'The Callisto Protocol' hands-on: Think Dead Space, but grosser

The theme this winter is sci-fi horror and 'Callisto' does it right.

Striking Distance Studios
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It’s a strange feeling. The Callisto Protocol is a new game from a studio with zero releases to its name, but playing it feels like coming home. Its mechanics, environments and monsters are deeply familiar, unapologetically feeding off the immersive sci-fi horror concepts of Dead Space. While playing a preview of The Callisto Protocol on PlayStation 5, I was reminded of that scene from Wayne’s World where the boys are looking down on a film set that looks like Wayne’s basement, but it’s not actually Wayne’s basement, and Garth says, "Isn’t that weird?" They all agree it is.

Playing The Callisto Protocol, I found myself trapped in a world between old and new. Like I said, it was strange. However, once the weirdness wore off, playing The Callisto Protocol just felt good.

Callisto is the first game out of Striking Distance Studios, a team led by Dead Space co-creator Glen Schofield — so yeah, all the references are coming straight from the source. And there are plenty of similarities to go around: Callisto stars a lone space dude fighting through rooms of mutated humans; headshots are less effective than shooting extremities and tentacles; there’s no UI and the protagonist’s health is displayed on the back of his neck; stomping enemies is the best way to ensure they’re dead; there’s a gravity gun that functions like a kinesis ability; and the death screens are particularly gruesome. One early level even has a vignette with the phrase, "shoot the tentacles" scrawled across the wall in blood, riffing on the classic Dead Space blood tag that read, "cut off their limbs."

The Callisto Protocol
The Callisto Protocol (Striking Distance Studios)

I had the luxury of playing the Callisto Protocol preview just a week after trying out Motive Studio’s Dead Space remake, so the similarities stung sharply — but so did the differences. The Callisto Protocol does some things that Dead Space couldn’t, and it’s clearly a bigger game in a more complex world. Where the USG Ishimura in Dead Space often felt claustrophobic, the dead-moon prison colony in The Callisto Protocol feels vast and mazelike, with ladders, vents, long hallways, tight corridors and open laboratories with multiple access points for enemies, all of it overgrown with alien life.

The early game features a variety of enemy types — rushing monsters, tall spitters, leather-daddy tanks and invisible beasts with too many legs, to name a few — and they’re each difficult to kill in their own special ways. The twist is that all of the infected humans, or Biophage, will mutate in front of the player’s eyes when they’re not killed quickly enough, growing stronger in their evolved form. Enemy spawn points are not randomized, a fact that I discovered after dying a few times in a row in a single room. (The death screens are numerous and reach Mortal Kombat levels of brutality in the best possible way.)

All of these details result in a rich sense of strategy, with explodables, ammo drops and escape routes secreted around each combat area. Callisto is a video game for video game people, offering little actual direction while relying on the environment to communicate escape and attack opportunities — a suspiciously red canister in the middle of a long walkway, a ladder rung dangling just within reach, a box barely big enough to duck behind. Each detail blends smoothly into the futuristic surroundings, only standing out when a horde of Biophage are breathing down your neck.

The Callisto Protocol
The Callisto Protocol

The Callisto Protocol is a fully formed concept executed with proficiency. The Striking Distance crew clearly know how to make a game feel tense and horrific and satisfying, and with Callisto, they’re just showing off. Only one segment of my playthrough sticks out negatively in my mind: The protagonist essentially finds himself on a water slide, and players have to navigate the concrete pillars and other obstacles in his path. It isn’t a terrible concept, but personally, I don’t need any more on-rails sequences in my games. Overall though, the preview was a haze of sci-fi gore, action and surprise, and I’m excited to play the full game when it comes out on December 2nd.

To be honest, I almost expected more out of The Callisto Protocol — more growth since Dead Space, a new perspective on horror, a stronger attempt to be different than that iconic game. Instead, Callisto leans into Dead Space’s original ideas and competes with them directly, even down to the release timing — the Dead Space remake is due out just eight weeks after Callisto. Something about that feels personal, like The Callisto Protocol is shoving something in Dead Space’s face; as if, more than a decade later, Schofield is trying to prove something to EA. That’s not based on any conversations with developers, it’s just a gut feeling I have.

The Callisto Protocol
The Callisto Protocol (Striking Distance Studios)

Conspiracy theories aside, it’s fortunate that Dead Space provides such a timeless foundation for The Callisto Protocol’s playground. The original ideas — immersive UI, strategic combat, horrific killscreens, tight metal corridors — remain effective today, and modern hardware only provides more room for these mechanics to breathe.

The Callisto Protocol contains a few fresh concepts, but its most satisfying mechanics are the familiar ones, spit-shined for a new generation. That said, The Callisto Protocol’s success isn’t guaranteed just because it’s riffing on proven ideas — the game still has to run smoothly and look beautiful. Luckily, it seems Striking Distance got it right in these areas, too. Playing for an hour on PS5, the game is perfectly polished, terrifying and gruesome. Somehow, The Callisto Protocol is entirely new, yet exactly as I remember.