Ah Protocol. You have to admire it. Not only is it throwing a concept out there that’s fairly original – follow every procedure correctly every single time or actually explode – and has attempted to build a story and a lore alongside its unusual mechanic, but there’s something to be said for ambitious but rubbish. Welcome to Protocol – ambitious, but rubbish.
So just what in the ever living hellscape is going on in this one? Well, you play as a male protagonist who has signed up for a mission at a secret base in the Arctic Circle. Your only companion is an AI who is, frankly, a prick. Not in a GlaDOS kind of way, but just a useless, uninformed, unimaginative and ultimately pointless aspect of that game you want to destroy within minutes of it beginning to talk to you to ‘guide’ you through the game. Of course, this may be purposeful, but the ongoing frustrations of a video game with such few redeeming qualities can’t be saved by a quirky AI that appears to enjoy watching you fail.
Your mission at this secret base – which you can’t even access until you take off all of your clothes and place them into a bin at the precise angle the game wants you to stand at (otherwise – fail), – is to make first contact with an alien species that has arrived on earth. That is of course if you can make it that far without wanting to shove a fork through your eyeballs.
In order to reach our new extra terrorestrial friend we have to follow the ‘protocol’, else we’ll get annihilated, as will the base you’re navigating your way through. This can be as simple as the aforementioned clothes in the bin, taking a piss in the ‘wrong’ cubicle and putting something down on the ‘wrong’ table. A single misstep and it’s game over, and it really puts you on an edge throughout the playthrough, particularly when the game isn’t exactly keen on helping you out.
And that led me to think this could be a hell of a triumphant feeling if I manage to get through the game without having to die over and over again. It appeared to be an interesting challenge and a fun way to turn the first-person genre on its head a tad.
Yeah, two hours in and I couldn’t have been more done with Protocol. Seeing it through to the end has been an intense, miserable grind.
If you can imagine Fetch Quest: The Game, where the questing is shambolic, the tasks you’re given to do are menial and are about as fleshed out as a Twilight book. It’s just not fun. Games that are designed to be a rock hard challenge – Returnal, Soulsborne’s etc. – will always balance the difficulty with combat or an exploration mechanic. In Protocol, you’re a headless chicken going from point A-B. It’s a damn near open-world that punishes you for deviating off the path, so you can’t explore the base without the AI kicking off and blowing you up. Pick up an incorrect compound? Remove a ‘thing’ before another ‘thing’, even though the game gives you precisely zero indication that moving a ‘thing’ before the ‘other thing’ will have any kind of consequence? Kaboom. Protocol genuinely feels like a day at work in a job that’s so unimaginably shit that if you don’t complete the task at hand your boss shoots you in the head and nukes the coffee shop. The ire of frustration is palpable, leaving me to evaluate why I even wanted to play video games at all anymore.
Protocol only has one idea. What feels like a mish mash of genres – including stealth, shooting, puzzle solving and a not-terrible sequence which feels like an homage to Doom – ends up feeling incohesive and disconnected. All that really links each location or sequence together is the godawful collision detection. There’s no real excuse for this. Certain puzzles require you to either not drop a thing or place it in the exact place it’s meant to be, and standing back away from it – when the prompt turns up, no less – simply doesn’t work, leaving you to drop the ‘thing’ and the AI yet again turning you to dust. It’s what makes the game more frustrating than anything else.. I could probably forgive the boring puzzles or the absurdly unfair advantages the AI has over you if these particular puzzles could be solved the way they’re intended. I found myself having to move around a table, a little bit left, shuffle a little bit right, then forward, then left just so the game would recognise I’m standing in front of the table they’ve told me to place a thing on. Protocol is rage-inducing enough without the game’s systems simply not working.
Then there’s the script, which is promised to you as a ‘sci-fi comedy’. I’ll admit I laughed once during my playthrough. Near the beginning, before the game began. Your protagonist is a ‘flippant’ soldier, and a total mysogynistic douche-canoe with precisely zero redeeming qualities. Once the game opens up and reveals what it is, it slowly becomes about as unfunny as you’re imagining it is if you’ve reached this far down the review. To promote this as a ‘comedy’ should be against advertising regulations and I’ll be calling my local erm, ‘advertising regulations place’ to file a complaint.
I could wax lyrical for hours about how terrible Protocol is but you only need to look at the screenshots to realise how little the game even cares about feeling like a product that’s worth your money. Visually it’s dreadful, almost shockingly so, considering I’m reviewing this heap on a PlayStation 5. Character models are standing on the shoulders of Dr Doak. The lighting is awful, at times forcing you to look for important items needed to progress in pitch-darkness (and then you step where you shouldn’t and BOOM). It runs at 30fps and it barely looks like it’s ever reaching it. The audio is mind-numbingly repetitive with terrible dialogue that ensures you’ll never be rooting for your own character. The collision detection just finishes the whole thing off. It’s all a complete mess, trying way too hard to be clever, but not hard enough to be worth the effort.
The one saving grace of Protocol – besides the aforementioned Doom-esque sequence – is the option for multiple endings, which you’ll reach if you have the mental capacity to see it through at all. Upon learning the reason why the ‘protocol’ is such a bastard and its connections to the alien lifeform, it makes some semblance of sense and ensures that if you have a better experience than I it’s certainly worth the grind. I reached the ending twice and got one that very nearly wrapped it up in a satisfying way (nearly), and one that was so underwhelming I deleted Protocol off of my console.
Please take it away from me. I never want to see it again.
Have a nice day.
An absolute cluster of poorly written dialogue, terrible technical misses and infuriating puzzle mechanics, Protocol is a dreadful experience that will test your patience along with your capacity to put up with absolute trash to see a somewhat satisfying ending to a story you’re barely paying attention too. You deserve better.
Protocol is available now on PS4 (reviewed on PS5), Xbox and PC.
Developer: Fair Games Studio
Publisher: Samustai Limited
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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