Fourteen years after Dead Space, Glen Schofield has gone back out into the endless dark.
His new game, The Callisto Protocol, follows Jacob Lee, whose job it is to ferry cargo. This is good news, the governing rule of space horror being that the more boring the career the more likely it is to be diverted toward dread. That was certainly the case for the crew of the Nostromo, in Alien, who were hauling mineral ore through the void, and so it proved with the hero of Dead Space, Isaac Clarke: a systems engineer who got sucked into a situation well beyond his brief. When it comes to Jacob, however, he seems at least half-aware of his fate; why would his ship be christened the Charon, if he didn’t expect to be heading into Hell?
Sure enough, one fine day his vessel is ambushed by a terrorist group, and he crash-lands on Callisto, a snow-shocked Jovian moon; there, he finds himself in Black Iron Prison, mistakenly jailed. As set-ups go, this one had me leaning forward and grinning like a loon. For one thing, it’s reminiscent of John Carpenter – of the compound of isolation and cheek-peeling cold that kicked off The Thing, but also of the incarcerated souls who carried movies like Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape from New York. The sub-genre of the prison game is far from overcrowded, and any contribution is to be celebrated. From The Suffering to The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, and even Manhunt, there is something compelling about characters who are barred from society, deemed expendable, or confined to spiritual oblivion but who get ground, nonetheless, through the narrative mill.
There is also a nice shot of Kafka in the notion of a protagonist who is arrested at random, and the sneaky, subliminal hint that they may have done something to deserve it. In Dead Space, a definite suggestion of just desserts hung over the Ishimura, a “Planet Cracker” ship, which punched through the crusts of empty worlds and slurped the innards dry. When its halls were thronged with monsters, your sympathies only went so far; in The Callisto Protocol, likewise, you wonder about Jacob, and whether he is as hapless as he seems. If he does win our sympathies, it’s because of Josh Duhamel, who lends his likeness and voice to the character. I like Duhamel. He looked great in the dimmed green of his army fatigues, in Call of Duty: WWII, and he is just as dashing in an orange jumpsuit. He has a good face, with one of those solid American jaws, and it seems almost criminal, in The Callisto Protocol, that we witness its repeated destruction.
Black Iron is overrun with ghouls, and they like nothing better than chewing you into gristle. Time and again, you will see Jacob’s head burst, torn free of his shoulders, or sheared in half, as though he had been determined to make out with a belt sander. This is great for connoisseurs of gore (and the developer, Striking Distance Studios, has promised grislier animations, post-launch), but the bad news is that the tension leaks away with each gout. This is a far more brawl-heavy outing than Dead Space. That game, deeply indebted to Resident Evil 4, was about ensuring that your foes never got within striking distance; you scythed off their legs and arms in order to hobble their attempts to crowd you. Here, it’s about getting up close and going to work with your stun baton. Jacob gets his hands dirtier than Isaac ever did, and dies more often in the process – thus, little is left of the old panic.
To be honest, I was primed for this from the very start. As the Charon hurtles from the firmament and overheats in the process, and the onboard computer warns us that it is “venting atmosphere,” I thought, Yeah, I’ll bet. Minutes later, we get a flaming riot and a desperate escape, all before any fear has been allowed to ferment. All this is greatly unhelped by the alien creatures – known as Biophages – who resemble little more than blobs of wrathful beige, as if Jacob were set upon by waves of murderous cake batter. They are no match for the Necromorphs of yesteryear, who scrambled and scraped toward you like possessed scissors.
Perhaps it’s unfair to hold the new game up to the old, rather than judge it solely on its own merits. But, then, it’s difficult not to, particularly when most of its merits are not its own. One look at The Callisto Protocol, with its close-hugging third-person camera and its mood of air-locked foreboding, and it’s clear that Schofield is hardly going out on a limb. Add to that the health bar that hangs over the nape of Jacob’s neck, like a holographic tattoo, and the grim selection of weaponry at his disposal, and you have a game that could be considered a meditation on the string of flourishes that held such freaky sway back in 2008.
Why, then, do I find it impossible not to recommend The Callisto Protocol? There are a couple of reasons, the first being Captain Leon Ferris, the black-clad head of prison security. Played by Sam Witwer, he has a shaven head and devours way more scenery than any Biophage. At one point, wearing what resembles a Nintendo Power Glove, he tosses Jacob around a room with its anti-gravity pull. It’s a nice nod to Witwer’s turn as Starkiller, the moody and moist-eyed Jedi of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, but his presence also provides Jacob with some human company. Elsewhere, he pals around with a likable fellow-inmate, Elias, and forges a frosty truce with Dani Nakamura, the leader of the outfit who attacked the Charon. (She is played by Karen Fukuhara, whom many will associate with her role in The Boys, in which she did her fair share of rending people asunder.)
These characters form a warm orbit around the chilly core of Black Iron itself, which is as bleakly compelling a chunk of sci-fi as we’ve had in a while. Check out the glass dome, and the greenery growing within, like a vast upturned salad bowl. Or the tunnel through which Jacob surges, on a filthy tide, depositing him into the dank netherworld beneath. It almost hums with lack of hope, which is perfect, really – it’s an anti-place, angry and hollowed out, almost as though the Ishimura were lurking overhead.
Game: The Callisto Protocol
Platform: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC
Developer: Striking Distance Studios
Release Date: December 2, 2022