An immense amount of effort has gone into making the derelict spaceship and monstrous creatures of The Callisto Protocol look, sound and feel realistic, but this sci-fi horror revival from some of the creators of Dead Space still runs on pure video game logic. Why is a prison colony orbiting Jupiter so extensively decorated with spiked wall-hangings? Why does every floor collapse just as hapless space-trucker hero Jacob stumbles across it, on his way to press the button to drop the bridge to reach the door to loot the room to get the fuse to fix the power to call the lift? And why do all the monsters – that look like furious tangles of teeth and chicken thighs, perhaps the beginnings of an excellent soup, if they’d just stop screaming and growing new talons – reliably burble up everything from bullets to health kits once Jacob has hacked them to death?
It’s technologically cutting-edge, but in spirit this is an action game from the mid-to-late 00s. It’s best to take your common sense over to that weapons fabricator and see if you can’t swap it for some shotgun shells.
Combat is really the game’s only innovation, but it’s a biggie, simultaneously its largest selling point and stumbling block. After the tutorial section gets us acquainted with Black Iron Prison, we are introduced to the Callisto weapons triad: guns for long-range (the damage is dealt to limbs individually, so surgically blasting an enemy’s leg off to slow its progress is satisfying and advantageous); the Stun Baton (a sort of electrified cricket bat); and the GRP, a telekinetic magic glove that allows Jacob to wrench enemies closer, lob bits of scenery at them, or fling them on to one of the aforementioned spike walls for an instant kill.
This all feels tremendous: things crunch and splatter as Jacob flings and batters his way through the space-prison, hoisting enemies aloft with his Jedi glove and cannoning them into the whirring teeth of a floor-to-ceiling wood chipper. (Why is there a wood chipper in space?) But then come the boss monsters. Aesthetically they’re more of the same, but bigger, with more limbs or heads sprouting out of places they shouldn’t. But in gameplay terms they differ only in the amount of bullets they can absorb (read: more than you have), and their attacks all kill you in one hit. Put a foot wrong and you lose the foot – or the foot might be all that’s left of you, depending on which grisly cutscene you’ve triggered. It’s frustrating, and along with a dramatic difficulty spike in the second half, contributes to a sense that this game may have been completed in something of a rush.
For 15 hours, this feels like a place you should not be. Everything, from the smallest face-hugging grub to the largest monstrosity, wants you dead. In the rare moments of respite where you have enough time to pause and look around, Black Iron Prison delivers a powerful and consistent sense of dread, along with a shot of nostalgia for survival horror games whose plots boil down to trucking on through predictable power cuts, body horror and cartoonishly evil conspiracies.
Do I remember why Jacob ended up in the place with the giant wood-chipper? No. But I do remember force-pushing a thing with too many heads into it and watching it burst like an arrabbiata piñata. By the end, there wasn’t a lot that felt new – but I had phantom hand cramps from swinging that electrified baton, and a powerful need to sit down and have a cup of tea. I felt as if I’d survived – which is just what this game is going for.
• The Callisto Protocol is out now; £49.99.