The Callisto Protocol hands-on: Handcrafted horror underpins Striking Distance's bold debut

The Callisto Protocol
(Image credit: Krafton Inc.)

Horror games are making a comeback in a big way. With the world bouncing back from the pandemic, this year’s returning video game trade shows were dominated by a bold showing within the genre. The resurgence includes a series of new remakes, with Dead Space, Resident Evil 4, and Silent Hill 2 — all considered top-shelf classics — set to make a return for a new generation. New studios are also popping up with bold ideas for what’s next, leaving a stacked horror lineup for 2022 and beyond. (opens in new tab)

This year now wraps with Striking Distance Studios’ debut project, The Callisto Protocol, in what’s shaping up to be a highlight of this year’s release schedule. The high expectations reflect its all-star team, headed by Dead Space co-creator and Call of Duty veteran Glen Schofield, among other talent tied to the legendary franchises. That shared history results in a lot of shared DNA with the Dead Space franchise, albeit still carving out what could be its own identity in the process.

The Callisto Protocol undoubtedly warrants being positioned as a spiritual successor to Dead Space, bringing forward all the creative philosophies that shaped the Electronic Arts hit. It retains a hauntingly isolating sci-fi backdrop while reviving many of the same gameplay systems, all likely familiar to returning fans. However, that doesn’t detract from where The Callisto Protocol thrives, and after two hours of hands-on with an early build, it’s clear where Striking Distance has found its voice.

The Callisto Protocol

(Image credit: Krafton Inc.)

Work on The Callisto Protocol started with years of collective experience in horror experiences, with Striking Distance outlining a series of principles it dubs its “horror engine.” The game channels its efforts to leave players on edge, with protagonist Jacob ill-equipped and clueless to threats that lie ahead. Those helped guide the title’s approach to its tale, lost in space against overwhelming odds and unearthing what led to an outbreak on Jupiter’s moon of Callisto.

The demo wastes no time establishing The Callisto Protocol’s premise, weaving through a maze of dimly lit corridors and tight corners, all unsettling from the outset. These areas force the camera close to Jacob, with its narrow field of view intensifying the sense of claustrophobia. There’s unmistakable attention to every facet of its environments, steering clear of cheap jump scares, delivering a case study in virtual horror done right.

The Callisto Protocol

(Image credit: Krafton Inc.)

While action plays a prominent role in The Callisto Protocol, with combat strung between most objectives, each encounter still feels like a struggle for survival. Unlike those in its most popular predecessors, most center around melee combat, requiring a systematic approach and less reliance on the trigger.

Each encounter in The Callisto Protocol requires faultless threat management, and you will die — a lot — especially if you don’t devise a plan. You’ll be most successful when mapping out your approach to each room, understanding where and how enemies will attack, and forming strategies after a few attempts. One mutant can be taken down with a few brutal melee strikes, with some blocks and dodges to escape unscathed. But simple encounters can get messy fast, especially when more enemies are added to the equation.

The Callisto Protocol

(Image credit: Krafton Inc.)

Balancing these elements culminates in some stellar examples of well-crafted design. One encounter sees a sliding door open into a far-reaching, narrow corridor, with heavy fog settled on the horizon, leading players toward an ethereal white light. There’s only one way forward, with enemies emerging from the vents, trapping the player in a closed environment.

Striking Distance tells us this was among the game’s first encounters in the early stages of development, designed as a space that embodies its best mechanics. It appears deceptively simple but requires a constant balance of assessing current threats, learning from your previous attempts, and anticipating enemy movements. Adapting is crucial when new factors are introduced, leaving players to juggle multiple fights simultaneously.

The game also features ranged combat, with upgradeable firearms, including its signature gadget, dubbed the GRIP. While traditional guns are limited, especially when ammunition is constrained, the GRIP offers a more playful (and practical) gravity gun. This weapon allows for fun opportunities to pick up and throw enemies, sometimes using their bodies as a projectile, for a satisfying twist on combat. It takes time to adapt, and we’re yet to see how the GRIP factors into the larger game, but it’s a vital lifesaver that never gets old.

The Callisto Protocol

(Image credit: Krafton Inc.)

Mutations are one additional way The Callisto Protocol's combat hopes to stand out from its inspiration, building upon dismemberment integral to the Dead Space games. These moments see its grotesque, half-human foes sprout tentacles through their abdomen and mutate into a much larger threat if left unchecked. You’ll need to shoot these quickly — and they’re easy to miss when outnumbered.

Enemies mutate into more powerful enemy types and cause compounding problems during the game’s tenser moments. Calculated encounters get considerably more complex with mutations in play, throwing players off-kilter and introducing an inventive wildcard to deepen the strategies required.

The Callisto Protocol frozen corpses with Jacob at low health

(Image credit: Krafton)

While only a limited slice of what The Callisto Protocol is set to deliver, just two hours with the game shows that Striking Distance Studios has found its voice, and its debut game has a new identity to share. While Dead Space fans will feel at home, the game has ambitions to offer more than a spiritual successor, with an enthralling blend of well-crafted combat and traditional horror tropes. It results in some seriously challenging combat, demanding strategies and forethought with each attempt.

Striking Distance has a promising hit on its hands, and amid a quiet final quarter for 2022, this game is shaping up to be a highlight, not only for Dead Spaces fans but also a stand-out for handcrafted horror. The game, scheduled to release on Dec. 2, 2022, is headed to Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5, and PC.

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The Callisto Protocol

Survival-horror fans are in for a treat starting with the launch of The Callisto Protocol, as it kicks off a period of big-budget horror games arriving one after another. Survive the dark, cold world of Callisto and uncover what's happening across the prison.

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Matt Brown is Windows Central's Senior Editor, Xbox & PC, at Future. Following over seven years of professional consumer technology and gaming coverage, he’s focused on the world of Microsoft's gaming efforts. You can follow him on Twitter @mattjbrown.