In the survival horror genre, building suspense and ramping up a sense of dread is the backbone of the experience. As a new sci-fi horror IP coming from the creators of Empty space, The Callisto Protocol addresses that creeping sense of unease as it forces you to confront the many grotesque threats head-on. When playing The Callisto ProtocolI always felt tense, even at times when I could have been on my guard.
The game has some strong influences from its spiritual predecessor Empty space and puts its own spin on a more visceral kind of horror experience. That being said, The Callisto Protocol‘s influences and genre are obvious, and it occasionally falls back on familiar tropes and some frustrating combat encounters. Still, it maintains its solid, unforgiving poise as a nerve-wracking but still thrilling survival horror game.
Welcome to the black iron prison
You play as Jacob Lee (TransformersJosh Duhamel), a freelance freighter from the far future with a dark past who crash lands on Jupiter’s titular frozen moon. After being kidnapped by the ruthless head of security, Captain Ferris (Days passed‘s Sam Witwer), Jacob is trapped in the mysterious and inhumane Black Iron Prison.
Eventually, a mysterious viral outbreak mutates nearly everyone inside, turning them into voracious monsters called Biophages. Launching a breakout with other inmates, including enigmatic anti-corporate activist Dani Nakamura (The boysKaren Fukuhara), Jacob delves deep into Black Iron Prison and the lower depths of the moon to discover what happened and get out alive.
Right from the start, and despite the grotesque, over-the-top horror setting, there’s a palpable sense of realism to The Callisto Protocol‘s story and images. This is hard science fiction through and through, in the vein of that of Paul WS Anderson event horizon or John Carpenters The thing (or the original Empty space series, unsurprisingly). The game plays it straight with its unsettling vision of a future gone wrong, providing a rich environment to play in. Aside from rare one-liners, there isn’t much levity, which suits the game’s bleak story and atmosphere.
As a cinematic, story-driven game, The Callisto Protocol keeps the pace and structure tight, focusing on Jacob’s ordeal as he is transported to various encounters and events in a largely linear fashion. Aside from chapter breaks and more in-depth cutscenes, you’ll always view events from Jacob’s perspective. The main cast’s performances effectively sell the plot’s sense of urgency and dark tone. While the story keeps its twists understated for the most part and isn’t far off its original premise by the end of the 12+ hour campaign, it still manages to serve as a solid vehicle for an intense and unforgiving horror game.
What really sells The Callisto Protocol and the setting is the fantastic visuals and sound design. The presentation is incredibly effective at setting the mood, with small details coming together in the most impressive and effective survival-horror tapestry I’ve seen in a long time. This is especially evident in the horrific design of the Biophages, as well as the numerous, chilling death scenes.
When the visuals and sound design all work together, it creates a strong sense of dread and unease that stays with you until the very end. One section had me exploring the depths of the prison as the power fluctuated, creating moments of darkness for the enemies to walk about unseen. Just trying to keep track of where these monsters were put me on edge. It was an unnerving section that really showed the craft of the game’s impressive presentation.
While Black Iron Prison is somewhat similar to the USG ishimura from Empty space, the setting comes into its own as the game’s scope expands, with fantastic views of the frozen lunar landscape beyond and the dark depths of Callisto. The game’s linear progression and tight pace reduce backtracking. That said, there are still times when you can go out and explore hidden rooms, mainly to uncover some intriguing clues and audiologs about the history of Black Iron Prison and what preceded it.