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Redfall (XS)

By Lee Mehr 07th Jun 2023 | 5,683 views 

Redfall's grocery list of problems, from storytelling to open world design, are so extensive that it seems more humane to drive a stake through this beating heart – if you can find it.

Reviewer's Note: The vast majority of my experience reflects Redfall after its Day One patch.

Early in your newfound vampire-hunting career, you’ll save Redfall's fire station and the inhabitants who barricaded themselves when the generator failed.  This effectively acts as your hub for main campaign missions and short reprieves with prominent side characters.  On the first floor, the main three (a bishop, doctor, and pregnant radio lady) will periodically have some canned dissension about whatever – sometimes while speaking in a different tone to you simultaneously.  It evokes a similar scenario to Tom Clancy's The Division: the huddled-up survivors clamoring for more resources to rebuild James Farley Post Office as a well-oiled base of operations.  Here, everything about those conversations is artificial window dressing by comparison.  That one example also informs Arkane Austin's looter-shooter as a whole: almost every aspect (big or small) is done better by another live-service title from the previous console generation.

Major cracks start showing before even seeing that base.  After selecting between one of four playable characters – Jacob, Layla, Dev, or Remi – and watching the prologue, I'm immediately questioning what's intuitively wrong with the locomotion and shooting.  A lot of hoopla has been tossed towards the developer for launching the game at only 30fps, which I think is fair given Arkane's pre-release material, but it's felt more intimately than that: a minute-yet-perceptible input delay with a controller.

Even when adjusting settings, bumping up default sensitivity, etc., input delay compounds other issues and "fixes" concurrently.  The reason default settings feel sluggish is because upping sensitivity nets rougher motion blurring; the generous aim assist feels necessary to make up for lackluster precision; and various other tweaks to counter its faulty baseline reveal themselves over time.  Worse yet, even the simple hope of maintaining a consistent framerate is dashed anytime you land the killing blow against a certain vampire type or the one time you face a boss in heavy fog.  Those instances aren’t the majority of the game (of course!), nor does this constitute being "broken" per se, but they reveal how this mechanical baseline is already fighting with one arm behind its back.  After my first binge-playing session, I couldn't believe how clean Rainbow Six: Siege felt afterwards.

Although odd and frustrating, perhaps that sting doesn't go so deep since that’s never really been Arkane's pedigree.  What will trouble the most fervent acolytes comes back to the lackluster world and emergent design.  When considering a history of titles like Dishonored and Prey (2017), you might think of how flexibility and player freedom could be expressed through a New England open world.  Minus the shooting mechanics, the opening minutes do a good job of lulling you into thinking proactively, with a landlocked ferry butting right up against an unmovable wall of water which forces you to navigate back towards town.  It sells the power of your opponents and makes you wonder just how crafty you'll need to be.  But those expectations start to dissipate when every glowing object is either a lore collectible, a different-tiered weapon, ammo, or a miscellaneous object that immediately transfers into currency. 

Before long this quaint coastal town of possibilities transmogrifies into a shrunken Borderlands with vampires.  The only thing cars are good for is the loot in their trunk (which risks raising its alarm) or as a one-off IED; even ATVs, an awesome means of transportation, are only helpful with the latter.  Practically everything within the world that can't be swallowed into your backpack is nailed down.  Most experimentation comes back to a character's few special abilities and what weapon to use when firing at conveniently-placed red barrels, electrical boxes, oil slicks, or whatever else to tick away enemy health bars; even then, there's rarely a point to aiming anywhere but an enemy's head or chest since most standard humanoids and vamps are ended so quickly.  And while enemies eventually get beefier and more numerous over time, there isn't this sense of evolving tactics besides strafing 'n shooting.

