Arkane doesn't put ladders in its games. The team says as much with a succinctly stated poster in one of the rooms in its Austin location: "F**k ladders," it reads. The team has said ladders feel limiting by putting players in a "mode" where they can't use their weapons or abilities, and they often even fall to their deaths anyway--Arkane hates ladders. And yet, there are ladders early and often in Redfall. This surprise would become emblematic of my time in the vampire-infested Massachusetts town. Redfall is Arkane making compromises to its own design philosophies to serve a genre it may have been better off avoiding.
Redfall is a four-player co-op loot-shooter that pits players against vampires and the cultists who follow them. The story premise is classic Arkane stuff, but in practice, it plays like a tug-of-war that its usually inventive team could not win. Most aspects of what the team is known for--unrivaled world design, intricate immersive sim elements, improvisational combat--are rarely found here. In their place are run-and-gun fights with unresponsive AI enemies amid a host of bugs that are so prevalent, it genuinely feels dejecting to see the game launch in this state. Wherever things have gone wrong in Redfall, and there are several places, it feels like the result of a team with a foot in disjointed worlds: what it's known for and what it's tasked with doing.
The game's two maps are bigger than anything Arkane has done before, from either its team in Texas or France, but the team struggles to fill that space with the same intricacies that made games like Dishonored and Deathloop both Game of the Year winners and Prey a cult classic. Too often, you and up to three others playing in co-op will move across barren beaches or through wooded areas with little more than some sheds or campsites to rummage through. The game's second map, which you'll unlock halfway through the campaign, is noticeably better because it comes closer to the team's past efforts, with more interesting landmarks and more verticality built into its neighborhoods, but it still doesn't quite get there.
Traveling from A to B in creative ways has always been Arkane's signature. And in Redfall, there are opportunities to get crafty when entering some buildings, like by going through the roof, by picking a lock on a door, or by climbing through a window. But moments like these are too spread apart, and in the middle you'll often find blander elements such as small gangs of enemies waiting to be dispatched with no more consideration than choosing which gun to use. In Redfall, you can only really speak one language: killing enemies. There's no reward for creatively completing missions and you're eventually funneled into an all-out firefight in every encounter, even when you take the time to play smarter, discouraging you from trying to solve any problem in a more creative way than just shooting everyone.
Enemies in Redfall are unresponsive to a degree that I would never expect from a team as talented as this and from a publisher as resource-rich as Bethesda. Picking off enemies with a sniper will often result in nearby enemies carrying on with their day, unphased by their allies dying off. In combat, they will often take too long to shoot and struggle to take cover, letting you get in killing blows before they've hardly reacted in any way at all. Even the vampires, who are meant to serve as bigger, tougher enemies, sometimes use attacks that are so easily countered it renders them afterthoughts in many cases, like a lunge that you can just back up to avoid.
The stealth mechanics are also underdeveloped. Sneaking up behind an enemy to deliver a knockout blow has no animation of its own. You just whack them the same way you shatter a window, and this method unpredictably leads to some enemies being defeated while others survive the blow and kick off normal combat.
Underbosses serve as neighborhood terrorizers whom you must draw out after completing local missions, but in virtually every case, they can be one- or two-shotted on normal difficulty with the game's Stake Launcher, a weapon that is too powerful for the game's own good. Stakes should kill vampires quickly, of course, but because they do, the ubiquity of Stake Launchers nullifies many of the game's encounters. This is a balancing issue that is common in Redfall. Even the game's intended tougher parts, like vampire nests and overpowered enemies called Rooks--who spawn every so often when you've caused too much mayhem--can be overcome pretty breezily in most cases. And when that wasn't the case, often the opposite was true--suddenly overwhelming enemy forces would result in instant death. The game rarely strikes the right balance.
Redfall is the latest in a long line of games to develop an obsession with loot, but the game struggles to nail even the basic, well-established concept of how that loot should be doled out. In most other loot-heavy games, tiered loot drops on a reliable upward trajectory--early loot grants you common or slightly uncommon weapons, and as you progress, you'll see the loot getting gradually better and rarer. In Redfall, the weapons tend to get stronger, but their rarities follow no pattern. The five color-coded rarities can each drop at any point in the campaign. I was finding purples and golds in the first hour, just as I was finding grays and greens in the final few missions.
