This week I’ve been playing Protocol, a game that straight-up warns you that you’ll find yourself frustrated, annoyed, stuck, and angry, via a handy warning that appears once you start a new game. It’s not wrong either, for a supposedly 10-12 hour game, I’ve played it for at least double that as I forced myself to try and obtain at least two or three or the multiple endings (I didn’t want to give up with only the bad ending completed). However, my quest for victory fell short when I became so frustrated, I put the controller down and declared failure – but did I enjoy the game up until that point? Read on to find out.
The developers are ironically named “Fair Games Studio” – ironic because Protocol is anything but fair, which I’ll get into within the review down below. As I played Protocol, there was one thing rushing through my head; “Was this a VR game?” The answer – yes, but only on PC. The PS4 version (which I’m playing via the PS5) is the flat version, with no PSVR implementation. At first, I thought that was a shame, as it would be cool to have a new VR game, but after playing it for a few hours I honestly think it would have been much harder if played in another reality.
So, I may not have achieved a good ending (yet), but I have put in about 20 hours, obtained over half the trophies, and reached (what I believe is) the final part of the game. But, just what is Protocol and why haven’t you heard of it? Let’s take a look…
You are Prometheus, a ‘volunteer’ who has been sent to the Arctic circle to make ‘first contact’ with a recently downed UFO. You were chosen due to your ability to strictly follow orders, despite being mentally unstable due to your recent divorce. You clearly had no idea what you were getting yourself into, you just wanted to be as far away from your ex-wife as you could and venturing to the Arctic is about as far as you can get!
Upon landing, you begin to regret signing up as your landing pod crashes and locks you inside – whilst a fire starts and begins to burn your flesh. After making it out alive (barely), you meet the most sarcastic and annoying A.I. bot you’ll ever encounter – even worse than Wheatley (Portal 2), Salli (It’s Quiz Time), and the A.I. from Spacebase: Startopia! After a brief introduction to your job – obey every command and NEVER deviate from what you’re told, otherwise, it’ll end your life for breaking the protocol – you head into the nearby research centre, Terminus.
This is where your adventure truly begins, you’ll be solving puzzles, exploring, engage in FPS combat segments, perform an alien autopsy, and try your hardest to stay alive – the game dabbles in so many different genres and mechanics that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what this game is.
Despite becoming frustrated towards the end of the game, and really not liking the criteria for a few of the trophies, I really enjoyed my time with Protocol. It’s a very unique game that provides an abundance of crude language and insults, triggering my immature sense of humour, as well as an interesting story which rewards you for both doing as you’re told and discovering alternative ways to proceed.
Protocol is a first-person game that uses a lot of mechanics which you’ll find in various genres. For the most part, you’ll be wandering around the facility as you read terminals, discover what the scientists did before you got there, interrogate the aliens, and even inject yourself with unknown fluids simply because you were told to do so. As the game progresses, you’ll be presented with a weapon, an alien organism that moulds itself to your hand and becomes a means of defending yourself against floating ghost-like creatures.
At this point, you’ll enter a VR-like simulation that turns the game into 1993’s DOOM, complete with 2D sprites that always face you as you walk around them, 90s-inspired sound effects, a pixel-art style that is instant nostalgia to people who played games during the period, and a soundtrack which wouldn’t be amiss within any of the early DOOM games. The game basically changes from an exploration and investigation game into a first-person shooter in which you have to activate various statues whilst defending yourself and facing three crazy bosses – including a giant heat and a group of sadistic chainsaw-wielding clown sharks!
The final part of the game brings the threats into the real world, having you defend whilst exploring the ship as you try to find a way out. You can do as the A.I. tells you to do, or defy it and find an alternative way to continue. You use various keycards which you’ve picked up in order to change rooms and open passageways, the gun to take out some rather creative and sexy enemies, and determine which ending you’ll get based on how you choose to proceed – be a hero or a coward.
I personally enjoyed the first half of the game more than the latter part, exploring the facility and investigating the aliens was fun and only lethal if I annoyed the A.I. But, once you get a weapon it all changes, you’re now having to watch your back for enemies who can kill you by charging into you from all sides, all whilst still doing various puzzles and searching for things. I was even killed a few times during scenes where I couldn’t move due to the story freezing me whilst talking and obtaining a new item.
It’s still a fun experience in the second half, but the threat of death is greatly increased; along with stress and frustration from accidentally dying and having to replay entire sections all over again.
