Redfall is Arkane defanged
Stephen Kings Salem’s Lot begins with chapter after chapter detailing the cast of characters and the Maine town in which they live. Before it becomes clear that a vampire has come to make their home his new feeding ground, King spends a lot of time outlining the population’s history and culture. It’s an approach used in many monster stories: give the audience a reason to care about a bunch of people before they get hunted down by bloodsucking ghouls.
redfall, the latest from Arkane Austin, reverses this setup and introduces players to the titular, fictional island of Massachusetts after vampires have already drained most of the life from the place. The result – about halfway through the story (our impressions are based on about 10 hours into a solo excursion) – is a game that struggles to warrant interest in the fate of its fallen city, and one that struggles to find fresh blood. found in overly familiar trends in the apocalypse genre.
As one of four characters, all of whom have supernatural-tinged backstories and associated special abilities, the player sets out to investigate the nature of the vampire invasion, keep a group of fellow humans alive, and, hopefully, escape the island. The beginning is not very inspiring. redfall begins with the player setting up a safe base of operations – in this case at a fire station – and helping a group of survivors settle into their new home. There’s a stern priest, a mild-mannered doctor, and a grease-stained gun salesman, each with their own storefronts, and an accompanying herd of other superficial NPCs. No member of this cast is particularly memorable, and it’s hard to arouse interest in their fate, mortal or not.
The town of Redfall itself makes a stronger impression. It features a downtown with centuries-old colonial architecture and outlying tourist attractions, including a lighthouse and museum, that mark its history as a whaling center. Because there are few backdrops for a horror story better than mid-autumn, the city lies beneath large orange, yellow, and red leafed trees; many of the storefronts are decorated with pumpkins.
These locations, along with others – a dried-up, fish-studded lake bed or a shadowy, abandoned hospital, to name a few – create a stylish sense of menace enhanced by splashes of bold 1980s red paperback font in menus and area names. As expected from Arkane, a studio known for creating a strong sense of place in its games through elaborate set dressing, the interiors of these spaces are cluttered with everyday objects and bits of discarded writing. These details provide information about the nature of the characters who once lived there, hinting at the dark secrets underlying the vampires’ takeover.
The vibe wears off, however, when enemies reveal they’re not the terrifying aliens, ruthless private soldiers, or vicious human cultists the game purports to be, but rather stunned shooters. A well-trained soldier responds to the first volley of gunfire by running headlong into the corner of a movie theater, waiting to be shot in the head with a gunshot. A Creature of the Night launches a demonic attack by hovering in a straight line towards the player, teleporting away from a hail of bullets to step back slightly and try the same tactic once more. While the enemies occasionally show a little more creativity – vampires sometimes zigzag across the screen to dodge gunfire, and some humans set up automated gun turrets – they are largely brain dead and only pose a real threat when they engulf the player and destroy someone’s vision .
It’s worth noting that aiming on Xbox Series X is so floaty that the best tactic on the battlefield is usually to fire from side to side with a shotgun, firing at cultists and vampires as they maneuver their way into the crosshairs. Switching to Windows PC helped with this sluggish motion – and the general camera jerkiness – but the gunfight is still not exceptional. This is a problem considering how much shooting is required to get through redfallcrowds of cultists, soldiers and vampires in a given mission.
Playing as Layla Ellison, a college student with telekinesis, is a tempting wrinkle to standard shooter design. But her array of special powers doesn’t do much to confuse combat that relies largely on taking down waves of goons with whatever weapon has the highest damage number listed in the description. Layla can conjure up a large purple psychic umbrella that acts as a shield, and she can also summon her ghostly vampire ex-boyfriend to float around and claw at enemies. But these powers, along with her ability to summon a mid-century glowing elevator cage that shoots her or other players into the air, rarely add texture to the flat, boring gunfights.
A story that comes to life redfall’The excellent sense of place could help overcome its lackluster combat. So far, the story hasn’t given much incentive to continue mission after mission of decent reconnaissance and boring gunplay. The incidental writing – found in places like old notes or flashback scenes captured in spectral dioramas – is evocative enough to color the broad strokes of the plot with an eerieness and human drama it otherwise lacks.
If this tone is central to the back half of the story, combined with plot developments that add some momentum to the proceedings, it might be easier to overlook the weaker aspects of the game and appreciate it as a compelling narrative work. At this point, however, the town of Redfall is getting too drained of vibrancy for players to invest in whether the vampires are victorious or not.
redfall will be released on May 2 on Windows PC and Xbox Series X. The game has been reviewed on Xbox and PC using a pre-release download code from Bethesda Softworks. Vox Media has partnerships. These do not affect editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased through affiliate links. You can find additional information on Polygon’s Ethics Policy here.