The Callisto Protocol Review: An unrelenting horror spectacle

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In the survival horror genre, building tension and increasing a sense of fear is the backbone of the experience. As a new sci-fi horror IP from the creators of Empty room, The Callisto Protocol tracks down that creeping sense of uneasiness while forcing you to confront its many grotesque threats head-on. While playing The Callisto ProtocolI always felt nervous, even at moments when I could have let go of my guard.

The game takes some strong influences from its spiritual predecessor Empty room and adds its own twist to a more visceral type of horror experience. That said The Callisto ProtocolThe influences and genre of are abundantly clear, and it occasionally reverts to familiar tropes and some frustrating combat encounters. Still, it maintains its solid, unrelenting demeanor as a nerve-wracking yet enthralling survival horror game.

Welcome to the Black Iron Prison

You play as Jacob Lee (transformers‘ Josh Duhamel), a far-future freelance trucker with a murky past who lands on the frozen moon of Jupiter. After being attacked by ruthless security chief Captain Ferris (Last days‘s Sam Witwer) Jacob finds himself in the mysterious and inhuman Black Iron Prison.

Eventually, a mysterious viral outbreak mutates almost everyone inside, turning them into ravenous monsters called biophages. Escape with other prisoners including enigmatic anti-corporate activist Dani Nakamura (The young‘ Karen Fukuhara) Jacob delves deep into the Black Iron Prison and the deeper depths of the moon to uncover what happened and make it out alive.

Right from the start, and despite the grotesque, over-the-top horror setting, there’s a palpable sense of realism The Callisto Protocol‘s story and visuals. This is Paul WS Anderson style hardcore sci-fi through and through event horizon or John Carpenters the thing (or the original Empty room series, unsurprisingly). The game plays it head-on with its disturbing vision of a future gone awry, providing a rich environment to play with. Aside from rare one-liners, there’s not much hilarity, which fits the game’s dark narrative and atmosphere.

Don't forget to breathe.
Enlarge / Don’t forget to breathe.

As a cinematic, story-driven game The Callisto Protocol keeps its pacing and structure tight, focusing on Jacob’s ordeal while being brought to various encounters and events in mostly linear fashion. Aside from chapter breaks and in-depth cutscenes, you always see events from Jacob’s perspective. The lead actors’ performances do an effective job of selling the sense of urgency and dark tone of the plot. While the story keeps its twists largely muted and doesn’t stray far from its original premise by the end of its 12+ hour campaign, it’s still a solid vehicle for an intense and brutal horror game.

What really sells The Callisto Protocol and its surroundings are the fantastic graphics and sound design. The presentation is incredibly effective at setting mood, with small details that add up to the most impressive and effective survival horror tapestry I’ve seen in a long time. This is particularly evident in the eerie design of the biophages and in the numerous, wincing death scenes.

When the graphics and sound design work together, there is a strong sense of dread and uneasiness that lasts to the end. In one section, I explored the depths of the prison as power supplies faltered, creating moments of darkness where enemies could move unnoticed. Just trying to keep track of where these monsters were made me nervous. It was an unnerving segment that really demonstrated the art of the game’s impressive presentation.

While the Black Iron Prison is somewhat similar to the USG Ishimura out Empty room, the setting really comes into its own as the game’s scope expands, offering fantastic views of the frozen lunar landscape and the darker depths of Callisto. The game’s linear progression and tight pace reduce backtracking. That said, there are still moments when you can venture out and explore hidden rooms, mainly to uncover some fascinating clues and audio logs about the history of Black Iron Prison and what came before it.

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