Horror fans, let’s face it. Sci-fi horror has been done to death, and it takes immense talent and bold creativity to stand out from the pack. So creating a new AAA sci-fi horror game in the year 2022 and hoping to make an impact seems crazy, right?
Well, based on my recent hands-on session with the PS5 version of The Callisto Protocol, developer Striking Distance Studio is brimming with the right kind of crazy. My trek through a level titled Habitat picks up a few hours into the game, packing intense combat, chilling atmosphere, and white-knuckle moments.
Keep reading for a rundown of gameplay highlights from the preview, including details about visceral melee combat, life-saving ranged weapons, enticing customization, the terrifying biophage mutating threat, and much more.
Setting the mood – Black Iron Prison is a visually compelling yet appropriately unnerving setting. Steam bursts from pipes and blankets of fog float above the ground. The sounds of clinking chains and muted moans fill the air. Dingy floor lights flicker sporadically, vaguely suggesting a path forward. Every inch of the prison feels considered and hums to life with impressive visual fidelity.
Devilish details – The camera is pulled in tight behind Jacob during gameplay, resulting in an appropriately claustrophobic feeling and sets up big jump scares. One benefit of the intimate camera is a good, close look at Jacob’s character detail. Beads of sweat form on his face and catch the light, which he then wipes away. The creases of his coveralls are authentically dirty and wrinkled. Jacob also moves with the labored, weighty movements of a person surviving a horrible ordeal. All this coalesces into a film-like level of detail that heightens immersion and tension.
Your enemy, the biophage – Black Iron Prison is crawling with grotesque, infected humanoid monsters called biophage. These enemies range from freshly turned creatures still wearing guard uniforms to skittering, wall-climbing freaks with optical camouflage capabilities. Their movements are erratic, unnerving, and pack surprising lethality. Never let your guard down and prepare to learn some hard lessons.
Melee matters – Unlike the last-resort melee weapons of some horror games, Jacob’s electrified baton is a cornerstone for survival. Delivering light blows with R1 and heavy attacks with R2 feels meaty, and is key when setting up…
Skill shots – Successful melee combos trigger “skill shots” – a circular reticle that appears on part of an enemy’s body. Quickly tapping the L2 button causes Jacob to auto-aim at the weak spot for a critical hit dealing heavy damage. This is key for surviving encounters and saving ammo.
DualSense controller haptics – When Jacob equips his baton, the PS5 controller haptics emulate a weighty “thunk” as it unfolds, along with a crackle of electrical power across your fingertips. The weightiness of this melee weapon extends into satisfying feedback during close-quarters fights.
Defend and dodge – Enemies are fast and aggressive, but Jacob doesn’t need to take hits like a chump. Moving the left stick down lets Jacob block attacks, while pressing left or right lets him dodge in either direction. These defensive options are critical for saving your skin and setting up a new melee combo.
Stomp ‘em all – No fight feels complete without a cathartic stomp to the fallen biophage. Not only does this help finish off fallen foes, but is necessary to make loot drop including ammo, health, and credits.
Fun with gravity – The GRP gravity weapon allows Jacob to pickup enemies and objects. The GRP is great for crowd control, flinging enemies to create space, and even finding loot stashed out of reach. Each use of the GRP expends a battery, so choose carefully.
Environmental kills – The most gruesome and handy use of the GRP involves flinging your enemies into nasty hazards like spinning meat grinders and razor-sharp fan blades. Even when those types of dangers were unavailable, I found success chucking enemies off ledges and walkways into the darkness below.
Counting your bullets
Ranged weapons – Melee is great for conserving ammo, but you’ll inevitably be outnumbered and low on health with your back against the wall. That’s when it’s time to unholster one of Jacob’s powerful firearms.
BI-55 Pistol “Hand Cannon” – Jacob’s trusty handgun packs a wallop. I found the slow, powerful pistol best for blasting enemies’ legs out at a distance, slowing their pursuit and giving me time to strategize. It bears repeating that ammo is at a premium, so marksmanship matters.
