At first, death in The Callisto Protocol is a sickening wonder. Thanks to the craftsmanship of first-class animators, artists, audio engineers, and the committed performance of Josh Duhamel, you will bear witness to protagonist Jacob Lee’s body being severed, consumed, battered, and stretched to breaking point and beyond. Blood and entrails spray across the screen, but unlike the recent God of War Ragnarök, whose most gratuitous fatalities are reserved for its beastly antagonists, here they fall upon Duhamel’s all-too-human protagonist. During the opening hours, your mouth will hang agape at the sheer nastiness of seeing Lee’s head ripped diagonally from the jaw to crown, mushy brain jiggling as his body slumps to the ground. Then, slowly, it will shut. What starts as a sharply effective tool becomes blunted by The Callisto Protocol’s end.
The year is 2320. Lee is working for the United Jupiter Company piloting cargo to a planet called Callisto, a former mining outpost that’s been turned into a vast penal colony. As Lee and his co-pilot approach Callisto, their ship (the none-too-subtly named UJC Charon, after the mythological ferryman who carries the souls of the dead to Hades) is boarded midair by what appear to be terrorists intent on intercepting the shipment. Lee deliberately opens the spacecraft’s hull to thwart their efforts knowing it will cause the ship to free-fall. The freighter crashes amid a billowing snowstorm only to be quickly boarded by prison personnel. Suffice it to say, they ask few questions. A disturbing intake process sees a so-called “core device” drilled into Lee’s spine, making him the latest inmate of Black Iron Prison.
Considering this enjoyably over-the-top introduction alone, Lee is having comfortably the worst day of his life, but it’s about to get a whole lot worse. As soon as he is incarcerated, a viral outbreak turns nearly the entirety of the prison’s population into grotesque zombie-like beings. The metal door of his prison cell conveniently slides open, and so begins an escape whose unsettlingly rendered violence recalls that seen in The Last of Us Part II. However, unlike Naughty Dog’s action-horror series that aims for the elevated tone of prestige television while you skewer its parasitic enemies, The Callisto Protocol — available on PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and Windows — pulls from an altogether schlockier pool of influences: Event Horizon, Resident Evil 4, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay. The problem is, unlike these forebears, The Callisto Protocol lacks dynamics. Where is there to go when everything is cranked to 11 at the outset?
This is somewhat surprising considering creative director Glenn Schofield’s most celebrated game is the 2008 survival horror Dead Space, which understood that quietness was a vital component of terror. But since then, he has co-directed three Call of Duty games that take an altogether more explosive, adrenaline-fueled approach to action. The Callisto Protocol feels as if it is caught between these two seemingly diametrically opposed experiences. Yes, it includes many of the elements that made Dead Space such a tense delight: Ammo is conspicuously scarce, your inventory is deliberately small, and Lee’s movement is often agonizingly slow. Taking place within the prison’s intestinal, claustrophobic passages, these elements sustain uncertainty and a sense of vulnerability. Yet this decidedly linear game also has a Disneyland feel, like the Haunted Mansion ride in which every shock is exactingly choreographed. This isn’t an issue in itself, but the scares are doled out so relentlessly across the 16 hours it takes to complete the game that little dread builds. The result is a roller coaster of steadily diminishing shocks, even when experienced for the very first time.
That said, the game has its fair share of unnerving moments. These often occur as Lee strains to pry open a jammed door. Skittering in the distance, you may see a twitching zombie, their body artfully illuminated by the striplights theatrically scattered throughout the dank prison. Or there’s the stomach-churning instance when Lee discovers a blood-red room full of severed bodies hanging from the ceiling. Still, just as quickly as these images arrive, you are back to bludgeoning, trying to dodge each infected lunge by pushing on the left analog stick before unleashing a pile-driving swing of your baton with the right trigger.
In early portions of the game, as you learn the beats of combat, such encounters are wonderfully scrappy. Then, as the weapons at your disposal increase, the game transitions into something more absurd, resembling the arcade silliness of Namco’s appropriately titled 1989 hit Splatterhouse. The tipping point comes when Lee finds the GRP, essentially a gravity gun that allows the escapee to pull enemies toward him before hurling them into obstacles. Such obstacles include spiked walls, razor-sharp fan blades, and swooshing metal mechanisms — as if the game’s carceral setting is a gigantic torture chamber from a Saw movie. It’s fun to experiment with such techniques, but any sense of vulnerability is completely undone. Each implement is a further opportunity to manipulate virtual matter — indeed, to decimate it.
Does anything lie beneath all this photorealistic ick? The Callisto Protocol toys with ideas of colonization. The United Jupiter Company has colonized Callisto and, it becomes clear, the lives of the immiserated miners who first lived on the planet. The bodies of prisoners are not only occupied by the infectious outbreak but the technology of this corporation. The way Lee incessantly touches the “core” on the back of his neck will likely get under your skin, just as it did his, as if you can also feel its needling. The device causes Lee to hear voices and other disquieting noises, the uniformly wonderful audio design finding another gear at such moments. It’s also implied that the core, affixed to every prisoner, is a means of surveillance, somehow tapping into the memories of those who wear them. But none of these philosophical questions ever feel anchored. They’re simply tossed into the death-soaked atmosphere only to dissipate like its beautifully rendered fog.
Not every blockbuster game need be a meditation on heady ideas or a tour de force of characterization (although 2019’s Death Stranding and 2015’s The Witcher 3 are wonderful examples of how games can be each of these things), but The Callisto Protocol is nevertheless thin in both regards, almost as if it has missed the strides made by big-budget games in the 14 years since the original Dead Space. Dani (played by Karen Fukuhara), the most interesting character, is given too little a role. Lee, the hero of the game, has a backstory so short it could fit on the reverse of a napkin. The Callisto Protocol is interested in the interiority of its characters only in the sense of the flesh and bone lying beneath their immaculately animated bodies — the way it can be ripped to sinewy shreds.
For Lee, his journey through the virtual meat mixer can be read as an act of penance. For the player, a masochistic test of endurance. Neither is that deep. This is horror interested in the spectacle of its chosen genre above all else.