The Callisto Protocol made me feel superhuman yet intensely vulnerable

Jacob with the stun baton in the dark
(Image credit: Striking Distance Studios)

The Callisto Protocol is one of those rare big-budget horror titles which manages to both empower and absolutely crush you in the same breath. 

Over the course of the game’s runtime, I was mercilessly beaten to death, had my jaw torn off, and was even splattered in a free-fall through deep space. But, with every gruesome death, no matter how graphic, I slowly began to come around to The Callisto Protocol. I’ll be honest, I found the early hours of the sci-fi survival horror to be slow and frustrating. But, after pushing through my jaded haze, I began to click with the rhythm needed to keep protagonist Jacob Lee breathing just long enough to consider breaking out of his moon prison. 

Despite the obvious similarities to the Dead Space franchise, which become increasingly apparent as you progress, I found Striking Distance Studios’ debut actually shares more in common with Rockstar’s Manhunt. Upon this realization, the punishing difficulty spikes that stood as a roadblock started making more sense. As I stood, drenched in blood (some belonging to me and countless liters courtesy of the Biophage I just massacred) wielding a crude axe and about to go toe-to-toe with horrors beyond my comprehension, I thought to myself, ‘this shouldn’t be easy, this should be incredibly one sided’ and it was - in the best possible way.

In The Callisto Protocol, the cards are always stacked up against Jacob Lee. Even when you’re going one-on-one with one of the larger enemy types in the game, one or two swipes on the standard difficulty can be the difference between life and death. Initially, I tried to play as defensively as possible; I hung back and swung from a distance, but it was in losing that axe and replacing it with the stun baton that I realized my current tactic was never going to work - I needed to be aggressive, I needed to face my fears head-on. 

Dance like nobody’s watching 

Jacob reading a sign written in blood

(Image credit: Striking Distance Studios)

The Callisto Protocol is a survival horror experience that actively condemns being defensive and inactive in an emergent way. This was conveyed to me through the dodge mechanic, which I quickly learned was not the get-out-of-jail-free card that you would assume. Yes, Lee can weave left and right to evade strikes but eventually, you need to hit back, too. 

The Biophage may look ridiculous but they aren’t stupid. Enemies will guard their heads, directionally dodge out of the way of your stun baton swings and even jump backward, leaving you pathetically vulnerable. I found that simply trying to evade like I was Muhammad Ali going up against Ernie Terrell only got me so far; I had to shuffle like The Greatest and hit back with a relentless force of my own, too. 

A short way into The Callisto Protocol you get your hands on the GRP, which is essentially the game’s answer to Dead Space’s Kinesis module. You’re able to pick up most enemies for a short duration of time and this can then be used to throw them into hazards, such as spike walls and ceiling fans, or to bring them closer to you. That was it; that’s when it all clicked for me when The Callisto Protocol did something that no other horror game I’ve played has done before: actively rewarded me for bringing the enemies in close.

Fight Night 

Jacob arriving at The Tram Station entrance

(Image credit: Striking Distance Studios)

It was when I gained the confidence to sprint at enemies and hit with flurries of electrified strikes while casually flinging Grunts and Rushers through rotating blades that I truly felt superhuman – like all the pieces had come together. It’s a feeling no other game this year has been able to replicate, but for as untouchable as I felt when I was on top, the descent was far more humbling than I could have ever imagined. 

You may think that these tools would make The Callisto Protocol a breeze, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Jacob may be capable of holding his own against one or two nasties, but it’s when he’s ganged up on that you realize just how small and weak you really are. Remember, two decent whacks from most of the rogues' gallery is enough to put you out of action, so imagine the stress when you become trapped on a tram with only a handful of bullets, a small supply of medpacks, and an upgraded stun baton in hand. 

This isn’t the earlier Resident Evil games. The Biophage are real bullet sponges, so whether you’re coming at them with a suited-up pistol, a shotgun, or the game’s Riot Gun, you aren’t getting far relying on ranged weaponry. In actuality, these additions to your arsenal only really add a false sense of security, as there’s no keeping the creatures at bay from afar, no matter how much you wish you could. I soon realized that if I was going to survive the ride, I was going to have to get creative. 

