schlocky sci-fi horror is both goofy and gripping

The Callisto Protocol

I’m not saying the ultimate sci-fi survival horror Dead Space was subtle, but its creepy claustrophobic atmosphere took time to terrify and dig its hooks into your brain. Pretender to the crown Protocol Callisto, meanwhile, immediately wants to beat her to a pulp. Within the first half hour I smashed several zombie arms with a crowbar, crawled through the bloody entrails of unfortunate souls, and the top half of my head was graphically ripped out from below through the mouth.

The new game from Striking Distance Studios invites Dead Space to draw comparisons with, among other things, its ghoul-infected space station, holographic HUDS and the fact that director Glen Schofield was a co-creator of the previous game. But while it’s safe to say you know where you are with The Callisto Protocol, it’s not a direct tribute. It’s a blunter object, certainly, and it has its own set of frustrations. But there’s also plenty to enjoy in its schlocky, sprawling embrace.

You are Jacob Lee (played by Transformers star Josh Duhamel), a freighter pilot whose ship is attacked by the Outer Way “terror group” led by Dani Nakamura (The Boys’ Karen Fukuhara). In a crash landing on Jupiter’s colonized moon Callisto, Jacob is thrown into the brutal black iron prison in a case of apparent mistaken identity. But not long after he arrives, things start to go horribly wrong. Suddenly and mysteriously overrun by gruesome mutant inmates – biophages – the prison quickly becomes a macabre scene of blood and fire. Your goal is, of course, to leave.

Even if you have to fight through impressively rendered chaos in your way. Even in this age of high-end visual fidelity, it’s hard not to be impressed by The Callisto Protocol’s technically brilliant if vaguely familiar setting. It’s all hardcore sci-fi horror brutalism; metallic and angular corridors, holographic signs, an isolation unit looming over gaping black maw surrounded by layers and layers of gen pop metal bars and stairs. Blood and viscera are scattered across every other surface, broken bodies half-telling the story of the scientists’ untimely demise. Messages are written in guts on walls and left in hastily recorded audio logs. Impeccably executed flashes of lighting and ripples in flashes of red, white and shadow before plunging you into darkness with the clang of steel and the screech of minor-key violins.

The Callisto Protocol

The Callisto Protocol

It’s intense, then, but most will know the drill, making it difficult for Protocol Callisto to be truly scary. There are some effective jump scares; grotesque-filled vents and clawed hands reaching through sliding doors, but the game deals more efficiently and consistently with gore, body horror, and panicked combat. Infected guards wiggle with tentacles that need to be blasted off, carpenter-style monsters shuffle towards you with jaws gaping ready to be slammed with a stun baton. You reach your death and are treated to a series of graphically violent deaths, usually with limbs removed or Duhamel’s stunningly photorealistic face being chewed off.

All of this is aided by good tactile grounding. The camera tightens on Jacob’s back and he moves with a sense of nervous heaviness. When the infected come calling, your first line of defense is usually your melee weapon. Starting with a kind of crowbar before switching to a stun electric baton, you can dodge a swinging claw by holding the baton in both directions before moving into a heavy swing. It’s not exactly polished, with fights playing out in a similar fashion every time, but there’s a satisfying thud to one-on-one encounters. And a lot of risk. Your health is indicated by a lightbar implanted into the back of your neck, and a big hit from even basic ghouls can take out a good chunk of them.

There’s a fair amount of combat in The Callisto Protocol, and it’s quick to introduce new weapons. The pistol grip that can quickly swap between different barrels (pistol, shotgun, etc.) is a nice touch, used for remote crowd control, detaching limbs to slow incoming threats, or close-range blasts in a combo body to body. You can upgrade your weapons (and buy ammo and health) at 3D printers dotted around the complex, adding extra combos and parries for your staff, and more straightforward power and capacity upgrades for your guns.

Then there’s the Fiberglass Gauntlet, which is essentially a gravity gun that has you grab debris or enemies and throw them across the room. Mixing it into combat adds a satisfying layer to both offense and defense. And a section that focuses entirely on you picking up bad guys and hurling them into a spinning meat grinder is a successful display of his, uh, his perks.

The Callisto Protocol

The Callisto Protocol

What it fails to handle is using the gravity gun, or any other piece of equipment, to construct interesting environmental puzzles or traversals. Sure, you can rip out the vent grates with GRP, but beyond that there’s a lot of cranks, pull switches, and finding fuses to light the doors. It’s a game that can be effective and addictive, but it’s all pretty innocent.

What doesn’t help its approach to horror is that as the game goes on, it’s content to throw more and more enemies at you in staggering groups, and the combat creaks under its weight. When it works, his mob encounters are set up like a puzzle, encouraging you to sneak in to perform stealth kills or toss enemies into spikes to thin out the herd before having to swing your wand for real. But its systems are so attuned to singular combat, that anything involving more than one or two ghouls becomes a frustrating mess.

Bosses are likewise sponges of largely irritating projectiles that can hit you in one hit, causing a crunching fury. For my money, there’s nothing more deadly in a horror game than this kind of repetitive frustration. Watching Jacob punch his nose into his skull in a lengthy death scene rather loses its shock value when it’s the 12th time you’ve seen it in the last ten minutes.

Yet, however off the rails it may go, there is something horribly compelling about The Callisto Protocol that drags you through its dark, blood-soaked corridors. Maybe it’s her richly constructed world; finding your way out of prison on Callisto’s snow-lashed surface has just the effect. Maybe, when it works, it’s the first satisfaction of combat; a perfectly executed dodge and swipe before hurling another zombie into a wood chipper with your gravity gauntlet is a gruesome but undeniable ride. It’s raw and often tested, but if you like those raw ingredients, there’s some grisly action to be savored.

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