Skunkgun shotgun – Later in Habitat I discovered schematics for a new weapon. The next time I visited a shop kiosk, the 3D printer manifested a stout shotgun with incredible power. Starting with a capacity of only two shells, the Skunkgun appears best for sweeping crowds and dropping tough enemies fast.
Gear upgrades – Callisto credits scattered around the prison can be exchanged at shop kiosks for ammo, health, and invaluable gear upgrades. During my hands-on I invested in a baton upgrade that allowed me to sweep enemies’ legs after blocking. Enhancements for the hand cannon included stability, damage, ammo capacity, and enticing explosive projectiles. GRP upgrades include increased recharge rate, maximum energy capacity, and launch strength.
Mutating menace – Tentacles sometimes erupt from biophage, an evolution of the virus that causes them to mutate into bigger, badder enemies. Watching biophage flesh ripple, grow, and change shape in real-time is an impressive visual effect, but you’ll want to nip it in the bud ASAP. Mind your ammo or brace for a sinking feeling when you take aim at sprouting tentacles only for your hand cannon to click dry…
Deliberate healing – Injectors are scattered around Black Iron Prison, but don’t expect to pop med kits and heal up in the heat of combat. Jacob must stop, take a knee, and slowly inject himself until the meter on the back of his neck fills with green. To survive one particularly intense encounter, I launched an enemy away using the GRP, buying me precious seconds to heal up. The added tension feels right at home in The Callisto Protocol.
Rewarding exploration –Scavenging for resources like ammo is important, and Striking Distance rewards player curiosity. In one sequence I needed to move a large box to gain access to a vent. Instead of forging ahead, I used the box to climb up to a platform containing extra ammo. In another example Jacob mutters to himself about following a red pipe to his objective. Instead, I immediately ventured down a separate path and found a supply room with credits and health, then unlocked a door looping back to the main path.
Unforgettable horror stories
Hallway of doom – At one point, I entered a dark hallway with a brightly lit door on the other end. Foolishly, I began running towards the light thinking it was a beacon of refuge. My optimism was violently dashed by a biophage ambush. While the encounter only required me to work through about three foes, it felt like a true litmus test of the game’s systems. Eventually, I learned the importance of moving slowly, relying on melee and dodging, and executing skill shots to save ammo
In the walls – During another tricky encounter I attempted to evade a pursuing enemy by hiding behind a nearby door. I waited, hand cannon trained on the door expecting it to open and provide an easy shot at the biophage. Instead, I heard a fast-scuttling sound above and suddenly the enemy had ensnared me from behind. It was a humbling reminder to stay paranoid.
Water slide – Striking Distance flexes its water effects muscle in a thrilling sequence where Jacob is flushed into a massive drainage tube. Water sloshes convincingly against the twisty turns of the tube and splashes the camera when Jacob plummets off a steep drop. When I wasn’t worrying about dodging metallic obstacles on the slide, I couldn’t help but think “weeee!”
Mind games – One of the most startling encounters involved a dark narrow hallway, flashing lights, and a spider-like biophage crawling quickly along the walls and ceiling. The strobing effect of the lights offered flashbulb glimpses of the horrifying creature as it grew closer and closer. I had encountered this foe several times before, but this intimidating ambush made me stop in my tracks.
Rise and grind – Towards the end of the level, Jacob enters a room with a pillar of spinning, spiked cylinders. Like a giant meat grinder. I delighted at the opportunity to wield the GRP and fling monster after monster into the big blender. My batteries ran dry before I could toss the final enemy, who I instead blasted in the leg with the hand cannon. To my surprise and delight the monster attempted to stumble away from my attack and unwittingly plunged itself headfirst into the grinder, disintegrating instantly. The effect was surprising, hilarious, and empowering.
These are just a taste of the memorable, enticing moments from my few hours with The Callisto Protocol. I went into the hands-on session with neutral curiosity around Striking Distance Studios’ visually impressive sci-fi horror project and emerged with sweaty palms and a new most-wanted game of 2022. I’ll be prioritizing my trip back to Black Iron Prison when it hits PS5 on December 2.