James Stephanie Sterling
Redfall: A Draining Experience (Review)
Released: May 2, 2023
Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Systems: PC, Xbox XS (reviewed)
I thought Redfall was going to be Left 4 Dead with vampires.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against what we got. Well, I’m not against the idea of what we got. Only the idea though, since the actual game leaves a lot - and I do mean a lot - to be desired. I remember watching the announcement trailer for this thing, however, and it really gave me the vibe of a horde-based multiplayer shooter in the same vein as Turtle Rock’s beloved series (and the far less beloved successor Back 4 Blood). Then again, after watching said trailer I promptly forgot about its existence to such a degree I was surprised to see it still existed.
So what is Redfall? That’s hard to say, and not because it’s unique, complex, or even particularly difficult to describe, but because it’s the complete opposite. It’s so immensely nondescript as to defy conventional description, so threadbare there lacks an effective enough series of words to convey how little it offers in all its feeble mundanity. When it’s not being outright terrible, it’s just there. If I were criticizing it in the nicest way possible, I’d say Redfall is a videogame in the same way a test card is a television programme.
Wait, no, that’s actually rather cruel. Test cards are remembered fondly. Redfall will strive to be remembered at all, and it’ll fall several miles short of Vampire Rain in that doomed endeavor.
Redfall is a first-person shooter where you repeatedly fight the same tiny handful of character models representing generic vampires alongside gun-toting cultists and mercenaries, the latter two groups all wearing masks for that guiltless dehumanization videogames love so much. It essentially plays like Borderlands… if Borderlands was scaled back to be as shallow as conceivably possible while still resembling at least the unadorned bones of a loot-based shooter.
I can’t emphasize enough how lacking in complexity or depth Redfall is. It brings to mind the term “minimum viable product,” something that does enough to be considered shippable and functional but goes absolutely no further than that.
It takes place across a couple of mid-sized maps with very little in their bland environments worth exploring. There are eight weapon categories with two or three gun types apiece, all coming in a selection of rarities while increasing in power as the player levels up. Occasionally one can find an “Unrivaled” gun, the kind of unique weapon other games typically call “Legendaries.” There are only a few of these guns and they’re as continually recycled as the enemies. It’s also quite funny that they’re labeled Unrivaled, as weapons become obsolete so quickly it’s impossible to stay attached to any single one. These legendaries are the opposite of what they’re claimed to be - they’re literally rivaled all the time, as soon as higher level weapons appear, and since there’s no upgrade system or even a storage option, even the rarest guns soon become inventory burdens best scrapped for currency.
Currency, by the by, is used to buy the game’s three consumables (health kits and two different unlocking tools), ammo refills that carry a fixed price regardless of how much you need, and a smattering of guns cultivated from a rotating stock of largely low grade junk. You’ll soon rack up money (which the game weakly calls “support”) to an excessive degree, rarely feeling compelled to spend it on anything other than basic replenishments.
To reiterate, there’s no upgrading, no modding, just the same limited selection of guns to be replaced by stronger guns in an incrementally linear fashion. There’s nothing exciting about them and they’re drearily drip fed at random, with not even bosses or locked doors guaranteed to give something moderately powerful (in fact they’re way more likely to disappoint). As with everything else, the bare minimum has been done for guns to qualify as “loot.”
This rudimentary design applies to combat, naturally. You can run, you can crouch, you can shoot, and you’ll be doing it to fight the most generic enemies on Earth. Humans run around wildly shooting while vampires sprint headlong into your gunfire for melee attacks. Despite Redfall trying to make its bloodsuckers sound formidable in tutorial text, they require nothing more tactical than strafing around them and incapacitating them with bullets before finishing them off with a stake. There isn’t even a dodge button. Vampires are easy to kill, and that’s before equipping the weapons specially designed to make them easier - your arsenal includes a stake launcher that murders them from a distance in one hit, and the borderline broken UV gun that turns multiple vampires into brittle, breakable statues after a few seconds of use.
I made my first ever vampire encounter harder than it had to be by remaining carefully strategic and taking it seriously instead of just mindlessly filling the thing with bullets. In believing that the vampires in the vampire game would be as threatening as a vampire game’s vampires ought to be, I had given the vampire game too much credit.
The four playable characters are differentiated by each having their own pair of cooldown skills and an ultimate ability, some of which are just plain garbage. The one I went with, Layla, is capable of using a temporary psychic shield, which is fine, and summoning a ghostly elevator that she can jump on top of rather than properly use, which would have been somewhat cool. It’s just a shitty bounce pad. Meanwhile, Layla’s ultimate conjures her vampiric ex-boyfriend to fight alongside her for a few seconds, which is useful but boring. That said, his very existence throws up some interesting narrative implications… none of which are explored in the slightest. Why would it be? That story has potential, and Redfall is where potential goes to die.