There are a lot of puzzles in Protocol, some are fun and enjoyable to solve, and some are down-right torture! For example, there’s a point where the insides of an alien run around the facility, so you have to try and catch them. But, this is followed by a difficult game of Asteroids as you control a nano-ship within your blood, shooting alien cells that have invaded your body. Hit your good cells a few times and it’s game over – back to the checkpoint (as you broke protocol).
Also, you have to play a bunch of games on the terminals, later into the game. The first game you have to play is bloody Flappy Bird! In order to gain a trophy, you have to complete this first mini-game – you have five lives and you have to pass 50 pipes… FIFTY! The best I’ve done so far is 34, and that alone took about an hour to do. Also, as this is the first mini-game, if you lose, you win and it autosaves, so you have to purposely restart the checkpoint before you lose all lives if you wish to carry on trying. Did I mention the game can be frustrating?
On top of these ‘puzzle’ puzzles, there are also environmental puzzles in the form of figuring out where you need to go. Okay, it doesn’t sound like a puzzle but you have keycards that allows you to rotate what room two of the corridors lead to, so you have to work out where you’re going, not forget to take your card with you, then do things in each area. There are situations such as the alien autopsy, figuring out how to interrogate them, working out how to get out of a gas chamber, and also looking for ways to exit rooms that have no power.
One thing you’ll learn very quickly when playing Protocol is that you don’t disobey the A.I. bot which is enforcing the protocol rules. It tries to help you out in the beginning, telling you that throwing a snowball at it will result in an immediate genocide of the facility due to you breaking protocol. So, once you’ve tested that theory, the facility is destroyed and you have to sit through around 20-30 seconds of loading up the previous checkpoint. There is a trophy for figuring out every way you can break protocol (there’s even a handy checklist showing the ones you’ve found), but the loading time really put me off trying to find them – even on the internal SSD of the PS5, it doesn’t seem to load any quicker.
As advised by the pre-game warning, you will die a lot within this game, either intentionally or by accident. If your character needs to pee, make sure you don’t sprinkle on the seat. If you’re told to undress in the Arctic cold and throw your clothes into a furnace, don’t miss and drop them on the floor. When told to ingest a certain colour of pill or inject yourself, don’t pick another colour – even if the last pill made you colourblind upon digestion! You get the picture, the game is very strict most of the time, only becoming a little more forgiving towards the end as you venture towards a certain set of endings.
In a way, the game reminded me of The Stanley Parable when you’re exploring and walking around, only with the threat of death should you not do as you’re told.
Oh, one thing I didn’t mention, whilst you’re within the facility, the A.I. bot has decided to crawl through your memories and model their hologram representation upon your ex-wife. Remember how I said the main flaw of your character is that he’s mentally unstable due to the recent divorce, well you can imagine how pissed off he becomes having to talk to the virtual image of her throughout the mission. Not only does it look and sound like the last person you want to see, it even recalls some of the arguments you both had, quoting the things she said to you in an effort to further wind you up and push your buttons.
I mentioned above that Protocol brings out the immature side of me, the comedy is very crude and vulgar with some slapstick and fun references. Throughout the game, the protagonist is constantly fighting with the A.I., swearing like a trooper as he is told to do disturbing things such as cut open an alien or enter their ship’s ‘back entrance’ which looks like a giant butt hole! You can also flip the bird on command with the R3 button – it literally serves no purpose other than showing the enemies what you think of them before you blast them in the face.
In terms of references, there are a few visual and dialogue ones that you’ll see and hear as you play. One of the most well-known was towards the end when you have to stealth past a bunch of enemies, if they see you then you’ll hear the Metal Gear Solid alert noise! You can even freeze yourself until the year 3000, to gain a trophy. I’m not sure if this is a reference to Busted (the band) or Futurama – but it has to be one of them.
I personally found Protocol to be very funny, it was very silly and over the top from the start until the end. The protagonist reminded me a lot of The Postal Dude from the POSTAL franchise – he just doesn’t care what he says or does, even if it’s going to result in the annihilation of the facility (with him inside). There were some moments where the subtitles didn’t match up to what was being said – basically, the actor swore a lot more than what was written – but I just found that to be yet another quirky and funny thing about the game, as if the actor may have just adlibbed some of the insults and reactions.
I’m trying to get the platinum in this game, but it’s so damn hard and annoying! The aforementioned trophy for doing fifty levels of Flappy Bird is almost impossible – I will eventually do it, but it’s so unforgiving and hard. But, that’s not the only difficult trophy as finding every way to defy the protocol will take a very long time unless you look on Steam and translate the Russian guide, to see what they all are (as the game doesn’t tell you until you’ve found them).