There's also stealth to balance out shooting galleries, but it's so insipid and flimsy.  The majority of time it's about avoiding line of sight, crouch-walking behind an enemy, and delivering a deadly elbow strike – with the same stupid animation every time.  You can cause little distractions like playing an instrument or turning on the sink, but Arkane doesn't incentivize players enough to try anything out.  And why should they with the most schizophrenic enemy AI in recent memory?  From moments where killing a lonely vampire with a silenced sniper rifle puts everyone on alert, to dipshit cultists unable to process a gun aimed directly at them, there's a wide range of inconsistent behaviors to itemize.  I think a sizable part of the issue stems from a lobby-based difficulty selection versus an instance-based one (e.g. Destiny and practically every other live-service shooter); it's nigh-impossible to wrangle a good balance across 4 disparate options, in solo or 2-4 player co-op, and reach some kind of AI consistency.  

To break from an unending streak of complaints, I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge its paucity of earned successes. 

Even though the underlying mechanics and locomotion aren't ideal, weapons still carry a decent heft.  I like the little animation of every character tilting and admiring the craftsmanship when acquiring a higher-leveled gun.  Blowing holes in enemies is more rewarding with vampires than human counterparts, not only due to decent variety, but also because they require a final blow to be killed entirely.  A stake through the heart will do, but burning them to ash is another valid option.  And since you only carry three weapons at a time, you ought to ensure one of them has a stake bolted onto the end.  Outside the standard retinue of guns, some esoteric weapons round out the list, like the pneumatic wood stake launcher or portable UV beam that can petrify vamps in seconds.

While the hollowness of the open world is still a valid complaint, there's genuine magic to discover the harder you look.  Hell, the fact Redfall buries any hint of a 2nd location exemplifies that point.  Instead of all Redfall Commons' cultists and mercenaries being interested in you, Burial Point has rival vamp factions vying for control of the entire zone.  The Vampire Gods' insatiable lust for power is only matched by their thirst for blood.  While still feeling basic and somewhat artificial, at least there's more dynamism and intrigue in this slice of the world.  It's also a more geographically varied and substantial plot of land; Burial Point's topography succeeds at subtly guiding players off the beaten path to a potential treasure hunt or environmental storytelling that's worth investing in.

Part of what accentuates the 'empty world' complaints are the few things that breathe life into it; one of the big hooks with vampire nests and boss havens are their reality-distorting environs.  You step through the door and enter a surrealist nightmare that mixes slices of Redfall – the local theater, convenience store, etc. – with The Upside Down.  Even though only one boss is mechanically satisfying, Nests rank among Redfall's best qualities since they can actually test your stealthy patience or combative skill whilst rewarding great loot after the heart is destroyed.  They’re a great example of a rare event because their ring of influence in the main world buffs all nearby enemies, compelling you to vanquish it.  You should be wary of your success as the Vampire Gods continually gauge it, eventually sending a Rook down from the heavens.  It's a neat light show too: being encircled by red lighting until this towering eight-foot vampire spawns to wreak havoc.  Granted, you eventually tire of the 'storm bar' filling up after campaign missions, but it's still a neat concept.

Even though Arkane's own Harvey Smith tried to sell enjoying Redfall equally alone or with friends, it's safe to say friends improve its scant positives.  It's one thing to play with Dev's Translocator (the more-grounded interpretation of Dishonored's Blink ability) to elude random mobs, it's another when you're using it to help Jacob reach a vantage point for sniping or coordinate it with another ally.  Though – again – you shouldn't expect anywhere near the exercised coordination from its E3 trailer; more often than not it's easier to flush out random mobs with brute force and continue ahead.  But it's also tough to knock that when teams are allowed to spread out and freely explore to their own tune.

However, that breeziness within the game is undercut by the nightmare surrounding it.  Although players joining a friend's lobby get all weapons and experience from that session, only the host player reaps the reward of progressing the story forward.  So now your hypothetical squad needs to file a formal declaration on who hosts and what time everyone should plan to hop on, lest you run the risk of replaying campaign missions over and over.  And since progress is so host-centric, it's not very accommodating for players of disparate levels.  As stated, the mechanics are nevertheless generous, but a couple of bad steps against higher-leveled enemies can quickly drain your health pool.  It's a fundamentally bizarre extra set of steps for a live-service title. 

