At a critical point early in Redfall’s tedious adventure, Dr Addison (voiced by The Venture Bros. James Urbaniak) drains so much blood from his daughter that she dies. Or falls into a coma. I’m not sure, the moment is recounted via ‘psychic echo’, which is about as effective a storytelling technique as a regular echo.
It lays bare the truth at the heart of Arkane. This is a studio so drained that it can no longer exist as it once was.
Still, there are hints here and there of Arkane’s former brilliance. You can sneak into situations in a variety of different ways. Maybe you’ll go stealthily through a hole in the fence. Maybe you’ll go guns blazing through the front door. Maybe you’ll teleport to the roof, stealthily fall through a hole because you weren’t paying attention and then go guns blazing from there. So far, so Dishonored.
Like other Arkane games, Redfall is firing on all cylinders with its level design. Its sense of space is fantastic. I didn’t enter every building, but locations are bespoke creations, which is rare in open world games. It’s common for them to instead feature row after row of identical buildings, but there’s a character in Redfall’s architecture thanks to the attention to detail at hand.
There are many boarded up or locked up buildings, but thanks to high mobility these more often serve as an avenue of attack instead of a barrier—especially if you picked one of the characters with movement based skills.
That’s how I came to play as Devinder. A cryptid instagrammer, his teleport ability allows you and your teammates to warp almost 100 metres away in any direction. Gone is the need to find a box or a ladder to climb up to a roof—once you pop the skill, you’re away. If you’re feeling particularly goofy, you can even warp off a cliff and pray your teammates blindly follow after you, so you can die together. Most of the fun I found in Redfall was derived from engineering interesting ways to kill myself and others.
It’s a game that’s at its best when played in coop, which is how I experienced the majority of it. My partner played as Jacob, who has a raven which marks enemies for you by flying near them, and it can fly through walls, floors and ceilings, making it second only to Devinder’s teleport in practicality. The other abilities from the other characters are virtually useless, and when they aren’t they’re often superseded by the skill tree. Remi is a pure support character whose Ultimate heals everyone—except Devinder’s ultimate does the same after a small skill point investment. And it also actively kills vampires. And Remi can’t teleport.
The same care and attention to detail paid to making each building feel unique doesn’t apply to the characters, or the skills, or… anything else in the game. It’s a looter game, where you acquire new guns as your reward for pressing E on every interactive object, but there aren’t nearly enough weapons to make the looting feel like any more than a skeleton of the idea. Even if there was a huge variety of weapons, the combat doesn’t support it anyway. Very early on my coop partner and I worked out if one of us used a UV Gun and the other applied Kinetic damage, we could trivialise the game’s combat. When playing alone, you simply switch weapons to achieve the same affect.
It appears, superficially, like a looter shooter game, but it just isn’t. It looks like an Arkane dynamic murderthon, but it doesn’t play that way. It seems to have four different characters who are all worth playing, but they simply aren’t.
Like every game in 2023, the characters won’t shut the fuck up. But again care and attention hasn’t been paid. Characters repeat the same lines ad nauseam. I heard a repeated quip less than 10 minutes into the game, because only about four of them were recorded and if someone isn’t talking constantly Redfall is afraid you might accidentally hear to background music (which I actually liked).
In coop characters interact with one another, and there is a “Trust” system at play which sees them share more personal details about themselves as they spend more time together. Eventually they’ll share their deeply tragic backstories with one another, but because it’s an open world game where action can occur at any moment, these backstories will often be interrupted by ‘mad bantz’.
It doesn’t help that you’ve heard the mad bantz a million times already by then. Walking down to the final boss fight—a spectacularly underwhelming fight, mind you—my coop partner’s Jacob finally decided to tell me (Devinder) about his eye and why he has a bird that he’s pals with. He got about a sentence in when my coop partner sent the raven forward to scout ahead—the exact way the bird is supposed to be used—which prompted Devinder to say “As the crow flies, eh” for the umpteenth time. My coop partner sent the crow out whenever it was off cooldown, because why wouldn’t you? The CD is short and the utility is massive.
Devinder saying his line prompted—as it always did—Jacob to reply with “It’s a raven”. Jacob delivered the correction like getting one black bird confused with another was the equivalent of Devinder pissing in his cereal from a 10 metre high diving board, which struck me as weird. But worse, Jacob stopped telling us his tragic backstory to say that line.