There are a few other trophies that I would say are hard, but I grabbed them all – killing all three bosses in the 2D reality without getting hit once, completing that entire chapter without getting hit once, and completing the game with no violations at all (aptly called “impossible”). The no-damage bosses were easy enough, apart from the third boss as that was hard. But, after reloading that save and killing the boss, then proceeding towards the bad ending, the game unlocked the trophies for completing the game with no violations and the chapter without damage – two trophies I didn’t actually earn. So, I got lucky, I would never have unlocked them legitimately – in my opinion.
There is a lot of reloading and trying new things if you want all the trophies, each time forcing you to sit through the 20-30 second loading times as well as any dialogue which can’t be skipped. Also, there are seven endings, eight if you include having to finish one of them with a hand you find at the very beginning of the game – if you forget to take this onto the ship, you’ll have to play the game again, from the beginning (I forgot). This means there’s a lot of replayability with the game and thankfully, you have not only a chapter select but also an act selection from within each of the chapters. This means that you are able to return and acquire any trophies you missed, apart from the hand one, as that needs prior setup.
I have no idea what the resolution and framerate is, but I’m going to guess that it’s 1080p and 30fps. It didn’t feel as smooth as games I’ve played recently, but it’s not that bad as most of the game is slow-paced exploration and puzzles, with the combat really only ramping up towards the end. However, aiming and shooting is a bit fiddly due to the lower framerate (I presume), with no aim or locked-on options, you have to freely aim with a controller which is always a little iffy.
During my 20+ hour playthrough, the game has crashed once, so I’m putting that down to my console and not the game itself. I also don’t recall any slowdown of performance issues – I was playing it on my PS5 via BC.
However, there are visual glitches – this may be a result of playing on my PS5, or it could be an issue with the game itself. In chapter 5, you have to work your way through the facility whilst fighting enemies and avoiding floating insta-kill ghosts. From here on, the rotating corridors now have a strange white or red glow on them, as if the lighting has broken. I know it’s broken and not there for effect, because as you walk down the passageway the light returns to normal. This was the only glitch I recall seeing, but it does make the game look a little messed up and visually distracting.
In terms of the controls and interaction mechanics, they’re okay but not perfect. If you pick things up (you can grab almost anything) then the physics results in you dropping them if you bump into a wall, and dropping or throwing items doesn’t always result in them landing where you want – sometimes leading to a violation and instant death. The mini-games on the terminals are controlled by looking at a button and pressing R2… You have to play Arkanoid by looking left or right and pulling the trigger, not simply pressing left or right on the Thumb-Stick. Why? It’s not too bad once you’ve played for a few hours, but you can feel that it may have been originally made for VR and adapted to normal controls later.
I really liked the music, especially during the 2D reality segments, as it sounds like a knock-off DOOM (I’m guessing that’s the intention). The voice acting is also very good, I played it in English and thought the two lead actors did a brilliant job of portraying an insane A.I. and a very pissed off protagonist. The game is also voiced in Russian if you want the authentic and native experience, but I didn’t play that version as much as the English edition.
Protocol is frustrating, annoying, and anger-inducing – I loved it! Despite the brutal and unforgiving insane A.I., who constantly kills you if you so much as look at her funny, I thought the story was interesting, the dialogue was ‘colourful’, and the combination of many different gameplay mechanics was very creative. My only negative, besides the difficulty spike in the final chapter, has to be the ‘long’ loading times – these wouldn’t usually be an issue, but in a game where you’re bound to die over and over, I would have liked a faster reload. I personally preferred the first half of the game over the second, due to how the focus shifted more onto combat over exploration and puzzles, but it didn’t stop me from wanting to unlock all seven endings – which I will do, someday…
- - Very 'colourful' dialogue with a lot of funny insults and abuse
- - Interesting story with seven endings to discover
- - Has some really creative chapters which changes the gameplay drastically
- - The idea of being punished for disobeying the protocol is original as although it ends in death, you need to figure out how to trigger them all for a trophy
- - If you refrain from translating the Russian guides, the game will take a long time to complete as some parts are quite difficult
- - The loading times are pretty bad. 20-30 seconds to reload after you died is too long in a game like this
- - The interactions can be a little janky as they have indie physics assigned to them, meaning you don't always have full control over things you carry or throw
- - The second half of the game, when you get the gun, isn't as enjoyable as the first half