Recall that specific critique in the first paragraph; how false any sort emotional connection feels here.  Another example eclipsing that comes back to a recurring side character.  It’s a simple story of a pregnant wife and her husband trying to find a medical professional to help deliver the baby.  You naturally progressing ahead in the campaign gives the all-clear for them.  On the way over, it turns out the husband has been discreetly lured into becoming a cultist and tries to give up his wife.  I could give a big SPOILER warning here, but it’s so… nothing that I’m not really sure what anyone’s missing.  Between it and the crazy amount of lore-litter to make up some semblance of a story, the narrative demands a crazy amount of player attention for scarce rewards.

A sizable chunk of my disinterest stems from straitened presentation too.  To be clear, I don't think cost-cutting measures like voiceover slideshows are a fundamental detriment in their own right; in fact, limiting yourself from standard expectations can prove beneficial, like Pentiment forgoing voice acting to rely on text-reading.  But that falls apart here due to laggard pacing.  You're expected to witness Redfall's revelations by standing in place and watching still frames of random 3D human diagrams doing nefarious Big Pharma stuff.  The final result is a paradoxical mixture of being too revealing and too cryptic all at once.  The way it just sloppily shares stuff through collectibles while being so guarded in drip-feeding important background info is so frustrating for what’s meant to be a campy vamp-slaying romp.

Past storytelling, the audio/visual presentation isn’t up to snuff either.  Although I'm a biased source when it comes to Arkane's penchant, the team's weird artistic design of people with slender arms and man-hands looks blander than usual here.  It's exceptionally unimpressive for all the trenchcoated vampires whose main defining physical features are long, black fingernails and two sets of upper fangs.  What's next?  Some semblance of an actual personality?  Voice acting is largely unimpressive and relies too heavily on quips and regurgitated information to fill in space.  Mixed between sound design and bland line-reads is Jongnic Bontemps' confused Halloween/Hip Hop infusion.  From music cues after completing a mission or action beats, it often sounds remarkably bland.  

What emphasizes these accumulated shortfalls comes from it also being Microsoft's first $70-priced title, which is an important threshold to consider in light of these results.  But when looking past that fact looming overhead, I'd also critique it on the grounds of an appeal to creativity.  Let's look at Arkane's previous work since 2010:

  • Dishonored – Thief if given the abilities of a god.
  • Prey – System Shock while incorporating modern sensibilities.
  • Deathloop – melding a time-loop structure onto its previous hitters.
  • Redfall – vampire-themed looter shooting a la Borderlands or The Division?

Although I'll admit to never being wholly sold on Arkane's alleged talents, at least its oeuvre has a recognizable identity.  While I'm always open to storied developers branching out and trying new things, it should start from an earnest place instead of a corporate meeting.

What damages Redfall more than feeling corporate-inspired is simply... it not bringing the goods.  You can incorporate some neat concepts, which Arkane Austin did, and I can appreciate them to an extent, but my patience will eventually vanish if the game proper consistently fails in its execution.  Even if inevitable updates arrive, it just morphs to a supremely unconfident title that's outclassed elsewhere across solo and cooperative play.  The grocery list of problems, from storytelling to open world design, are so extensive that it seems more humane to drive a stake through this beating heart – if you can find it.

Contractor by trade and writer by hobby, Lee's obnoxious criticisms have found a way to be featured across several gaming sites: N4G, VGChartz, Gaming Nexus, DarkStation, and TechRaptor! He started gaming in the mid-90s and has had the privilege in playing many games across a plethora of platforms. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.

VGChartz Verdict


This review is based on a digital copy of Redfall Bite Back Edition for the XS, provided by the publisher.

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