Did you know there are 24 Atelier games? Twenty-four! Released over the course of 27 years, Gust somehow managed to make two dozen fairly unique games about being a girl who makes potions and bombs inside of a cauldron, and somehow stay in business all the while. Sure, many Atelier games share connective tissue, but with each entry in the series changing its art direction, musical stylings, and mechanics, they end up feeling incredibly unique in spite of an incredibly modest budget. So why is it that The Callisto Protocol, a game made on a reported budget of around 160 million dollars, and teased as the spiritual successor to the Dead Space series (which hasn’t seen a new entry in ten years), is so devoid of even the smallest amount of passion?
The Callisto Protocol is made by Striking Distance Studio, which is described on their own website as being “LED BY DEAD SPACE AND CALL OF DUTY FRANCHISE VETERAN GLEN SCHOFIELD” (auteur elevation is always a good sign). This is their first game after being put together a few years ago under the Krafton umbrella, who are probably best known for their work with Bluehole Studios and PUBG. With The Callisto Protocol, the design intention was apparently to “CREATE ONE OF THE MOST TERRIFYING GAMES OF ALL TIME… AIMING TO SET AN ENTIRELY NEW BAR FOR THE SURVIVAL HORROR GENRE.” Which is an incredibly bold ambition, but pretty on brand for the type of insane marketing you’d expect from the people behind Dead Space. Sadly The Callisto Protocol has not set that new bar for survival horror games, nor has it even come close to a game that is even moderately frightening.
Set on the titular moon of Jupiter, The Callisto Protocol follows Jacob Lee, a pilot who’s on “one last job” to deliver a batch of questionable materials before he retires for good. Unfortunately for him, a terrorist group ends up finding out about his hazardous cargo and tries to hijack his ship, ultimately resulting in a crash right outside of Black Iron Prison, into which he is immediately interred as a prisoner. After getting a health points meter shoved into his spine to that turns him into Mr. Dead Space, Jacob passes out, only to wake up in a prison swarming with superhuman mutants who love to punch and throw him around like a ragdoll. With no other choices, Jacob teams up with another inmate to try and find a way out of Black Iron, and off of Callisto, while figuring out what exactly caused this whole situation to begin with.
Immediately what struck me about The Callisto Protocol’s presentation was just how unimportant the prison setting actually was. Many of the game’s previews placed a lot of importance on Black Iron as a location, with dystopian cyberpunk surveillance tech and screens outlining the dehumanization of inmates, distilling them down to an ID number. In the actual material, Jacob spends basically no time as a prisoner, and there’s next to no interaction with the concept of what it would mean to deal with a situation in this specific environment. Instead, much of the game takes place in mines and hallways covered in trees and plants, with the developers obviously more interested fantasizing about “what it would be like to be in space” instead of “what would it be like to be in a prison, in space?”
It’s a shame because it feels like there is a lot you could say about the horrors of the prison system! There’s already the inherent terror to the idea that, 300 years in the future, we would have not even come close to dismantling the system that claims thousands of lives each year. Work with it! Talk about the nature of prison guards, the type of mindset pervasive in that type of role that makes them into easily malleable freaks willing to go along with anything! There’s countless psychological studies and court cases to look into about these dynamics that could have actually worked with the prison angle and expanded upon it with the space-age conceit to really create this environment of dread and fear that’s effective because it’s based in the real and familiar. The Calisto Protocol grasps towards this at times—one of the main antagonists is a guard captain who switches from neutral to extremely king of the castle once Jacob is arrested and therefore stripped of his humanity —however it’s still just set dressing, a means to an end, an easy trope-based character to serve a role in the concept of “Dead Space but it’s in prison now”.
The only part of the prison concept that I’d believe the developers had considered would be recreating the type of vicious riot fights you’d see on LiveLeak through the game’s insanely incongruous combat. Jacob quickly gets a stun baton (again, no analysis of the loaded nature of this sort of weapon in this sort of setting), and gets to work dodging and dismembering pretty much every single person that ever lived on Callisto (now mutated and dehumanized so that it’s okay to butcher them… wait why does that sound familiar?). Combat is brutal and honestly goofy at times. Jacob will literally dodge things super fast like a cartoon character and immediately just go to town, making enemies comically erupt into a fountain of blood. As I was streaming this to my friend, he had an observation that everyone in the game was “so full of blood” and it really is true, it’s almost satirical how much goop is sliding out of enemies.
I say the combat is incongruous because when it comes to how the entire rest of the game is designed, it feels incredibly out of place and almost like it was designed for a different experience. Environments are designed to be claustrophobic, like most horror games, but you’re engaging in the combat like it’s Streets of Rage, which results in everyone’s favorite video game experience where you’re constantly getting stuck on walls or just knocked into another enemy’s attack because there’s basically no space to work with. Couple that with enemies ripped wholesale from other horror games like monsters that turn invisible, or creatures spitting acid at you, and it really does end up feeling like you’re Negan in Tekken 7 but you got lost along the way.
While I’m on the topic of nightmarishly constricting gameplay environments, let me also talk about just how dire the level design is as a whole. Every chapter is primarily linear, and while you occasionally backtrack after opening a door or something, most of the playtime ends up feeling inflated by the game’s optional paths. I say inflated, because, well, we all know the classics of AAA game design where there’s one path you go to do the main story and one path you go to the end of to get some items or an audio log. In The Callisto Protocol, these paths often take up to 15 minutes to traverse between slowly crawling through vents, sidling between narrow crevices, and crouching under broken boxes. It’s very rare to find a combat encounter along these paths, and even rarer that you’ll get to the end and really feel like you got something worth the journey, which makes the slow trek back all the more tiresome. Even as an achievement addict, I found myself quickly not caring if I happened to accidentally go down the critical path first, because I eventually realized that I really wasn’t missing out.
