By now, you may have heard about The Callisto Protocol in some capacity. Before launch, it was hyped as the next big sci-fi survival horror by the developers of Dead Space. Striking Distance Studios is acclaimed for having several Dead Space veterans on the staff. Plus, the game launched before Motive Studio’s remake of Dead Space. All this dead space is ironic with how much The Callisto Protocol takes place planetside, but I digress.
You may have also heard some…things about The Callisto Protocol. At launch, the game was a mess of stutters on PC, which thankfully was addressed the next day via a patch. The console versions subsequently received patches for frame rate issues and crashes, but further improvements are on the way. The Xbox Series X version was said to have gorgeous ray-traced shadows, but the same can’t be said about the ray-traced reflections. Again, it’s being addressed, and more information is coming soon.
The PS5 version runs pretty well, which is interesting when you consider that about 150 people from PlayStation Malaysia and PlayStation Visual Arts Studio Group worked on the title. Then again, considering PlayStation got the exclusive Contraband Pack, it’s probably not that crazy to assume some existing deal between Sony and Striking Distance.
But all the performance issues aside, you’ve probably heard mixed responses for the game itself. Everyone more or less agrees that the graphics are gorgeous, that the sound design is on point, and that the death animations can be grotesquely gratuitous. Annoyingly unskippable but still well done. Presentation-wise, the game is great when it runs well.
Everything else has people divided. Heavy spoilers follow, so be warned.
Some like the combat for its gunplay and the crunchy feeling of melee hits but are left baffled by the dodging, some encounter designs, the lack of enemy variety, and the presence of only one boss. Most fights initially devolve into waiting for the enemy to attack, dodging (which doesn’t require any timing – simply holding the button), and then counterattacking. Rinse and repeat, with some occasional shooting once you get a gun. Things improve as you unlock the GRP and more guns, so it gets better.
For all the praise that the environmental design gets, the levels feel way too linear, to the point where much of the game feels like one long corridor to the next sequence. The objectives also aren’t too crazy, as you’re just going from point A to point B, occasionally picking out a fuse here and placing it there, opening wall-mounted cases for healing, and so on.
The idea of a sci-fi prison infested with mutated beings sounds cool in theory, not to mention the prospect of buried secrets underneath. However, the story itself isn’t much to write home about. Much of the interesting stuff happens in the second half, where you learn about the true nature of the virus, why the Warden unleashed it on Black Iron prison, the gruesome truth about the colony Arcas, and so on. The payoff? An encounter with a mutated version of Leon Ferris with roughly 20 to 30 minutes of runtime left.
That wouldn’t be too bad in theory. After all, Dani escapes with evidence against the UJC. Jacob stays behind to atone for playing a part in the outbreak on Europa, which killed Dani’s sister. Black Iron Prison is collapsing from the Warden’s self-destruct system, and it seems things will end with some finality. But no.
Dr Caitlyn Mahler temporarily (and suspiciously) stops the self-destruct sequence, and says that she and Jacob can escape if they work together. The transmission is interrupted by a not-dead-but-still-mutated Ferris and cut to black.
Obviously, this is to set up whatever story DLC is in development. However, after roughly eight to nine hours of gameplay and the story only really picking up halfway through, it just feels like an abrupt way to end the game.
Also, it’s not scary. There’s an almost comic over-reliance on jumpscares over atmospheric horror and tension. Some areas handle the jumpscares better than others, like the snowfield with frozen bodies, since you know a few will come to life and attack you. For everything else, once you’ve seen it, there isn’t much else to terrify you. The death animations are, again, gross, so that’s neat, I suppose.
In the midst of all this, one has to ask: What happened? The Callisto Protocol isn’t a bad game. There’s quite a bit of good buried under layers of questionable design decisions. So what gives?
You could argue that the development team wanted to do something new but didn’t want to stray too far from the Dead Space formula. Perhaps they intended this to be a spiritual successor of sorts, if “Shoot the tentacles” as a homage to “Cut off their limbs” wasn’t a dead giveaway. It’s a tough act to follow, especially without the proper budget or resources. Sometimes, it feels like more time was put into the overall presentation and its visual style, ensuring that it met triple-A standards even if the scale had to be dialed back.
Of course, it’s worth mentioning the crunch. In September, Schofield revealed that the team was working six to seven hours a week with 12 to 15 hours per day. “Exhaustion, tired, Covid, but we’re working,” he said, and, “This is gaming. Hard work. Lunch, dinner working. You do it ’cause you love it.” As Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier pointed out at the time, it’s odd that the person saying the team loves working like this “also happens to be the guy who controls all their salaries, titles, and current employment status.”
Schofield later provided an apology. “Anyone who knows me knows how passionate I am about the people I work with. Earlier I tweeted how proud I was of the effort and hours the team was putting in. That was wrong. We value passion and creativity, not long hours. I’m sorry to the team for coming across like this.” You’ll probably notice that he didn’t vow to stop crunching or even delay the game to ensure a more relaxed schedule in the final push. Only that he was sorry for “coming across like this.”
At one point in the industry, crunch was an unwritten rule, something you had to suffer for the greater good. Awareness has been raised about the damage it can cause, but it’s still very much prevalent. However, as titles like Cyberpunk 2077 at launch and Anthem show, crunch doesn’t equal a good game. Pushing people to work continuously with very few breaks in between results in serious issues, a bad game being the least of them.
Nevertheless, the performance problems inherent in The Callisto Protocol, to say nothing of graphics taking prominence over gameplay, are proof of that. Heck, the fact that PlayStation had to provide so many resources is a clue that Striking Distance was in over its head.
Any ambitious project is only as good as the creative vision and tempting as it may be, one can’t lay the blame only on Schofield for the game’s combat mechanics, lackluster horror, and underwhelming story. There’s a team involved, but it also comes down to how much that team can achieve within a time frame and still ship a product that doesn’t utterly break.
It’s about how much you can deliver while still meeting deadlines. Sometimes, you have to take a call on how much must go. That appears to have happened with The Callisto Protocol. Now the question is how much the developer decides to add back down the line. It could be an expanded sense of exploration, a proper conclusion, better combat, more enemy types, you name it.
The artists, programmers, designers, testers, animators, mo-cap actors, and much more deserve credit for making this work with the time and resources they had, that too under such strenuous conditions. But that makes it sting all the more since The Callisto Protocol has the potential to be something great, and has to settle for being this big uneven pile of “meh” (in my opinion, of course) when it’s not crashing.
For more details on The Callisto Protocol, check out our review here. It’s available for Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, PS5, and PC.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.