At this point in time, it’s indisputable that there’s no better developer out there than Arkane Studios when it comes to immersive sims. With the likes of Dishonored and Prey, time and time again, Arkane has delivered games that boast incredible settings and put emergent gameplay and player agency at the forefront in increasingly unique and creative ways. With its newest game however, the developer is changing tack. Redfall is Arkane’s first ever open world title, its first ever game with a full-fledged co-op suite, and it puts a much greater emphasis on action than the gameplay pillars you’d usually associate with the studio.
Change isn’t necessarily always a bad thing, and on no few occasions, talented developers have broken the mould and delivered something outside of their comfort zone that ends up impressing in completely different ways- and Arkane is nothing if not a talented developer. Unfortunately, however, Redfall isn’t a very successful experiment. Not only does it end up losing a lot of the strengths that have defined the studio’s titles in the past due to how different its formula is, it sadly doesn’t even implement that formula in ways that we haven’t seen countless times in the past, while also having gameplay, design, and technical issues of its own that mar the experience. The end result is Arkane’s most underwhelming game in years.
"Not only does Redfall end up losing a lot of the strengths that have defined the studio’s titles in the past due to how different its formula is, it sadly doesn’t even implement that formula in ways that we haven’t seen countless times in the past, while also having gameplay, design, and technical issues of its own that mar the experience."
Set in the titular American island town of Redfall, Arkane’s newest shines the UV light on a fascinating new threat for players to take on- vampires. Created as a result of shady scientific and medical experiments by a group of rich people hoping to make themselves even more powerful, these vampires now rule the town. They’ve cut off the island from the rest of the world by literally pushing back the sea, and they’ve scorched the sun and blocked it out, leaving the town caught in a perpetual cycle of nightfall, twilight, and nightfall again.
Of the few who have survived, most have decided to pledge themselves to the vampire overlords and serve as their thralls, while a few survivors here and there are still resisting, fighting to either find a way out, unravel the mysteries surrounding the vampires and their origins, or get the town back under their control. It is, as I mentioned earlier, a fascinating premise, if not a wholly unique one, and it does go hand-in-hand with some excellent visual imagery, from the scorched out sun to the frozen tidal waves of water surrounding the island to the visual design of the vampires and the destruction they have wrought on the town.
It is, however, also severely underutilized. Narratively, Redfall feels like a major letdown. Cutscenes are little more than a collection of still panels being shown one after the other to provide the barest of narrative context, characters are never given any time to breathe or develop in any meaningful way, and dialogue is similarly barebones and uninteresting. Arkane has insisted in the lead-up to Redfall’s launch that this is a game that can be enjoyed solo without any issues, but you don’t need to play it for long to realize that it’s been developed with co-op in mind first and foremost. When you’re playing something with friends, you’re not going to want to spend too much time watching cutscenes or be able to pay much attention to the story, and with this being a co-op game, it’s clear that those elements have been pushed into the background to be entirely unintrusive- and, as a result, entirely bland and forgettable.
But gameplay and level design, not story and storytelling, are the areas where Arkane games have always flourished in the past- so does Redfall make up for its narrative deficiencies in those areas? It would be all too harsh if I said the game doesn’t have redeeming qualities – it definitely does, and it can be enjoyable in its own right from time to time – but they don’t do enough to hide its biggest weaknesses, of which, unfortunately, it has quite a few.
"When you’re playing something with friends, you’re not going to want to spend too much time watching cutscenes or be able to pay much attention to the story, and with this being a co-op game, it’s clear that those elements have been pushed into the background to be entirely unintrusive- and, as a result, entirely bland and forgettable."
Take the open world, for instance. Redfall is split across two open world maps, and put together, they’re sufficiently large- though beyond size itself, the open world has other issues. One of the biggest of them all is also perhaps the most abstract- that Redfall lacks that distinct flavour and aesthetic that Arkane games always have. From Dishonored’s Dunwall to Prey’s Talos I, the settings in Arkane game always boast a very unique aesthetic, as a result, live long in the memory. The island town of Redfall, however, is inherently a much more grounded setting, and though the environments (especially of the indoor variety) do still sport the level of detail that you’d expect from Arkane, they lack that distinct visual identity.
More importantly, however, the design itself doesn’t feel as meticulously crafted and expertly finetuned as you’d want. Redfall does still let players tackle objectives in a variety of ways, and usually, there are multiple different ways to get around obstacles and enemies and into specific locations, especially when you take the unique abilities of each playable character into account. That part of the experience remains as fun as you’d expect, even if the options aren’t as varied and flexible as you’d ordinarily expect from Arkane. However, it ends up getting a bit too diluted- all too often, I found myself making my way through the open world to get to a mission, with nothing of interest to catch my eye on the entire trek.