Visually, The Callisto Protocol is similarly exhausting. Whereas Dead Space lets you click in the right stick at any time to create a path leading you to your destination, you merely have to struggle against the hyper-detailed high definition sludge that makes up Callisto and hope that you’re not just walking in circles. I’ve had a lot of problems with other games that have focused their visual stylings on realism, but none have ever been quite so bad as this. A prison is obviously meant to be a brutalist space that erodes the spirit, but the lack of any kind of colors that the real world has makes it hard to find landmarks that stick out and resonate. Silent Hill is a dour place drenched in fog, but you still know that the amusement park is over there, the dive bar is over there, etc. In The Callisto Protocol, every room just bleeds into the next.
I find myself constantly drawing obvious comparisons to Dead Space whenever I think about The Callisto Protocol, and while the game certainly invites that comparison, it’s honestly the most unfortunate one you could possibly make. Dead Space is a game that was clearly inspired by other works, like Resident Evil 4 or Event Horizon, but it took those ideas and cultivated its own unique identity. Sure, this is just a survival horror game in space, but people don’t think of Dead Space as just “Resident Evil 4 Sci-fi edition”, they think about the dismemberment, the stomping, the plasma cutter! They think about using telekinesis to pick up the sword arm of an alien zombie and launching it across the room to pin something to the wall! Even if Callisto hadn’t had the unfortunate timing of releasing so close to a full remake of the first Dead Space, it would have been impossible to not judge it harshly for what it lacks in comparison: an identity.
There is dismemberment in The Callisto Protocol, but it’s purely cosmetic. At one point I shot off the head of an acid spitting enemy, expecting this to somehow do anything to stop it from shooting acid out of its head at me from far away (which is an insane enemy type to have in a game where you punch people to death). Instead of actually doing anything, the head just falls off, and it continues to spit acid. There’s subtle things you can build into with Jacob’s skill trees, like being able to break an enemy’s arms so they can’t fight back, but it doesn’t seem to work most of the time, making me yearn for the simplicity of shooting an enemy’s legs in Resident Evil 4 so I could do a suplex. There’s just nothing here.
If there was maybe even anything close to an interesting story buried beneath all this, I would be a bit more forgiving of The Callisto Protocol, but that earlier synopsis is really quite literally all there is to it. Jacob eventually becomes repentant for his transportation of “goop that makes you into a zombie”, and learns all about where that goop came from to begin with. While I appreciate the concept of an “old god” type alien buried beneath a moon having insane goop that you can use to make people into meat monsters, it really just adds to the whole non-copyright infringing Dead Space vibe they’ve got going on.
I would, however, be remiss if I didn’t mention the game’s truly dire ending, where a sad Jacob launches the one human character left in the story away in the last escape pod as he muses that he deserves to be in jail as a bunch of enemies walk up to kill him. A lot of horror works fall into the unfortunate habit of failing to analyze exactly what they’re doing when they delve into ideas like morality or politics. A great example in recent times is The Medium, which resolved its insane cyclical abuse story about the Holocaust with the message that “if you’re a woman with mental illness you should probably just die”, and The Callisto Protocol is very much cut from the same cloth. There really is just something insane about a game set in a prison, that dabbles in the aesthetics of showcasing how dire and evil the concept of a “prison” is, and then having the ending message be “you know what, maybe it’s good he’s here”.
It feels like a reach towards the “In Water” ending from Silent Hill 2, where James is clearly illustrated as being punished for his sins, but Silent Hill 2 is about self-exploration, and uses metaphorical imagery and ideas to showcase the inner turmoil of this man and why he ends up feeling this way. Here, we’re in tangible real environments with characters experiencing actual events that are anchored in our reality, so in practice it feels like the guiding concept of The Callisto Protocol is “yeah I guess we need prisons despite all this.” It’s not that I think this is inherently a belief that the developers hold, it’s just that Callisto is so devoid of thought or care that such unintentional posturing is inevitable.
I find myself desperately wondering how a game like this even gets made. Dead Space 3 was the last entry in the series, and it came out ten years ago! How is this game somehow even worse than that? How do you have an entire series that you’re ostensibly basing your work on at your disposal, saying nothing of the other types of horror games like the Resident Evil remake series or countless indie horror titles that have come out across the decade, and not even come close to reaching the bar they set?
There’s always been this fake idea inside of the games industry that you need a huge hit to survive, that you need to constantly do things to make the most money, and yet with Atelier, a smaller division of a mid-level publisher has been able to consistently exist in the space for almost three decades with tight budgets and find decent success. There’s a lot of talk about this particular subject matter that I always think of when it comes to game design, this idea that you don’t have to be the barn burner every single time to exist and find success, and that the process of art is unfortunately tumultuous and tough in our capitalist society.
Atelier succeeds because of its passion and ideas. It has its trappings and inherent formula, but you can tell with each new entry that the developers tried to think about the different things they wanted to bring to it. Atelier Ryza brought an all new combat system into the mix to try and mix things up from the classic turn-based fare, and games like Atelier Sophie tinker with the core alchemy system and the way you go about actually accomplishing it, to create individual unique experiences.
The Callisto Protocol represents the exact opposite of Atelier, and everything wrong with the worst of AAA game design. There’s no drive, no ambition, and not even the bare minimum of a nonsensical half-formed idea. It fills the form factor of what a horror game “should be” without any idea of what it is or why. Despite an astronomical budget and an absurd amount of manpower, The Callisto Protocol could never have been anything, because its creators didn’t even know what they wanted it to be in the first place.
The Wrong Kind of Dead Space
The Callisto Protocol fails to capture a fraction of what its predecessors accomplished, even with decades of work to draw from. Can someone please stop AAA games? They only do this when they're very sick.