This article contains spoilers for the ending of The Callisto Protocol.
There were moments where The Callisto Protocol was everything I ever wanted. Where the atmosphere of the dead moon was sublime, the sound design of far-off industrial clunks and rapidly approaching guttural vocalisations fit perfectly with the incredible lighting and graphics. I never had any issue with performance on my PS5 and the game felt like that return to Dead Space I had been dreaming of. The entire experience wasn’t like this, there’s some awkwardness to some aspects, but the game hit the right chord often enough that I was loving the experience. I was hesitant after seeing the more middling reviews but I ultimately disagreed with them, I was ready to defend The Callisto Protocol to the bitter end. But then I actually reached the end and my feelings sure did turn bitter.
The game leaves the player on a point of disappointment so it’s no wonder the immediate reviews were bad. The final chapter is tough, enjoyably so at first. There’s a few final Two Heads to deal with and an onslaught of enemies at a morgue of all places, as if my nerves weren’t racked enough. But the warning signs of a disastrous denouement begin early in the chapter. Every single crate and locker that can be searched has a slug-thing in, meaning the same quick time animation of ripping it off after the same cheap jump scare every time. The game also begins to confuse annoyances that make the game hard with genuine, satisfying challenge. The game isn’t designed for melee encounters with more than one enemy, the perspective and dodging mechanic become useless, and yet the game keeps including them for a spike in difficulty, trying to play off a flaw as something intentional.
And then it all ends with the final boss fight and… it sucks. You basically have to play Ring a Ring o’ Roses with a big monster. It’s so basic and poorly designed compared to every other aspect of the game. It’s like a much more difficult version of the end boss in Uncharted 2, which was bad fifteen years ago and didn’t need repeating. You just have to run in circles while shooting the big fella, Alpha/Ferris, until he dies. The issue is that changing gun takes so long that it’s impossible to do before he reaches you and rips you apart. Whatever gun you entered the checkpoint with you’re stuck with. The same is true for health. Had I known I was about to walk into the encounter I’d have filled my health meter because while in the battle it’s impossible to use the health injector in time. I came close to having to find an old manual save and replay the game to be better prepared. It was tough but frustratingly so. I did like discovering that you can throw the exploding enemies into Alpha though, turning the biggest danger into your best weapon.
So, who is behind this grand conspiracy at the prison? Why, an uninspired and generic secret society, of course. ‘The Commonality’ are one aspect that feels too much like a lesser Dead Space game, copying too much, and The Callisto Protocol doesn’t have the terror of religious extremism to make them more interesting. They’re just big business. I was hoping for a better reveal after stumbling across the two secret rooms throughout the game. I mean, of course the prison is being used as a testing ground for the Biophage. I could have told you that after the reveal trailer, it’s the obvious direction for the story, so keeping that reveal as an ending twist is disappointing. I wish there was something more to the group and their plan. I like that there is a practical reason for the test, to find a way for humanity to evolve and survive in space, but it still felt like the least interesting parts of The Expanse. Cole himself is just as nebulous as his organisation and is never in danger, which is disappointing.
Much of Jacob’s characterisation, other than basic set-up at the start, is backloaded at the end of the game. For a long time, I wasn’t sure what they were going with but the reveal that he knew what he was transporting for the prison to Europa and lied to Dani, and the player, in an earlier scene was a great reveal. It was a well-executed moment, him feeling that he deserved to be at the prison and so puts Dani in the escape pod and accepts his fate, the consequences of his actions. I thought it was a good, satisfying ending for both plot and personal growth. And then the last 20 seconds ruined it.
Jacob essentially chose death, and we saw him pinned down by loads of monsters as the prison explodes. But, bafflingly, we cut down to the prison and he’s still alive and once more looking for a way out! It ruins the thematic idea of him choosing the prison if it’s straight back to trying to escape. He, and therefore we, have made no progress. Ending a prison break game with the protagonist still trying to escape prison sucks. Mahler accepted her fate too, seeing herself as a criminal who deserves to stay, seemingly setting up Jacob’s choice, but then she too reaches out and offers a means to escape.
I know this is all to set up either a sequel or just DLC but in doing so it ruins the thematic and narrative ending it just put effort into creating. I would prefer a less direct sequel: another experiment somewhere else with Cole and the Biophage; a new character mixed up in it now Jacob’s arc was, fleetingly, complete; and then Dani could appear again because I do like that she survived with a sample. But how could she really survive in that situation? It stretches believability an awful amount. She was in a tiny escape pod traveling to space. Surely Cole would have someone in orbit to shoot her down. Where will she dock? Any ships nearby would be those manned by The Commonality. If she were on a small ship, I would buy it because she could fly away herself but the escape pod, while necessary to create drama by only having room for one, forcing Jacob’s ‘sacrifice,’ leaves several unanswered questions.
But the most frustrating survival at the game’s end may be Ferris, or Alpha as he becomes. Sam Witwer is a fun performer, I prefer his overacting in this more than some of his Star Wars work, but he should have stayed dead. That boss fight took a lot out of me. It was tough. I breathed an almighty sigh of relief when it was over. But any satisfaction gained was immediately destroyed when it was revealed that fight meant nothing. He survived, the project can continue, nothing we did had any consequence, all for the sake of a final jump scare.
So, let’s recap: the game ends with Jacob still in prison, alive, trying to escape with the help of Mahler who now wants to survive too. Cole and the conspiracy survive, having suffered no real loss. Ferris/Alpha is still alive and hasn’t changed at all. And Dani escapes, the only speck of conclusive storytelling finality, but to nowhere. That’s the true failure of The Callisto Protocol. Overall, I still like the game, there were moments that spoke to me more than any other game in years, but its final chapter is a mess. The gameplay struggles with the influx of more enemies, the scares become cheap, but most of all the ending has no sense of finality or satisfaction, narratively or thematically.
What are your thoughts on The Callisto Protocol? Let me know in the comments and be sure to geek out with me about TV, movies, and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.