Characters have their obligatory skill tree, though the most humdrum and practical skills are better to unlock than any ability upgrade - being able to carry more ammo for the devastating stake launcher and UV gun is more useful than anything exotic, especially when some of the other upgrades are pure shit. Layla has a skill that improves healing from food items, and it’s so miniscule a bonus it’s practically imperceptible.
Oh, and a whole bunch of skills are geared around cooperative play, providing benefits to teammates. The only problem is, Redfall doesn’t have any drop-in co-op features. You’re restricted to playing with friends, and only the host player gets to make any campaign progress. It’s so limited that, unless you have friends with incredibly poor taste in shooters, it renders co-op skills a thorough waste of a skill point and makes unlockable character skins considerably less appealing. Yet again, this game’s commitment to the minimal is something I’d call impressive if I didn’t have enough respect for the word to refuse its use in conjunction with such banality.
Despite the game being relatively easy, I do want to just add a bitchy note that it boasts maybe the most extremely ranged area effects I’ve ever seen. Explosions can damage a player from more than double the distance you’d expect in a comparable game, and one starts taking damage from fires when several feet away from them. It’s so drastic that I was frequently surprised by a sudden burning noise and loss of health that felt like it came out of nowhere. While far from the worst aspect of the game, I just had to get it out there.
I would love to talk about the enemy A.I. but to use any term referencing intelligence is to vastly oversell Redfall’s army of terminal dumbasses. They’re so shockingly unaware they’ll fail to react even if an ally is shot in the head right next to them, and their ranged accuracy makes Imperial Stormtrooper resemble crack shots. A lack of object permanence regularly means that cultist and vampire alike will immediately become confused and enter search mode the very second you break their line of sight, all while vocally wondering where you went. They can’t hear combat happening across a parking lot from them, or accurately track the source of noise on the occasion they do acknowledge sounds. Effective pathfinding is more of a serving suggestion to these imbeciles, as is remembering to attack upon discovering the player. When hostility isn’t triggered, most vampires float statically in place, suspended on clear display and lacking the sensory competence to notice if you walk right up to them. I once watched an infight between a mercenary and a vampire - the former repeatedly shot the air around his target while the latter stood still and did nothing about it.
It’s truly appalling, quite genuinely some of the worst artificial intelligence I’ve seen outside of the most awful low budget productions. It’s so bad I almost feel privileged to have witnessed it firsthand.
I mentioned that enemies reuse a tiny selection of character models, and I need you to understand how bad it is. Not only does it mean you often fight multiple completely identical enemies at once, the excessive reuse of models also applies to allegedly unique enemies and bosses. There are no distinguishing features separating a common mook from a named opponent outside of the latter’s name appearing above their head. This leads to ridiculous situations like a former pastor-turned-monster being built up as a special encounter before revealing himself to be the same goth in a leather jacket you already slaughtered in the dozens. There are a few “special vampire” species, such as Anglers who reel you in from huge distances, and Siphons who drain health just by looking at you, but they all seem to have a single character model apiece and, you guessed it, they’re also endlessly reused for so-called boss encounters.
The only truly unique bosses are the “God” vampires fought at the end of the game’s few story chapters. You can count those big bastards on one hand.
Redfall isn’t the most broken game I’ve ever played in terms of its technical problems, but it’s nonetheless riddled with a litany of bugs and, more incredibly, every single one of them is fucking stupid. On Xbox, Redfall very regularly forgets the functionality of the start and the B button, meaning you can’t quickly navigate to the equipment screen or crouch. You read that correctly, Redfall’s goddamn crouch button stops working, and it stops working constantly. The many items that can be picked up are prone to being locked in place, unable to be collected despite flashing like any other collectible. Mission markers increasingly remain on the map permanently after the mission they’re marking as been completed. The further I got into the game, the more it outright crashed. At one point, I spawned in the middle of a fucking car, I was just jammed waist deep into its trunk with no ability to walk, run, squat, or jump.
Oh yeah, and the story is generic, the graphics are unappealing both technically and aesthetically, and cutscenes consist of character models statically posed with a crummy filter plastered on top to look vaguely artistic.
Redfall is a sorry skeleton of a game that meets the lowest bar possible to be considered a functional, sellable product, and it manages to bungle even that elementary task. At its very best, this embryonic embarrassment almost aspires to mediocrity, but such heady heights are too frequently beyond its reach. If it were interesting enough to inspire any emotion other than boredom, the humiliatingly cretinous enemy AI, recycled assets, lack of basic features, and laundry list of glitches would be laughable. The quality of this game, however, isn’t funny. It’s exasperating. Arkane Studios is so much better than this, and be it through a lack of time or a lack of money, they’ve made something a studio of such pedigree could rightly be ashamed of.
It’s got a lot of lobsters in it though. I’ll give it credit for that.