Redfall review: an open world FPS drained of Arkane's magic
It's hollow, man
Redfall, an open world FPS by the folks over at Arkane, plays like a game that was pulled in so many directions over its development that it exploded into various bits, which were then patchworked together into a live service game that already feels like it's been abandoned. Flashes of Arkane's brilliance make an appearance, but they are a rare find amidst a bland, incoherent world that clearly points to deeper issues in a game that's been drained of its magic.
The setup is simple. Vampires have blocked out the sun above the titular town, and they're feeding on residents to fuel their evil plans - so it's up to you to choose your hero and put a stop to the bloodsuckers. You've got a choice between four characters: Jacob, Layla, Devinder, and Remi, all of whom come with their own abilities and skill trees. I went with Jacob, a spectral sniper capable of hitting some high numbers, and whose ghostly raven can pinpoint baddies. I'd hoped my decision would feed into a stealthy playstyle that would take advantage of Arkane's excellent level design. Ha.
Early on, Redfall presents itself as an immersive sim set in an open world. "You can tackle this place in all manner of ways!", a pop-up says, implying that Redfall is a pliable town you're able to shape and poke holes in over the course of its story. And yes, there are often multiple routes you can take into spooky churches and tattered houses, but it soon becomes clear that you have limited options to manipulate anything once you're inside. If you either gun everything down, or sneak past the extremely stupid AI, then you've exhausted both of the game's options.
The dead ends keep coming as you return to base, a repurposed fire station and home to the game's tired commitment to its open world. A mission table leads you to what seems at first glance like a choose-your-own-adventure, but is really just a linear sequence of missions you've sort of got to do anyway. Various vendors stand around, where you can purchase health kits or some new weapons using the supplies you've earned from the bog roll and jewelled eggs you popped into your pocket grinder. The idea, I think, is that as you liberate Redfall, the base is meant to fill with more folks and their personal stories. Spoiler: this doesn't happen.
Or it seems like you were meant to get to know some of the NPCs better, but their stories are cut short so abruptly, you can basically feel the marker pen slide across the whiteboard and through their planned plotlines. The line between main mission and side mission couldn't be more blurred if I necked 20 paracetemols, had a 50°C bath, booted up Redfall on my Steam Deck, and sprinted down the street with it sliding to and fro in my sweaty palms. Unlockable safehouses scattered across the map suggest further abandoned ambitions, as they pretend to be mini versions of your firehouse, but end up being another set of convenient fast travels points with the odd extra - and no less tedious - mission or two.
The thing is, I actually quite like wandering around Redfall. Discounting the pop-in and the MMO-esque warring factions that don't actually damage one another, it's got some impressive buildings and occasional hints of Arkane magic, and even the jank can't pull me out of enjoying the lazy port town controlled by vampires. There's a nice ratio of imposing museums to auburn flora, coupled with moments of wonder as you notice the sea's been parted by supernatural forces, or as you're whisked into the warped halls of a vampire's brain during a big set piece. Interiors are also on point, too. Arkane know how to make rooms seem lived in and there's plenty of it here.
I would rather a hippopotamus pop my skull like a melon than have to engage with another bloodsucker.
Sometimes, the story focuses on the human side of the vampire menace with strong voice-acting and a sincere effort to infuse the bleak world with some emotion. It's hard to get too invested, though, when the vast majority of your missions are tedious fetch quests that feed into an uninspired live-service machine. Each character comes outfitted with the usual suspects - an EXP bar, a skill tree, an inventory filled with rainbow-coloured loot - except that they're all really dull! As Jacob, I found it more exciting to spend my skill points on larger ammo reserves than my ghostly raven, and it won't take you long to realise that most weapons of a certain type are largely the same, except one generates more numbers than the other.
Honestly, I opt for the guns that kill the vampires the fastest. They look the part, but man, my heart sinks whenever I've got to fight one. Not only are they bullet sponges, but they flit everywhere, which makes actually hitting them with said bullets a colossal headache. I would rather a hippopotamus pop my skull like a melon than have to engage with another bloodsucker. Then you've got the cultists, who are so clueless you'll stop seeking out interesting optional routes; just take the front door, they won't notice. Come to think of it, I could probably tuck my legs into the hippopotamus' mouth, too.
While the guns might have some heft to them and some character abilities are useful, none of it seems to mesh with the whole vampiric theme. I roped poor vidbud Liam and hardware editor James into a co-op session, and we barely ever used our abilities. Combat rarely ever calls for anything other than a few shotgun shells, and even with pals, I wouldn't say the experience was elevated at all. It remained markedly similar to playing it on our lonesomes, just with added sighing.
Normally I'm not one to care too much for PC performance. If it runs smoothly and looks vaguely good, then you're in the clear with me. Redfall is the first game in quite a while that couldn't be less in the clear; in fact, it's washed out and shuddery and I can't seem to flick the settings into any combination that'll calm it down. I mean, I'm running the game on an RTX 2070 at 1080p, and yet my frame rate wades through glue if I enter any slightly busy spot. It's not even that the game runs poorly, it's clear there's even more under the hood that's struggling, too. Character models fall through floors and action buttons might not work. I've heard that Liam has to enter his inventory to end his character's ability, because otherwise it won't close and prevents him from doing anything else. The list goes on.
Granted, after a day one patch and a download of the latest NVIDIA drivers, I've been able to bump the game from medium to epic quality across the board, so that's nice. But it still isn't pretty by any means, and its terrible optimisation actually intrudes upon my actual playing of said videogame. Our hardware editor James has broken down the game's shaky foundations with proper stats and analysis, so I'd head over to his best settings page for the actual downlow.
I know the above's been pretty bleak and it genuinely saddens me that Redfall is a disappointment. I simply can't believe it's by Arkane Austin, the same folks behind Prey, and by the same minds who helped bring Dishonored's Dunwall to life (Dishonored 2 remains one of my favourite games of all time). It's not that Redfall's absolutely diabolical, by any means. There are moments of wonder buried away in Redfall, where Arkane's penmanship and architectural mastery surface. I just know that Arkane are far, far better than what they've put out here, and there's a sense that what's arrived is a game that was pulled in so many directions it couldn't cope.