It’s been nine years since the last Dead Space game was released. With the announcement of The Callisto Protocol, a game set in a similar setting and directed by Glen Schofield, who co-created the Dead Space series, many players were ravenous to see Dead Space spiritually reincarnated, if not directly. Expectedly, The Callisto Protocol borrows many elements from the Dead Space series and excels at bringing an atmosphere of fright and stress to the forefront. But this hopeful new game doesn’t quite emulate the magic and intrigue of the Dead Space series.
If you’ve been around the horror game block, the title Dead Space should be pretty familiar to you. Released in 2008, Dead Space is a sci-fi survival horror game that puts players in the shoes of Isaac Clarke, an engineer who meets unfortunate circumstances as he’s forced to venture through a derelict spaceship fighting mutated undead monsters. This game found such a massive following that the story spans multiple games and expands outside its original media into comics and movies. So, unsurprisingly, you can see a lot of Dead Space in The Callisto Protocol, from the enemies to the mechanics and even the flavor of horror.
In The Callisto Protocol, you’ll play as Jacob Lee, a freight transporter who similarly faces an unfortunate circumstance—getting thrown in jail for doing nothing wrong just after he crashed his spaceship and lost his first mate in the crash. After the brutal intake process, where a prisoner ID tag is forcefully inserted into his spinal column, Jacob awakens to a prison overrun by mutated undead monsters known as biophages. From the get-go, The Callisto Protocol shows its body horror colors.
The Dead Space series is well known for its absolutely gory death scenes and body horror (that eyeball scene in Dead Space 2 will forever haunt my dreams). Whenever players failed, whether in combat or from running straight into an industrial fan blade, Dead Space featured scenes of Isaac being crushed or beheaded and losing limbs. These scenes are so violent and absurd that they border on comical at times. The Callisto Protocol similarly punishes (or rewards) players with gory death scenes, perhaps even more disarming (literally) and gruesome than Dead Space. But The Callisto Protocol takes it further by mutating enemies upon low health as if they weren’t grotesque enough. Though the execution of these enemies is a bit clunky, it’s certainly something that sets The Callisto Protocol apart from its spiritual predecessor.
The Dead Space series excelled in atmosphere, making the character feel isolated and confined and never knowing what was coming next. Narrow corridors, dark rooms, slow pacing (in the first two games), and never knowing when or where an enemy might pop out created a stressful eleven hours. One of the most claustrophobic, isolated feelings came when Isaac ventured into depressurized zones. Not only do you feel the stressors of paying attention to your oxygen levels, but all sound is removed from the gameplay except those coming from the vibrations of your weapons and Isaac’s breathing. For a game that engages your ears with ambient tracks and audio cues, the sudden lack of noise is breath-hitching. And if The Callisto Protocol gets anything else right, it’s this aspect—the atmosphere.
Narrow hallways, blind spots around corners, and numerous situations that limit your sight—The Callisto Protocol excellently encapsulates players in stressful environments. Some areas have fog that hides creatures from the waist down. Water slows players down and worries them with the uncertainty of what might lie beneath the surface. And, perhaps my favorite part of the game, the snowy surface of Callisto brings its own challenges. There’s a storm raging outside; flurries of snowfall whiteouts your vision. Players can see hazy shapes in the distance of frozen creatures. But are they really frozen? It’s this unknowing that puts you on high alert. Even inside the prison, enemies can come from anywhere—around the next corner or from inside a vent. All this, along with flashing lights that discombobulate, the play of light and shadows out of the corner of your eye, and the amazing graphics, produces a phenomenal, stress-inducing experience.
Much like Dead Space, while much of this boils down to level design and graphics, this tension is compounded by the excellent sound design. The prison is alive with noises. The ambient music is littered with clangs, hisses, and groans; the vents creek, the pipes shriek steam and the machinery grates. But is that the pounding of an enemy crawling through the vent system, or is it just damaged machinery sparking to life? And then there are the moments of quiet that are almost as haunting as the shrieks of the biophage.
