In the immortal words of The Smashing Pumpkins, the world is a vampire. In Redfall, the multitude of that metaphor reigns true as in cloistered streets, twisted vampires destined for the stake roam freely, while a greater conspiracy lurks behind pristine ‘silicon valley’ office doors. This overarching, society-skewering narrative brims with potential, although Redfall‘s overall devotion to generic co-op missions, and a lack of finesse, are a partial drain on its lifeblood.
You enter Redfall as one of four heroes, who have been transformed by a vampiric coup led by money-grabbing biotech firms. This depiction of American capitalist intent is biting, with the ambitions that destroy the town of Redfall finding their roots in recent history. Maintaining parallels to real-life events, and real-life conspiracy theories, lends the game an unsettling sense of realism that buoys the mythology around Redfall, amping up the chills with every twist.
But in choosing to build this story around the skeleton of a cooperative game, much of its impact is lost, or left to sit by the wayside in the form of collectible notes and diary entries. There is a compelling world to be found in Redfall, if you know where to look. Simply glance upon its surface however, and you’ll only bear witness to basic, segmented run-and-gun gameplay, and combat that quickly devolves into repetition.
Tell me a story
The game begins strong, weaving a compelling tale with high-drama cinematics that introduce the plight of Redfall, and some of the strongest ideas in the game – frozen waves cut off the town, for example, leaving boats stranded in beautiful, idyllic scenery. But finding hooks elsewhere is a challenge.
Missions are taken on in bite-sized chunks as you roam freely, with a main hub serving as the meeting point for a handful of survivors. Whether solo or with friends, when you begin a mission, a short animatic plays, and you’re sent off into the world to pursue a variety of quests: defeat a powerful vampire, enter a home and retrieve a lost item, or save a human being. Rinse, repeat.
Mostly, these quests involve running through vampire hordes, using a combination of shooting and staking to take down ultra-powerful vampires, carving your own space in the world, and living to tell the tale.
On completing these tasks, you’re rewarded with a quick pop-up, and then near-silence. Even in the game’s main hub, NPCs rarely have anything interesting to say, as the game defers to a quieter form of world-building. Little notes may pop up between missions, sharing an NPC’s thoughts on current events, but for the most part, they are static companions who rarely feel part of their own world.
Anna and Joe Creelman, who man the firearm booth in the game’s first hub locale, are a couple with multi-layered drama. Anna is pregnant, and on the cusp of giving birth. Joe is a rough partner, and spends the majority of the game giving you ‘Hmm’ as a standard response. Later, their situation worsens – but prominent details of their story aren’t shown, only mentioned briefly, almost as an aside. You’re expected to fill in the blanks, which has the unfortunate impact of dampening any emotional stakes.
Other plot points continue to unfold in similar ways – deliverance through brief, rigid animatics, bare dialogue, or in text form.
The frustration lies in just how compelling the game’s tale of vampire corruption continues to be, shining brightly between standard smash-and-grab missions. In surreal, dream-like realms you’ll stumble through between bullet-absorbing vampire fights, the creative ingenuity at the heart of the game is clear.
Redfall is dominated by a host of god-like vampires, and your missions drive you slowly closer towards understanding these beings, and undermining their loyalists. While you might be tasked with breaking into a home and retrieving dolls, these missions will slowly haul you towards a confrontation with an all-powerful being.
On your journey, you’ll see their evolution – and in haunting, ghostly scenes evoke their grim pasts; how they became vampires, how their worlds changed, and how they changed the world. There’s a real tragedy at the heart of each vampire tale – and the narrative prowess of Arkane is clearest in these more investigation-focussed segments. There’s a slow ooze towards confrontation, as twisting corridors and warped realities lead you to towering, unique boss fights.
While occasionally frustrating, they offer some worthy creative challenges, as you work towards understanding the strategies needed and the weakness to exploit, guided by each god vampire’s woeful tale. They are frequently hair-raising, large-scale delights, and put every skill you’ve learned to the test.
But inevitably, these brilliant bookends feed you back into the game’s main loop, where you’re once again forced to take on fetch quests with little emotional or tangible reward.
The solo experience
While Redfall can be played as a solo player, it certainly feels tailored more towards the multiplayer experience, as there’s a sense that the post-mission silence is designed for teammate back patting and enthusiasm. In largely reducing the game’s primary characters to blank stand-ins, Redfall asks you to find character and personality in your human companions, rather than in the game’s world.
The same goes for your player character, who is largely treated as a blank slate. Upon introduction, there are only vague story elements shared – for example, Jacob’s single black eye and raven companion are commented on only once, and minimal backstory is shared. The gaps in plot and character growth all feel in service of the game’s focus on cooperative gameplay.
You have to pour yourself into the game to feel a firm connection, in order to fill out a relatively empty world.
This feeling is compounded out in the wilds of Redfall – which are frequently gorgeous, and packed with sinister atmosphere. The crisp, dark sky that looms menacingly overhead casts deep, gash-like shadows on the world. The game’s soundtrack is pitch-perfect, and weaves tension with aplomb. Each step you take is heightened by the attention in the world’s design.
Yet despite this beauty, there is a strange sense of dissonance in Redfall‘s world – and not just because the game’s AI lacks intelligence, and most vampires cannot bend or turn properly to attack you.
While there is detail packed into the game’s many dark corners, backgrounding a strong narrative in favour of constant combat skirmishes that ratchet up in difficulty with every mission – even on easier modes – is a frustrating choice. It leaves Redfall feeling bland and repetitive in places, as the mission checklist takes priority over paying off an impactful narrative.
In leaning towards multiplayer mechanics, Redfall has seemingly lost part of its identity, with its dual focus of enjoyable combat and a compelling story gelling together in a globular fashion; neither quite aiding the other. In fits and starts, the game’s story is wonderfully intriguing, particularly as it devolves to surrealism and metaphor in creative, ingenious ways – but these moments are spreadeagled over a barebones story filled with disparate set pieces.
There is a sense of more hiding beneath the surface of Redfall; and an urge to find it is what pushes you onward through endless vampire skirmishes. But while pieces of promised treasure are sprinkled throughout, Redfall never shines quite as brightly as it should.
Three stars: ★★★
This review was originally published on 2 May 2023.
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