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The Callisto Protocol is an intimate, unsettling take on survival horror

Don't be fooled by the over-the-shoulder perspective. This isn't just another <em>Dead Space</em>.

Don’t be fooled by the over-the-shoulder perspective. This isn’t just another Dead Space.

When looking at The Callisto Protocol, it’s hard not to think of the Dead Space series. Coming from the former Visceral Games developers who have now formed Striking Distance Studios, the upcoming survival-horror game shares plenty of similarities with EA’s beloved space-horror shooter series (which also seems to be set for a revival in 2023).

The creative director of The Callisto Protocol (and co-creator of Dead Space), Glen Schofield, says he wants his new game to be the next step for the genre rather than just retreading familiar ground. “I know people are calling [The Callisto Protocol] a spiritual successor to Dead Space, but I honestly don’t mean it to be that way,” he told Ars at a recent preview event. “I want this to be a standalone game, and once you get into the story and experience, there are some key differences at work, which I’m really proud of.”

And after finally playing an early portion of the game and speaking with Schofield about its development, it became clear that there’s more going on with The Callisto Protocol and its brand of sci-fi horror than appears at first glance.

A new identity

Strangely enough, The Callisto Protocol was originally planned as a horror spinoff set in the universe of the influential battle royale game PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. That connection was phased out as development continued, according to Schofield, allowing The Callisto Protocol to shape its own identity. The game now focuses on a more cinematic, story-driven, survival-horror experience that blends elements of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us with John Carpenter’s The Thing.

Set in the far future, players take on the role of Jacob Lee (played by Transformers’ Josh Duhamel), a prisoner trapped in a high-tech prison on Jupiter’s moon, Callisto. After a mysterious incident leads to chaos on the moon, turning most survivors into mutated monsters called “Biophages,” Jacob makes his escape while piecing together what happened in Black Iron Prison.

The Callisto Protocol is, without a doubt, heavily influenced by Dead Space—and that’s not a bad thing. Both games share a direct and obvious hard sci-fi inspiration and aesthetic, set in eerie and unsettling locations akin to a haunted house. As with other survival-horror games, you learn the ins and outs of Black Iron Prison by scavenging for resources, solving puzzles, and fighting off some gruesome foes with a set of ranged and close-quarters weapons.

Are you afraid of the dark?
Enlarge / Are you afraid of the dark?

In keeping with the survival-horror experience, The Callisto Protocol emphasizes a sense of helplessness and tension with protagonist Jacob’s ordeal. Jacob, who’s clearly out of his depth exploring the prison, already seems like a more defined character than Dead Space’s Isaac Clarke. But even as the game expands to a more cinematic scope, walking through the hallways still felt intimate and nerve-wracking.

During my short demo, there was a constant sense of dread inherent in exploring the game’s dark environments. Passing through the obvious aftermath of some grisly events leads to a feeling that something is lurking around the corner. Establishing that kind of feeling is what good survival-horror is all about, and The Callisto Protocol‘s gorgeously gruesome environment delivers that kind of feeling decidedly.

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