Arkane Studios represents two unique development houses under Bethesda’s (and Xbox’s) umbrella. Arkane Lyon developed Dishonored and Deathloop primarily, while Arkane Austin most recently developed Prey (2017). While they naturally share resources to some degree, they tend to work on games independently. I call this out as I personally believe Prey was one of the greatest games of the past decade and the closest thing we’ve seen to a true BioShock successor.
With that in mind, I was very excited for Redfall. On paper it had many aspects I love about games, including Arkane’s trademark world-building, a strong single-player story that could be enjoyed in four-player co-op, and a combination of looting, shooting, and character building. The big question, naturally, was: Could Arkane put all of these pieces together successfully? It turns out the answer is more complicated than I had hoped.
From Dawn Till Dusk
Redfall is a fictional town in Massachusetts and the setting for your adventure. After crashing ashore with no understanding of what has unfolded locally, you notice immediately that things are not as they should be. You are directed to reach the local fire station which will act as your safe haven and home of operations. This early trek introduces you to the core mechanics of the game and, in true Arkane fashion, it provides the player agency near immediately in how they navigate the environment and choose to approach situations.
Before you set off, you’ll select from one of four characters, each with a distinct personality, skills, and attributes. They are:
- Layla Ellison
- Layla moved to Redfall from Wisconsin. She studied biomedical engineering at Redfall Technical University and volunteered for a medical trial at the ominous Aevum Therapeutics research facility, where apparently something went very wrong, leaving her with intense telekinetic abilities.
- Jacob Boyer
- Jacob is an ex-military sharpshooter, sent in to Redfall just before the sun darkened as part of an elite private security force. Dark circumstances separated him from his platoon, forcing him down a rogue path. Now he stalks the streets of Redfall, neutralizing evil from the shadows with supernatural precision. Look for a mysterious, ragged raven circling overhead—you may not see him, but Jacob will be nearby.
- Devinder Crousley
- Devinder is a cryptozoologist and aspiring inventor. His recent book tour landed him in Redfall, just before it went dark. After years of struggling to create cutting-edge tech to hunt supernatural phenomena, everything is finally starting to click. In Redfall, monsters are real and his inventions work. As he puts them to use fighting vampires, he documents every step of the way. If he gets out of this alive, he’ll have all of the validation he needs.
- Remi De La Rosa
- Remi is a combat engineer, and a brilliant one at that. She’s lived her life on the frontlines of conflict, using her brilliant mind to protect her loved ones and help those in need around the world as part of an elite Navy rescue unit. With the help of her robot cohort, she’s determined to help rescue Redfall’s survivors and eliminate any enemies that stand in her way.
Upon reaching the fire station, you meet the initial round of NPCs and prepare for the first steps in uncovering why Redfall has been taken over by, well, vampires. Right from the beginning, I was put on my back foot as the NPCs feel rather wooden and your interactions with them relatively lifeless. In combination with cinematics that, despite being voiced-over well, are presented as static screens, Redfall doesn’t make the best first impression. For an anticipated AAA game from a celebrated studio, these aspects raised some red flags right from the get-go.
As I ventured out, I was pleased that I could go anywhere I wanted from the outset. As someone who adores exploration and discovery in open-world games, I was excited to dig up all that Redfall had buried. And in what will be a running theme over the course of this review, what I found was a mixed bag.
Redfall itself is an excellent game setting. As someone who’s been in the Northeast coastal towns of the US many times, Arkane’s recreation of an ocean-side town nailed many of the finer details. You’ll traverse suburban neighborhoods, quaint main streets, and broad shipping yards. Of course it wouldn’t be a coastal, Northeastern town without lighthouses and tall steeples on large churches casting shadows across the hills as well. It all feels very Midnight Mass, which is certainly a compliment to the design team(s).
Sadly, however, much of the town ends up feeling lifeless. A large percentage of the buildings cannot be entered, and there are simply not a whole lot of intriguing things to discover outside of pretty landmarks. There’s very little consistency with the artistic approach on how that information is relayed to the player as well. Two buildings can share similar assets while one can be entered and the other cannot. I can’t count how many times I walked up to a door expecting to open it but was unable to.
At times, there aren’t even many enemies to challenge, which is a strange thing to type when writing about a “looter-shooter.” There are moments where you’ll traverse vast expanses without so much as a threat, or any life whatsoever, being present. Often times, Redfall can end up feeling more like a movie set than a fully realized game setting, which is disappointing as it feels as though it’s wasted.
This was even more true in co-op, which I played with some fellow journalists for a few hours. While the co-op experience itself was generally fun and without issue, the lack of interesting things to do together was noticeable. There simply aren’t enough engagements, items to find, or things to discover for a group. Arkane will have to improve the flow of enemies and loot significantly if they want players to have more than a passing interest in playing Redfall together.