But you’ll also be exploring Black Iron Prison on high alert because of your limited arsenal. And this is where these two games diverge significantly. The Dead Space series and The Callisto Protocol are set in high-tech settings in the distant future. The problem with The Callisto Protocol is that it doesn’t depict a lot of creativity in this advanced setting. Sure, there are spaceships, and Jacob is in prison, so the weaponry he stumbles upon, especially in the beginning, focuses on melee. But Dead Space took every advantage of its futuristic setting and its character’s background and created improbable but fascinating weaponry that was fun to use and cool to look at.
Weapons in the Dead Space series are primarily repurposed power tools or mining implements, from plasma cutters to gravitic repulsion tools and rotary saws (although this slides a little more towards military weaponry come Dead Space 3). The Callisto Protocol plays it much too safe with pistols and shotguns that look as bland as you could expect and resemble something you’d see in today’s age. I did appreciate the 3D printing aspect, where new guns and upgrades are created at the 3D printers littered sparsely through the levels—a similar mechanic to Dead Space’s workbench. Nevertheless, The Callisto Protocol cannot live up to the absolute delight of impaling Necromorphs to walls with the Javelin Gun’s metal spikes.
Suffice it is to say, outside of the horror, the weaponry and the mechanics are really what made the Dead Space games a blast to play, especially with the release of Dead Space 3, which was a product of its time, introducing a much faster pace and focusing more on gunplay and action. Each weapon was unique, worked best for different situations, and looked different, which The Callisto Protocol absolutely lacks. Two of the weapons felt like carbon copies of two other weapons. And while there were a few interesting upgrades you could buy, like the explosive rounds, they took a while to unlock and were rarely used, mainly since they used up more ammo than a regular shot.
Mechanically, the games are pretty similar. Both The Callisto Protocol and the Dead Space series limit the ammo you can find; however, Dead Space even limits the number of weapons you could have Isaac carry. You can stomp on enemies to find loot, some of the guns have an alt-fire mode, and the characters have a telekinetic technology that allows them to pick up objects or enemies and hurl them around. But Dead Space 2 and 3 feature a much smoother playing experience and action that is immensely more enjoyable and imaginative. Don’t get me wrong; Dead Space was very clunky and sluggish. But the fact that The Callisto Protocol takes its notes from the first Dead Space game isn’t a good look.
In the Dead Space series, the Necromorphs were reanimated, mutated corpses that lacked all thought and dependence on human anatomy—the conventions of stopping power were irrelevant to these creatures. As a result, Dead Space encouraged players to strategically dismember the enemies to stop them in their tracks opposed to many other games of the time that focused on headshots or mowing enemies down with bullets. In comparison, The Callisto Protocol suffers from rather straightforward, simplistic gameplay that isn’t much more than hacking away at enemies and occasionally getting a shot in.
Additionally, the Dead Space games had plenty of physic puzzles to intersperse the horror and an intriguing narrative. The world of Dead Space certainly had a lot of room to grow due to its multiple games, but Isaac was a well-loved character that was easy to empathize with due to his background and the crazy, horrific situations he slogged through. While Jacob isn’t necessarily a bad character, he didn’t inspire much interest either. And part of this was a result of The Callisto Protocol‘s predictable storyline. The voice clips you can find that often reveal a person’s last moments alive or the evils they committed do help inject some much-needed emotion into the plot, but these couldn’t overcome the plot beats that felt like they tried much too hard to be shocking.
Lastly, while Dead Space is known for its body horror, the series also has a flavor of psychological horror. Isaac experienced extremely disturbing hallucinations throughout the games, coming to a crux in Dead Space 3 in part with a new playable co-op character, John Carver. Similarly, Jacob begins to hallucinate due to his implant (and perhaps a bit to do with his guilt) as he shares memories with another character. These sections were interesting, but the fact that they were too few and far between made them feel like an odd add-on to the story rather than an integral part. So, once again, The Callisto Protocol suffered from not going far enough.
So, while The Callisto Protocol invokes a great fear-inducing atmosphere, it fails to entertain due to its struggling narrative, basic gameplay, and unimaginative weaponry, especially when compared to the Dead Space games. Given that this game is directed by someone integral to the existence of the Dead Space series, I had hoped that this game would have inspired the same space magic that kept Isaac going for three whole games. It’s easy to see the potential of The Callisto Protocol and what the developers were going for, but the game didn’t do enough or dig deep into the strange and weird to invoke the same Dead Space delight many of us grew up on.