Now that I've started to serve myself up as a snack for The Callisto Protocol (opens in new tab)'s gruesome mutants, I better understand why the team is putting together more death animations (opens in new tab). If you're as prone to getting your head, jaw or arms ripped off as I seem to be, you're going to be seeing a lot of these brutal scenes, and variety is the spice of life. And death.
Despite the presence of guns and gauntlets that give you telekinetic-adjacent powers, The Callisto Protocol is very much a close combat deal, and in one-on-one fights this is fine. Fights are slow and deliberate, with each strike hitting like a truck—you can almost feel the heft of your weapon as you bring it down on the skull of a ravenous monster. Every encounter feels like the final slugfest in a long, drawn-out brawl, where you're exhausted but still able to summon the last of your strength for one last barrage of attacks.
The result, initially, is that each explosion of violence is fraught with tension and a sense that this might be the last one before you finally pop your clogs. And often that will be true, as you can only take a few hits before you get torn apart. Even the weakest mutants can take a pounding, so you've also got to dodge and block when they retaliate, which is simple enough but also a bit inconsistent.
See, rather than having dedicated dodging and blocking buttons, your defensive abilities are actually an extension of movement. Hold left or right when an enemy is attacking and you'll dodge, hold back and you'll block. There's no precision required, the game tells you, which leaves me wondering why so many of my block attempts fail, merely making me walk backwards very slowly before getting struck.
Dodging works better, but I'm still not at the point where I'm comfortable using the left stick for both movement and defence. Because these moves are all contextual, it feels like I've had control stripped away from me, and it means I can't quickly sidestep behind a mutant unless they're about to hit me.
Still, I enjoy these one-on-one brawls quite a bit, to the point that, when I see a mutant's silhouette at the end of a dark corridor, I'm buzzing with anticipation. More often than I'd like, though, that anticipation turns into frustration when another mutant walks up behind me and instantly puts me in my grave.
Monsters coming out of nowhere to murder another clueless victim is a horror staple, which is fine in films, but in games you need to have that sense that the devs have your back; that while they want to scare you and give you a challenge, ultimately they want you to survive the surprise and kill the monster. The Callisto Protocol, unfortunately, is definitely on the side of the monsters.
Everything seems to have been set up to make sure you're fucked when another mutant wanders into the fight. The camera, audio and sluggish movement all feel designed for solo encounters, keeping you focused on a single enemy. Even if you're lucky enough to have time to react to the surprise arrival, managing to position yourself and your foes so they are all in front of you, you're not out of the woods. The lack of precision controls just turns these fights into a big ol' mess, while the camera and persistent darkness make it easy to lose track of your mutant adversaries, who may have ended up behind a crate or decided to briefly retreat.
While you've got a few extra tricks up your sleeve thanks to your guns and gauntlet, the lack of automatic reloading and the tiny energy pool of your gauntlet means that your bag of tricks often ends up greatly reduced, making survival all the harder. Weapons can be upgraded, however, so this might stop being a big problem later into the game, but where I'm at it's a massive pain in the arse.
I could put up with this a bit more if it didn't feel like The Callisto Protocol wasn't just trying to screw me all the time. I can clear out a room and explore every nook and cranny, but it doesn't matter. There's always an enemy hiding in a vent, in the ceiling, or behind a locked door. The only way to prepare for these ambushes is by expecting them, but that turns each fight into a miserable experience where I'm always wondering, "When is the next asshole going to appear?" And expecting a nasty surprise doesn't do anything to fix the other things that make death imminent.
So yeah, I've witnessed my demise a lot. I love my gore by the bucket-load, but even for me these sequences feel a bit much after repeated viewings. Mortal Kombat is a good comparison here. It revels in violence and viscera, and the latest game's fatalities really upped the ante—they're horrifying. But they're also incredibly silly and, despite the buckets of blood, have cartoon sensibilities. They're so over-the-top that they cease to be disturbing. The Callisto Protocol is just grim and angry.
This isn't restricted to the death animations, either—no part of it is fun. It can be exciting and very occasionally scary (though not often, and I'm increasingly of the opinion that this isn't really a horror game, just a gory action game), but there's not much playfulness here. I know, I know—playfulness isn't exactly the first thing you think of when it comes to a game about being wrongfully imprisoned in a complex filled with monsters, but even Dead Space, with its brilliant plasma cutter, knew how to how to have a good time.
The differences between Dead Space and The Callisto Protocol are subtle but important. Dead Space liked to kill you off in gruesome ways, too, but not so frequently and with such cheapness. It was just enough so that it kept you fearful, rather than grimly expecting to die. It's fun to be afraid, but a lot less if you're constantly stopping and starting. The Callisto Protocol also lets you destroy the mutants' limbs, but you use your boring old gun to do it, which isn't nearly as much fun as the versatile plasma cutter. The result (enemies with fewer limbs) wasn't what made that system so compelling—it was the act itself.
The Callisto Protocol's gauntlet has the potential to make violent encounters a lot more entertaining, but I find it awkward to use and the aforementioned tiny energy pool means that, more often than not, I'm a bit nervous about wasting it, even if it does slowly regenerate. Making matters worse, it's far too hard to see how much juice it has left. Nothing kills the fun faster than lifting up a monster only for it to immediately drop back down before you can launch it into a wall of spikes.
I loved Dead Space so much that I really want to stick with The Callisto Protocol, but every time I see my head being knocked off by a mutant who's snuck up on me, I remember I could be going on platonic superhero dates in Midnight Suns or flying through the Dragon Isles in World of Warcraft: Dragonflight. After that, it becomes much harder to pick the controller up again.