One of the most perplexing design decisions is that Redfall is broken into two open-world maps. However, the game doesn’t allude to this until you are making the transition to the second area, which is, at a minimum, several hours into the game. And worse yet, they are not connected. So, once you progress the story to the second area of Redfall, there is no going back to the first. This is despite the general theme and mission structure being very similar. It’s a strange implementation, and one that I have to imagine was due to some sort of technical challenge.
What ends up being both confusing and disappointing is that the second area of Redfall is far more interesting than the first. It has more memorable landmarks, broader mission scenarios and building layouts, and a wider array of thirsty vampires and crazed cultists to take down. While many of the shortcomings are still present, the story and overall gameplay loop becomes noticeably more enjoyable.
This means that to reach the best parts of Redfall, you have endure some of the most dull. It’s a strange dichotomy, and one that I fully expect will detract from players’ enjoyment as a whole. I can’t speak to any technical limitations, but from the outside looking in, Redfall certainly would have benefited from being a single, large map that was expanded over time, instead. Not utilizing the full setting and giving players genuine reasons to recover their ground throughout the town feels like a missed opportunity.
30 Hours of Night
At the heart of Redfall is a narrative adventure and origin story of the vampires and how the town became overrun by them. Of course, with new, powerful beings having taken over the town, it’s no surprise that a percentage of the residents have decided to follow them (which is perhaps the most realistic aspect of the entire game). As you travel across Redfall, you’ll continually encounter these cultists and the vampires they worship along the way.
The combat mechanics should feel familiar to anyone who’s engaged with an Arkane game before. While it’s a first-person shooter mechanically, it has an air of cartoony-ness to it that makes it feel more like an arcade shooter than something weighted in reality. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can take a little acclimating when you first begin engaging with enemies. And when it comes to the cultists, arcade-like is a generous description.
The variety of cultists, both in-terms of their approach and their design, is generic at best. You’ll face the usual assortment of “bad guys” here. The shotgunner who runs directly at you. The default machine gunner. The sniper that hides behind a tree or car. And I can’t forget the one with the bullhorn who broadcasts that more B-movie fill-ins are needed on set immediately. They are all extremely easy to dispatch, and their poor A.I. only further emphasizes the boredom of fighting them. There is very little to nothing that forces you to think on your feet when it comes to combating the entire suite of cultists thrown your way.
Thankfully, the vampires you face are slightly more interesting. You’ll most commonly run into your standard-fare vampire who can move swiftly, teleport, and strike you with some force. Taking them down requires at least a little thought, and after extinguishing their health bar, you’ll then need to finish them off with a stake or UV light. If you don’t finish them off in time, they regenerate and will continue to pursue you.
There are several specialty blood-suckers you’ll run into, each that requires a different approach. While these higher-ranking monsters are a larger threat, and I enjoyed my encounters with them, they are far too uncommon. And because of that, the moment-to-moment engagements in Redfall are relatively uninteresting. Especially once you acquire stronger, rarer weaponry, there’s nary a challenge nor anything that feels remotely threatening.
In each neighborhood there is a safe house to find and unlock. Once you’ve done so, you’ll gain access to a couple of missions that lead to a named Vampire Underboss you’ll need to destroy to secure the neighborhood. These add a little flavor to your journey, but, similar to the general engagements, they are still rather shallow and can usually be completed in very quick order. In fact, I took out several of the Underbosses in a matter of seconds using specific weapons. It seems odd to name something a “boss” that can be conquered quicker than it took me to type this paragraph.
What They Do in the Shadows
The origin story of the vampires and how they came to be is one of the most interesting aspects of Redfall. Over time you’ll learn more about the “vampire gods” that have a grip on each of the regions of Redfall. These gods represent the major antagonists on your journey and the idols for the cultists throughout. Tied to each of them are unique missions and interesting backstories that are further highlighted by the best locations in the game.
Throughout the town you’ll also discover Grave Locks. The are 100 of them in total, and the more you find, the bigger the ultimate skill bonus you are allocated. But more importantly, you’ll hear more of the backstory from a key character as to what occurred in Redfall. This integrated, narrative storytelling is welcome and adds some much needed iron to the blood of the game.
The main missions tied to the vampire gods, their unique locations, and the accompanying stories are easily the most memorable parts of Redfall. Despite the wooden NPCs I noted earlier and slideshow cinematics, the origin story of the outbreak has quite a bit of heart. Meanwhile, the aesthetics of those specific levels are frequently gorgeous and mesmerizing. At times I felt like I was in an episode of The Twilight Zone or Stranger Things. It’s simply a shame that a large percentage of the game wasn’t as focused in its design.
As an example, you’ll find countless memos and books scattered throughout the environment. They range from simple post-its left by people for their family to full on stories of the history of Redfall. While some are interesting and provide context to specific elements of the town, they feel largely forgettable. This is due to the fact that they are not tied to anything larger nor tracked in any meaningful way to the overall story. While you’ll find a few that lead to small side quests, they, too, are largely forgettable.