As such, the loot aspect of Redfall feels faulty and unnecessary. In one perplexing moment during one of the first side missions, a loot drop simultaneously granted me a gray sniper, a green sniper, a blue sniper, and a purple sniper. There are some cool guns to be found, like a UV Beam that turns vampires to stone so you can then blast them to pebbles, but the best guns are notable for their basic functions, not because of RNG-defined perks that have been hamfisted into yet another game. It's easy to see a version of Redfall that has smaller but deeper maps without the loot system. Perhaps that would be too much like the team's other games, which makes Redfall stand out for being different in Arkane’s catalog. But in all the ways it's different, it's worse.
Redfall is Arkane making compromises to its own design philosophies to serve a genre it may have been better off avoiding
Its story, which is actually full of interesting lore, similarly struggles to leave its mark because of the genre's all-too-common use of stiff quest-givers dishing out instructions as they stand in the same place for the whole game. Arkane's worlds have always been rich with character and environmental storytelling, but Redfall needs to serve its loot-shooter master, so cardboard-like NPCs feign narrative intrigue, leaving the plot to feel like window dressing. What could've been a fun story that basically equates venture capitalists to bloodsuckers is instead nullified by forgettable delivery at nearly every turn.
While Arkane's abandonment of its own core design principles is jarring from a fan point of view, you need not have played anything from the team before to be stunned by Redfall's lack of polish. This game is simply not ready, and yet here it is, meant to serve as the spring showcase for Xbox Game Pass. There's really no flavor of bug or glitch I did not encounter: game crashes, A- and T-posing characters, oddly duplicating character models, disappearing quest items, incorrect UI information, texture pop-in--and of course the game's lack of a 60-frames-per-second mode, which was recently a pre-launch headline, too. Redfall sorely misses a higher frame rate, but I saw moments during intensive combat where it struggled to even maintain 30 frames. Prey is six years old and looks better than Redfall. The lack of Arkane's usual flair is disheartening. The presence of so many bugs is just insulting. This game is for sale, but it shouldn't be.
The silver lining is faint, but Redfall does have a few things going for it. For one, its foursome of vampire-slaying heroes are all fun to inhabit, not just because of their unique abilities, but their personalities too. The more you complete missions with a particular group of co-op partners, the more your characters will communicate as they build trust. This helps color in their identities which can be difficult in a game--and genre--that is so often focused on filling space and time with things to do to the point of drowning out its heroes.
They also play off each other well due to their unique skills. It feels like the studio took its usual protagonist concept and divided it into quarters. This can sometimes mean solo players feel like they're incomplete, existing as only a fraction of Prey's Morgan Yu or Dishonored's Corvo or Emily, but when played in co-op, team synergy shines. Using one hero's ability to teleport over a gap where then another lifts up the team using her elevator-like maneuver to get onto a roof so that a third teammate can drop in through the skylight and cloak past enemies to unlock the front door and let them all in to cause chaos is the sort of player-driven moment that I thought this game would have a lot of. It doesn't have them often enough, but when they occur, the game is at its best.
While the world doesn't feel like the player's canvas in ways you might expect, it is nonetheless a fun place to explore in one very particular way. It leans into its Massachusetts setting in a manner that suggests to me, a native of the state, that someone on the team really likes it there. Moving down cobblestone pathways lined with pumpkins to collect junk loot like legally distinct chainstore donuts and candles that smell of steamed lobster, all while NPCs with thick Boston accents berate each other over the airwaves like they're talking about the Sox, was an authentic touch of home, though I understand few players will get the same enjoyment out of that aspect.
Ultimately, Redfall is a game that should not have been released yet. Its litany of bugs hampers the gameplay loop of exploring its world with friends, and that loop itself feels compromised by elements that are poorly executed and ill-suited to the team implementing them. I can't pretend to know whether Arkane chose to make a loot-shooter or was assigned to make a loot-shooter, but I can tell you what it feels like: one of the best game studios in the world suddenly made toothless.