During the short introduction that Striking Distance Studios gave me at a closed-door session with The Callisto Protocol, one of the game’s five keywords stood out to me: helplessness. Just to drive this point home, not only did they proudly tell me that no one had finished the demo all the way through yet (I was in the last session of the day), but they stuck me in a dark brick room with only the PS5 and the back of the TV giving off light. Through the hour-long demo, the sudden screams from the other players in the room pinged off the walls. After I watched a painfully short trailer explaining all the controls, I was sent straight into the third level of the game without any context. Talk about throwing me into the deep end, sheesh.
Now, it’s not all that surprising for a game that cements itself in the survival horror genre to emphasize a sense of helplessness. The game is essentially a spiritual successor to Dead Space considering the high number of developers (it’s a least over 30) at Striking Distance Studios who worked on the Dead Space franchise. No, what was surprising to me was how confident and unabashedly upfront the developers were about helplessness being a design pillar. It was like they were telling me, “Hey, no hard feelings. Just prepare to die. A lot.”
Meet Jacob, a snack for aliens
This doesn’t mean that protagonist Jacob Lee, played by actor Josh Duhamel, is a weakling. For someone with supposedly little combat experience, he can wield a stun baton, a handgun, and a gravity gun with relative ease. It’s just that against the otherworldly strength of the biophages, he might as well be just a walking sack of nutrients. Getting hit about three times is enough to turn Jacob into monster food, and health pick-ups are scarce.
As for Jacob’s history, he’s a bit of a mystery. That he’s named after the son of Isaac in the Bible is likely an intentional reference to Dead Space. All we know about him is that he crash-landed on Callisto, one of the moons of Jupiter, on a ship with mysterious cargo, for which he was likely imprisoned. He doesn’t stay locked behind bars at Black Iron Prison for long, though, as the Biophage infection soon wreaks havoc throughout the facility.
Since I started in the third chapter, it’s unclear how Jacob escaped from his cell or if he even deserves to be locked up. That said, it becomes clear that this prison has a dark secret. One of the scraps of lore I found mentioned someone named Dr. Caitlyn Mahler as part of Black Iron Special Projects, approved on December 1, 2319 by Warden Duncan Cole. My guess is that the prison is a convenient front for human experimentation or that the warden let aliens infect the inmates on purpose. Either way, it looks like Jason is in the worst place at the worst time.
If it moves, it’s probably trying to kill you.
Within the first five minutes of playing the demo, it becomes apparent that every monster you face can kill you. Even a bug. So getting swarmed by two or more biophages is a life or death situation. You also can’t rely on the stun baton to get you out of trouble entirely. It took me about eight strikes with the baton to kill one, though it managed to cut my health down to half.
Instead, the game wants you to take risks by aiming a shot at enemy weakpoints, particularly when they are stunned, instead of conserving too much ammo. At the same time, resources are sparingly thin, so every shot needs to land. Some biophages have a chance of mutating too, sprouting tentacles that eventually wrap around its body and harden its skin. If you’re unable to destroy the monster before the transformation ends, it will not only heal, but its strength will increase even further.
If that weren’t challenging enough, the environment wants to kill you too. Sometimes it’s having to wade through sludge that slows your movement, avoiding steam that hisses from pipes and obscures the room with mist, or stepping through a corridor with barely any lighting to speak of. Other times it’s far more direct. One segment sent Jacob hurling down a shaft like a water slide, which would have been fun if it weren’t for the giant fans in the way. Fail to dodge out of the way too many times, and you’ll watch him get cleaved in a gory cutscene that would fit well in a Tomb Raider death compilation.
Use your wits and save every last credit
To even the odds, albeit slightly, Jacob has three options. The first is the gravity weapon called a GRP which allows him to suspend an object, including a biophage, in the air for several seconds. During this time, a monster can be held up as a meat shield, and then can be sent back with a forceful shove. If you’re lucky and aware enough of your surroundings, you can throw an enemy into some spikes on a wall, off a ledge, or through a set of mechanical grinders.
The second is learning how to dodge correctly by weaving left or right during a monster’s melee attack. I found this mechanic to be very difficult to pull off, though, since the dodge controls use the same analog stick for general movement. You can’t interrupt an attack with a dodge, either, so you can’t be pushing buttons wildly. Having to guess which direction to dodge is hard the first time through and will likely require that you learn an enemy’s attack patterns through trial and error.
Last but not least are upgrades, which can be learned by spending Callisto credits at a station. Most enemies didn’t drop many credits at all, but Jacob can find a few items left behind by the guards to sell. While the build I played wasn’t final code, pouring through the options in the upgrade station showed off improvements for gun stability, ammo capacity, and damage. The pistol also had TK23 “Boom Bullets” that were unlockable near the end of its skill tree. The gravity weapon’s recharge rate, energy capacity, and launch strength could also be enhanced. For the stun baton, I noticed a skill that allows Jacob to perform a counter hit after dodging, which I would have tried out if I had enough credits to spare.
Dead Space killer?
The Callisto Protocol already looks like it will become the next great survival-horror franchise and may give the upcoming Dead Space remake a run for its money. The design of the monsters, levels, and audio all work together to create an almost helpless and terrifying experience that will challenge you to the bitter end. The Callisto Protocol will feature content for the next four years and will have a 60 FPS performance mode (via PlayStation Lifestyle). is set to release on December 2, 2022 for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS5, PS4, and PC.