear, I had a noted a turbine fan in a previous room and proceeded to coax one enemy towards me at a time and lead them towards the fan so that I could use the GRP and fling them into it, thus saving precious health and ammunition.
In other encounters, however, it is far more manic and not necessarily in a good way; as a result, you might find yourself treated to one of the many death animations that play out – a neat touch the first time around – but it gets a little tiring if you happen to restart an area more than once. The Callisto Protocol does make efforts to shift the gameplay focus later on with a smattering of stealth sequences not too dissimilar to the likes of The Last of Us whereby you have to get past blind enemies without alerting them, and this does freshen up proceedings as you make your way towards the end of the 11-or-so hour story.
As for how The Callisto Protocol runs, this is a bit of a predicament because my initial playthrough was punctuated by sections of the game that were borderline unplayable. Playing on performance mode which aims for 60 FPS, one of the two primary choke points was towards the end of chapter six (of eight) where you’re hurdling through space on an industrial elevator and have to contend with a boss who’s pursuing incessantly as you kite around the environment. At a guess, the majority of this sequence ran at roughly five frames a second and was replete with visual glitches and stutter.
To compound matters, the game crashed roughly 15 times during this boss fight alone (at varying times throughout) – so much so in fact, that I began to employ tactics such as keeping the camera towards the ground in an effort to reduce the amount of particle rendering the game had to do at any one time and changing other settings randomly in the hope that it would make a difference. After a time, I was able to reliably finish the fight and leave the elevator only to be greeted with yet another crash.
Pre-empting this, I consciously saved manually as I once again stepped off the elevator platform – noting, too, that the manual save now showed the new objective in its title – before another inevitable crash occurred. This one, surprisingly, listing its cause as ‘’terms of service acceptance”.
As I loaded my freshly-created save up I was put back into what can only be described as some sort of purgatorial hellscape; the beginning boss fight once again. After another spate of trial and mostly error beset with crashes, I was eventually able to hightail it to a door and proceed to the next chapter where the performance cleaned up almost immediately.
A Solid Foundation From Which To Work From
There were other instances, such as chapter four – a comparatively less visually intense portion of the game – but during the review process an update (1.03) dropped that significantly cleaned up what was some of worst performance I have experienced in a pre-release game. So, these issues are likely a thing of the past and sight unseen for players on release day as the game now appears to reliably meet its frame rate target, but worth mentioning in context of my initial playthrough.
While The Callisto Protocol doesn’t reinvent the wheel or go that extra mile by any means, it is a confident debut from developer Striking Distance Studios and a solid foundation for what’s likely to come, provided some quality of life improvements are implemented and it consistently plays off its strengths. Indeed, the heavy lifting in terms of atmosphere, intrigue, and tone are here in abundance so let’s hope that its potential is fully realized going forward.
The Callisto Protocol is out now on PS5 and PS4.
Review code kindly provided PR.
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