There are, to be fair, a fair few optional activities to track down that do encouraging exploration, like finding and activating safe houses, freeing neighourhoods from the control of vampire underbosses, finding collectibles, and more. One such activity sees you travelling into vampire nests, which are visually distinct psychedelic locations where you have to find the nest’s heart to decrease the vampires’ area of influence in the outside world. But while vampire nests are solid activities that I enjoyed quite a bit, the vast majority of the rest of what the open world offers up feels too rote. It feels like a disappointingly formulaic take on open world design- and formulaic is one word I never thought I’d use to describe an Arkane title.
In fact, that’s not the only thing about Redfall that’s formulaic. From the design of missions to side quests to the progression mechanics to the loot mechanics, the game lifts too much from the modern AAA looter shooter playbook. The steady stream of weapons that you pick up, the constant barrage of items lying around in the environments that you can scavenge, the skill tree where you spend points acquired from leveling up- all of it just feels almost entirely indistinguishable from the umpteen looter shooters we’ve played over the last decade or so.
"From the design of missions to side quests to the progression mechanics to the loot mechanics, the game lifts too much from the modern AAA looter shooter playbook."
Another major problem in Redfall is its moment-to-moment gameplay- more specifically, the simple act of aiming and controlling the camera. The game has a number of relatively small issues that in isolation shouldn’t be too problematic on paper, but put together, put a significant dent in the experience on this front. There’s a little bit of input lag, a persist blur effect every time you move the camera, finnicky camera acceleration, and a bit of a stuttering issue, and with all of these problems combined, controlling the game becomes a bit cumbersome. Aiming ends up feeling clunky and unresponsive, and that side of the experience simply cannot keep up with the combat. Sadly, the options provided in the settings menu didn’t do a ton to alleviate these issues for me either.
Which is a shame, because the combat itself does have its fair share of strengths. The variety of enemies that you face in Redfall is impressive, and though most of the human enemies are little more than cannon fodder, the vampires come in many unique shapes and sizes and boast a variety of different abilities that demand changed up strategies from time to time. There’s also an intriguing array of weapons and abilities to use, from UV lights and electrical javelins to translocators and more. No, the combat doesn’t feel as limitless in its options as it does in most other Arkane games – perhaps because the ability pool here is split across four playable characters – but it is still fun on a fundamental level. Or, well, it would be if aiming didn’t feel so stiff and clunky. Hopefully, that’s an area that the developer will address with patches promptly after launch.
Speaking of things that’ll need to be improved with post-launch patches, Redfall is also a game with quite a few technical issues. Visually, it sports strong art design, which isn’t a surprise given who’s developed it, but the technical side of things isn’t able to keep up with the art. For starters, there’s no 60 FPS mode available at launch, which, for a first party current-gen exclusive, is a baffling omission. Even on 30 FPS, Redfall has a persistent stuttering issue- it’s never too drastic, but it’s hard not to notice, especially given how frequently it pops up. Then there are a variety of visual and UI glitches, like my character getting stuck in an endless running animation loop one time, even when stationary, or when the menu UI’s cursor got stuck on the screen even during gameplay and cutscenes. Add to that significant texture pop in, rough draw distances, and even a crash during my time with the game, and it becomes clear that Redfall needed more time in the oven.
"It’d be unfair and inaccurate to say that there’s nothing to like here – there certainly is – but in what’s probably a first for Arkane, the bad ends up outweighing the good."
Redfall feels entirely out of character for Arkane, a studio that has always prided itself on developing unique, systemically dense games that provide experiences that have almost no peers in the medium. While it does retain hints of the studio’s formula, it dilutes it too much with rote and uninspired gameplay and design choices, resulting in a blend that feels like it’s neither here nor there. Then you have the technical and control issues, which further mar the experience, while the narrative shortcomings prove to be another stake to the heart. It’d be unfair and inaccurate to say that there’s nothing to like here – there certainly is – but in what’s probably a first for Arkane, the bad ends up outweighing the good.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox Series X.
Conceptually, a fascinating premise; Some fun optional activities, like vampire nests; Level of player choice is still enjoyable, despite being diluted; Some solid combat elements, like the abilities, weapons, and enemy variety.
Lackluster storytelling wastes the setting; The world lacks Arkane's unique visual aesthetic; Open world is largely uninteresting and rather formulaically designed; Rote mission design, progression mechanics, and loot system; Clunky and unresponsive aiming; Plenty of technical issues.
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