Maybe that’s why he was so upset. Saying it once would be a joke and a misunderstanding, something Devinder could apologise for with an excuse about the pair of them being trapped in a land of eternal night and the details of the bird being indistinct. Saying it every time the bird appeared, however, was an act of malice. Jacob was there, running to certain death in a battle with a vampire god, trying to be a good teammate by scouting ahead, opening up his heart and exhibiting some vulnerability for the first time in about 11 hours, and Devinder, mid-sentence, decided maybe 812,735th time would be the charm for the lazy wordplay he’d been trotting out since they first met.
So what else could Jacob say in response to that? Someone should have explained to him, as my mum did, that if you just played along with the joke eventually the bully would get bored and move onto something else.
Except Jacob wasn’t standing up to Devinder for himself. No. Devinder wasn’t mischaracterising Jacob, after all. He was describing Raven, Jacob’s best friend, as something Raven was not. As evidenced by the next line in the exchange, where Raven sadly echoed—every damn time—”Raven”. Jacob was speaking for those who couldn’t.
We never got to hear the rest of the tragic backstory. Devinder never offered his either. All that effort put in for nothing.
So it goes with Redfall. It’s odd watching the internet cry out in shock and dismay about Star Wars Jedi Survivor being quote unquote unplayable when you’re trying to get through Redfall. In Jedi Survivor, my frame rate dropped to 25+ something sometimes, usually when I’m riding an alien ostrich through a giant area populated by zeep zorps and greemlings. And to be clear, it absolutely should not do that ever. It’s unacceptable, certainly, but unplayable? Hardly.
At one point in Redfall, my coop partner and I had to make it to a safe house that we hadn’t yet unlocked, had to save the game and fully restart it for the third time because both of us were getting under 25 frames per second. The game would reset our progress to the centre of the map if we didn’t turn on the power generator for the safe house and get inside.
While trying to find the keys to start the generator, we both realised we couldn’t use the “Esc” key any more to bring up our menu. Weird, but it had happened to us before. We accidentally triggered a “Rook Storm”, where a powerful enemy teleported in to kill us, summoned by the Vampire Gods because we’d made too much noise or something. The lightning strikes that accompany the storm tanked my framerate below 15.
Still we persevered. If the Rook killed us, we’d be sent back the same as if we’d crashed. We stopped the Rook dead in his tracks—no minor feat, considering we were playing a powerpoint presentation by now. Except now our melee key no longer worked. And the Esc key didn’t work so we couldn’t rebind it.
Unable to stake the Rook, it revived and came at us again. My partner went down. I showslid my way over to him and revived him. We dropped the Rook again. I pressed tab to access my inventory and equipped a flare gun as an alternate method to finish him off—lightning downed me as I fiddled with the menu. My partner revived me. We were too late—the Rook was back up again. We dropped it a third time. Panic was setting in now. Neither of us had any health kits left. We were dropping constantly, using my teleport ability’s passive to eek out a little extra health. We stopped the Rook again, I shot it with my flare gun and the Rook Storm ended.
The frames did not return. We couldn’t for the life of us find the keys to turn on the generator. It was too dark to look around, and, wouldn’t you know it—the game now didn’t recognise the T key to turn on our Torches.
This was the closest Redfall ever got to horror—a wasting disease where everything we’d achieved was slowly disappearing before our very eyes. Where once we could see in clear 20/20 full motion vision, now we caught only momentary glimpses of the pitch black world before us. Our ability to comprehend was dissipating, our capacity to perform even the simplest tasks dissolving. Internally we knew what to do, but we were trapped in an external system that simply wasn’t capable. There was, both metaphorically and literally, no escape.
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing us that we could experience eternal glory if we just worked at it hard enough. But you can’t ever really work hard enough. There is no end point in a system governed by leeches. In fiction, the vampires, having drained them of any lingering utility, discard the bodies of their victims. In real life, they keep returning to the dried out husk, like a prophet to an altar, to ask “what’s next?”
When you finish Redfall, you step into the sun, a cutscene plays and you begin again. The map is wiped clear, your discovered landmarks gone, your progress undone. In this, Redfall tells you simply that the vampires always win.
And they always do.