One of my favorite aspects of Prey was reading through all the logs, unearthing secrets, and tying character stories together by solving mysteries of what came before. Redfall could benefit hugely from an equivalent structure, but it’s simply not fleshed out in the same way. Outside of some interesting tidbits here and there, they just don’t feel meaningful.
To tackle the bite-sized challenges you’ll face, you’ll be equipped with a range of weaponry and evolving skills. The weaponry features your standard-fare, including pistols, assault rifles, shotguns, and sniper rifles, but also mixes in some fun alternatives to play around with. UV beams can turn your toothy-friends to ash so they can then be killed instantly. Flare guns can be used to set enemies of all shapes and sizes ablaze. And some weapons come equipped with stakes so that you can finish off vamps once you have them downed, so you’ll always need to have a few of those on-hand.
But my favorite, and soon to be yours, are the stake launchers. These are essentially sniper rifles that shoot stakes and can kill the blood-sucking pests from afar. In fact, they are too efficient at doing so as they will make quick work of even some of the toughest vampires without you even alerting them to your presence.
My next statement may take you by surprise, so prepare for it. The problem with the loot system is that it’s very repetitive and lacks variety. Over the course of the game, you’ll find the same weapons repeatedly as there are only a handful of variations of each type of weapon. And while the “Unrivaled” guns are designed well and feature some nice bonuses, such as finishing off bloodsuckers without a stake, they don’t have any outrageous characteristics like, say, in Borderlands.
The weaponry also doesn’t feature any randomized rolls or statistics, save for a few varying perks. This means that you’ll continue to find weapons that are either identical or merely do a little more damage because they are a higher level. And frankly, once you find a few Unrivaled guns, you won’t need to use anything else for a few levels each time. When you combine this with the lack of actual “loot drops” from the vast majority of enemies and no way to modify guns save for cosmetic skins, Redfall leaves an awful lot to be desired on the loot front.
In terms of skill-building, each character is equipped with three main skills. Each of their skill trees has some generic bonuses, such as carrying additional ammo, along with three branches tied to their skills. As you level up, you can expand the capabilities of your skills with some nice bonuses. For instance, as I was using Jacob, I was able to unlock an ability that would mark all enemies looking at me whilst invisible. But that’s the extent of it. There is no true “building” as you would do in an ARPG nor any major evolution of your core skills.
Lastly, you’ll gather items from around town endlessly which reward you with currency (shout out to toilet paper being extremely valuable, giving me a good laugh). But there’s hardly anything to do with the currency. Outside of refilling your ammo and health items, and occasionally buying a nice weapon that pops up at the base(s), it’s useless. I found myself hoarding money for no other reason than it being part of the game loop.
Fortunately, it pleases me to say the soundtrack that accompanies you at every step of the way is excellent. Composed by Jognic Bontemps, it mixes many genres together to create something unique that stands out and offers what feels like a modern 80s movie vibe. It was clearly composed alongside the design direction and theme that the team at Arkane Austin was going for with Redfall. Sadly, due to the issues delivering on the core concepts, the soundtrack is left feeling like a Lost Boy caught in Twilight.
I sat down with Jongnic to discuss his career and composing for Redfall
The Lost Joys
The crux of the issue with Redfall is a severe lack of identity. It attempts to be a looter-shooter, but the accompanying loot and skill-building isn’t deep nor diverse enough. It attempts to be a narrative-driven adventure, but the character building and sense of discovery is lacking. It attempts to be an open-world sandbox for single or co-op play, but it lacks variety and depth to its encounters. Redfall is the most perfect example I’ve played in years of “jack of all trades, master of none.”
In the end, it feels like a setting and story that is undersold by its delivery. Had the core systems been fleshed out more with more detail added to the world and enemies, it could have been extremely successful. As it stands, we’re left with a shell of a typical Arkane experience.
After you complete Redfall, you can move to new game plus with your level, skills, and loot, but the story starts from the beginning immediately. So be warned, after beating the final boss, there is no going back to the world you were in prior. And because of the two maps being distinct, you’ll immediately start at the beginning of the first map again. If you do want to go through the game again, you also unlock the “Eclipse” difficulty if you’re looking for more of a challenge.
I still enjoyed my time with Redfall despite the disappointments. In my near 30 hours, I experienced some excellent moments in the latter half of the game, enjoyed the very cool origin stories of the vampire gods, and loved much of the setting. And to its credit, it did keep pulling me back to play it, which says something in and of itself. I just can’t help but be thirsty for what could have been. And that puts a stake in my heart.
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I’d like to thank the team at Bethesda for providing me early access to Redfall on PC for review. My performance using an I9-13900K and Nvidia 4080 with DLSS running was generally excellent with little to no major issues. I cannot speak to the performance of the Xbox Series X version directly.