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The Callisto Protocol review: could be silly, bloody space fun if it ran on PC

Listen you have to wait for my frame stutter to stop before you attack me, okay?

Sometimes when we get sent review code for a game, the PR will say that they'll be getting PC code later, but if we want we can have a console code so we can get a head start playing the game. There are a lot of reasons that might happen, but I'll be honest: it's never a great sign. I'm usually pretty chillaxed about the occasional wonky animation or frame stuttering when a game runs, but in this case The Callisto Protocol runs so badly on PC that if it were my child and the coach wasn't putting it in to play football - even as a sub in the last five minutes, you know, just to give it a go, like - I'd be saying, "Yeah, bench the sucker, I get it."

The stuttering and slowing down whenever anything moves is especially problematic in a horror game where your survival depends on quickly dodge-reacting to sudden threats. So I can't, right now, recommend you get The Callisto Protocol on PC. If Striking Distance get it running properly? Eh. Maybe.

Mutants? In my space prison?!Watch on YouTube

I playtested the game on PC for a few hours, which is why the screens I've got (aside from the header, which is a PR shot) are from the early part of the game. The Callisto Protocol has a lot of stuff in the air to provide atmosphere: at different times there will be fire and smoke, snow, ash, searchlights, and strobing or flashing lighting (side note: if you are at all photosensitive this game will kill you). My PC isn't top of the line any more, but it's not by any means terrible, and the game ran about as smooth as a Ryanair landing. There aren't exactly a surfeit of graphics options to try and improve things, either.

The extremely sparse graphics options in The Callisto Protocol menu
WOOOO PC gamers eatin' GOOD right now!!1! I had to keep knocking the render percentage down (16GB of RAM, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070)

For most other purposes of a review, I played The Callisto Protocol on PS5 - where, for what it's worth, it goes like a dream. Directed by Dead Space co-creator Glen Schofield, this is a similar "you're stranded in space and there are mutated monsters!", with some changes. Your character Jacob Lee is a cargo pilot who crashed on the dead moon Callisto. Trouble is, Callisto is a prison planet, and Jacob is tossed into a cell without so much as a by your leave, but with a bio-tech insert in his neck that will handily function as a health bar for the rest of the game. Soon after Jacob arrives, a riot breaks out - only it's not a riot, it's some kind of virus mutating the other inmates into big glistening fleshy rage monsters, who are officially called genophages.

What's the warden's deal? What's that terrorist group's deal? What's Jacob's deal, really? Where did this virus come from, and how did it spread into the prison? Is that one asshole guard going to stop showing up? All these questions and more will be answered to varying degrees as you stun-baton your way around the prison, the prison sewers, an ice storm, an old outpost, an even older colony, and so on. The Callisto Protocol takes you a relatively linear path through areas that it successfully disguises as sprawling. I particularly liked the oxygen garden, which felt like a nod to extremely good space-horror movie Sunshine.

At every point you will be beset by monsters popping out of the floor or the walls. The enemy design is great, having an Annihilation-esque too-many-sets-of-teeth flavour. While you get your standard scrub lads, tank lads and spitting lads, there are also e.g. head-barnacle lads who spring at you on a long fleshy string, floor-dragging explodey lads, and vision-is-based-on-hearing lads to keep you on your toes. It's especially cool if you see them in different biomes, like during the snow storm where an icy statue might come to life and chew on your neck. Jacob is armed with a baton, an array of 3D printed guns you can buy or upgrade at scattered printing stations, and a magic anti-gravity glove to throw people into giant hallway fans. There are some pretty fun set-pieces to facilitate that, as well as gruesome kills (and deaths) of the arm and/or head being ripped off variety to enjoy.

Like butter

But it's with the combat that we come to two problems. Well, a problem and an observation. My observation is that I don't think The Callisto Protocol is scary. I'm not as fussed by body horror as the game would like, but when you compare it to Dead Space (as surely you must) the opening hours aren't nearly as conducive to being freaked out. In Dead Space Isaac arrived on an inexplicably empty ship and finds a lad who smacks his own head into a wall until he dies; The Callisto Protocol gives you a combat tutorial where you thwack monsters with a metal bar during a riot where everything is on fire. The film adaptation would star Jason Statham. Like, you can't just put blood and limbs on the floor everywhere because quite quickly I start to go "oh, some regular blood and limbs, there." By the time the game does ask you to creep about in darkness, you've already learned the rhythms of its cheaper jump scares anyway.

On a scale of Babadook to Dog Soldiers, I know where I'd put The Callisto Protocol, is what I'm saying. That's not a bad thing. I genuinely really like Dog Soldiers, and if anything I'd have liked The Callisto Protocol a lot more if it took itself less seriously in that respect. You can have rooms full of unguarded sawblades and spikes to whomp enemies into, and make the player collect loot by stamping on bodies, or you can have the menu read "New Experience" instead of "New Game". I think to do both is giving an inconsistent vibe.

Jacob enters a room in The Callisto Protocol that is full of murdered guards strung up on the ceiling
As an aside, several times Jacob will be like, crawling through a vent and hear a bang, or see something run past, and he'll mutter "What the hell was that?". Like, idk man, probably another one of those big fuckin mutants you've been fighting for the last several hours?!

The big problem is the combat controls. There isn't a dedicated button for dodge or block on controller. Rather, you pull the left thumbstick either left or right to dodge, and back to block. This does look incredibly cool to an outside observer: dodge left, dodge right, hammer the guy in the face and then pull out a 3D printed shotgun to blast his leg off. The game claims there aren't windows for dodging, but it feels like there definitely are, and combined with limited health and over-durable enemies, I found it too easy to have a bad time with a controller. It's going to be divisive. If you play fighting games a lot you might get on with it more, but I kind of hated it until I got a proper shotgun, which does enough damage to sway things in your favour. I actually find the controls work way better with WASD on PC. A thumbstick can be slightly off the angle to register the right input, but a W or D key is either pressed in or it ain't.

In fact, I'd probably enjoy it more on PC than console. But the thing is, it's not just that the game runs badly. There are a bunch of smaller annoyances I noted on both platforms. Enemies might grow tentacles as a prelude to mutating into something worse, and you're supposed to shoot or smash them to stop it - except I could never tell when I actually managed it. The different varieties of enemies don't make substantially different noises, so you can't quickly read a situation as you can in, e.g., Left 4 Dead. If you start inputting your dodge too early, the game defaults back to movement controls and you start to strafe, which is annoying. The quick-kill prompt just flat out doesn't appear if you have your gun out, but your gun is also your torch so you have it out almost all the time. I was looking forward to The Callisto Protocol, and I want this dog to hunt. I don't think it can right now.

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