All aboard 

Two Headed Brute

(Image credit: Striking Distance Studios)

There I am; I had just looted some chests and turned a key that activated the tram through the tunnel, and I was ready for a fight. The lights go out and the hordes come in hot and heavy. The limited inventory space afforded by Lee’s power suit means I’m making tough decisions on the fly like ‘do I carry an extra box of ammo, or save one of the precious slots for a vital health injector’? 

I decide then to go for broke and begin wailing on them; their arms break as they attempt to guard their hands and I’m able to finish them off with some well-placed bullets to the dome.

Before I have time to come up with a plan, the gates are unleashed. Undead creatures swarm from the left of me, monsters from the right, and horrors coming from straight ahead with the intent to kill. Mutating creatures begin the assault with tentacles pouring out of their abdominal region. If I shoot them there, they are out of action, if I leave them for last, they will mutate and become even tougher to take down. Less of a grand strategy and more of a string of tactics, but I blast the tentacles and turn my attention to the big brutes and the spitters which have boarded the platform. 

I make the mistake of trying to weave left and right with one before the other hits me from behind and gets my health down to a critical low. There I am, literally limping, bleeding, and seconds away from having to replay this entire section again yet again. I decide then to go for broke and begin wailing on them; their arms break as they attempt to guard their hands and I’m able to finish them off with some well-placed bullets to the dome. 

It’s nearly over, it must be, right? No. Just when I think I have control of the situation, out comes an entirely new enemy type, the biggest and baddest of them all: the Two-Headed Brute. This is when things get particularly challenging, as a change of attack is needed against seemingly insurmountable odds. Here’s a foe that cannot be lifted by the GRP, for which melee damage does next to nothing, and which can literally wipe the floor with the protagonist.

I’d come this far. Without flinching, I begin unloading all the ammunition I have left directly into the two skulls and legs of my hulking opposer. As the liters of blood gush from its every pore, I feel my muscles tense as my once graceful boxing weave turns into Lee literally throwing himself on either side of the hammer-like fists which would otherwise come down upon him. 

I blast huge chunks off the Brute’s body in an attempt to slow its rage, to seemingly no avail, and eventually, he drops down to his knees. There is no time to breathe, though. Just when I think it’s over, the Two-Headed Brute stands up again for rounds two and three – this battle was going the distance. Somehow, after completely emptying the magazines of every gun I had on me, I triumphantly beat the stubborn Biophage to death with my baton and victoriously stomped on its corpse while screaming at the screen – it was over. 

When the dust settles... 

Jacob Lee in the power suit

(Image credit: Striking Distance Studios)

I can’t lie, the sequence was easily one of the most frustrating and difficult sections of a modern triple-A game that I’ve experienced in a long time. But, through the pain, I couldn’t help but respect the challenge it presented – and the feeling of accomplishment afterward was second to none.

Is The Callisto Protocol a masterpiece? No, I don’t think so. It’s full of frustrating difficulty spikes and design decisions which means I can’t wholeheartedly love it the way I do those first two Dead Space games. However, it manages to evoke a sense of vulnerability and power fantasy at the same time, making for an experience completely unlike anything I’ve ever played before. It isn’t going to be for everyone, but if you’re after a survival horror that delivers something new, then The Callisto Protocol is definitely worth considering.

Aleksha McLoughlin
Hardware Editor

Aleksha McLoughlin is the Hardware Editor for TechRadar Gaming and oversees all hardware coverage for the site. She looks after buying guides, writes hardware reviews, news, and features as well as manages the hardware team. Before joining TRG she was the Hardware Editor for sister publication GamesRadar+ and she has also been PC Guide's Hardware Specialist. She has also contributed hardware content to the likes of Trusted Reviews, The Metro, Expert Reviews, and Android Central. When she isn't working, you'll often find her in mosh pits at metal gigs and festivals or listening to whatever new black and death metal has debuted that week.