The Callisto Protocol hands-on: Only the paranoid survive

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It’s best if you behave in a paranoid way, like a monster may be lurking around every corner. In the immortal words of the late Intel leader Andy Grove, “Only the paranoid survive.”

That’s how I felt during my hands-on preview of The Callisto Protocol, the new sci-fi survival-horror game coming from Glen Schofield’s Striking Distance Studios and publisher Krafton. You can see some of that in the b-roll video supplied for the game; I wasn’t allowed to record my actual gameplay, thankfully.

In the dark dungeon of the San Francisco Mint building, I started my preview at about the third level into the game. I had a better loadout than you might get at that time, to compensate for the fact that I didn’t have any hands-on experience with The Callisto Protocol before. Still, the monsters were so ugly I couldn’t help but panic when they were coming straight at me.

You don't want to miss your shots in The Callisto Protocol.
You don’t want to miss your shots in The Callisto Protocol.

It turns out that the game controls were pretty familiar. You get a mining tool for a gun, which is good for zapping the limbs off monsters in a reprise of “strategic dismemberment.” You can also stomp on the bodies afterward to get resource drops. In both respects, it’s the same as Dead Space, which was Schofield’s 2008 game while he was at Electronic Arts. It so happens The Callisto Protocol will compete with EA’s remake of Dead Space, coming on January 27, 2023.

This approach to the game design is in the ain’t broke, don’t fix it domain. But the story and environment of the game are all original for Striking Distance Studios. The game will beat Dead Space’s remake to the market, as it will release on PC, PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S/X on December 2.

Striking Distance Studio has also released a new trailer that gives a sneak peek at The Callisto Protocol’s main setting: Black Iron Prison, a maximum-security facility located on Jupiter’s moon Callisto, where something has gone terribly wrong. That’s our excuse for fighting in space.

“I feel like it’s an evolution of Dead Space’s combat,” said Schofield, in an interview with me. “That’s for sure. It feels different to me. It’s more in your face. It’s more brutal. We wanted to make sure it was satisfying and fun.”

The nitty gritty hands-on

There are some butt ugly monsters in The Callisto Protocol.
You encounter some butt ugly monsters in The Callisto Protocol.

The list of familiar things goes on. You can also grab enemies or objects with a gravity tool called the Grip. You can send the enemy over an abyss or slam an explosive object into them. Again, that’s like something out of Dead Space. I found an oxygen tank I could throw at a beast, and it would blow up. But it doesn’t make you invincible. Your Grip runs out of batteries, so you have to find new ones.

In my usual state of panic in a horror game, I did not take a lot of time aiming. I felt that if I did so, I would run out of time before the enemies would close on me and prompt one of those plentiful death scenes. So I would pump maybe four shots into an enemy grunt to bring them down. I’d aim low in hopes of chopping off a leg.

But the mining tool only starts with six shots. Schofield said you can encounter maybe eight different variations on the grunts, with each one good at something. I started making use of the “dodge” button on the controls after I started dying too much. I found out a little late that I had an option to run around if you hold the left bumper. The only tradeoff is that you can’t run with a flashlight on.

Lately, we’ve had a lot of pushback about games running at only 30 frames per second instead of shooters that run at 60 FPS. Schofield said they deliberately chose to pace the game more deliberately, running it at 30 FPS. I definitely noticed it was slower movement on the PlayStation 5, and that matters sometimes when you’re closing with enemies at very short range. But the game makes up for it with the better quality of images, whether that’s the main character or the visuals for the monsters.

“What I learned through Dead space was that people want to walk,” Schofield told me after my demo. “They only run through a forest when they’re being chased, right?”

Of course, forests don’t exist in space. But you get the idea. People play horror games a slower pace, naturally, Schofield said, except for speedrunners. If you don’t know what’s around the corner, maybe you shouldn’t run.

A new atmosphere

Glen Schofield at a preview event for The Callisto Protocol in San Francisco.
Glen Schofield at a preview event for The Callisto Protocol in San Francisco.

The atmosphere of the game is actually very different from Dead Space, as you’re spending a lot of time in a green swamp or bathed in various colored lights. It’s not all dark, black, or brown. It is designed to be moody and uncomfortable. Lights will shine in your eyes and blind you.

The game forces you to explore and check your corners. You don’t get an easy path to beeline it to your next objective. But sometimes you’ll see something glinting to direct you. Every now and then, you see an augmented reality memory play in a location when you approach some new spot in the game.

You can strategically dismember in The Callisto Protocol.
You can strategically dismember in The Callisto Protocol.

You can die in many ways, I found a lot of them. Small parasites can threaten you as well. And if you let them, they will crawl into your mouth. But you can hold them at bay with as little as a small shiv.

You have to upgrade your weapons over time. But I didn’t get to see much of that in my preview. The part where I played was solitary, but Schofield said you can meet quite a few characters. I enjoyed my time with The Callisto Protocol, and I hope to see more of it very soon. I’d also like to compare it to the Dead Space remake when that one comes around too. But Schofield promises it will be different.

“People ask me if this is a spiritual successor. I didn’t think of it that way,” Schofield said. “I know that some of my DNA is in it, so it’s going to be like that. It’s my style. But we want this to be different characters, a different story, different locations, a different game.”

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