Ladders are absent from Arkane’s video games. The team’s Austin site has a billboard in one of the rooms that simply states, “F**k ladders,” to make this point. The development team claims that ladders feel restrictive since they place players in a “mode” in which they are unable to use their weapons or special powers, and they frequently even perish as a result — Arkane despises ladders. But in Redfall, ladders are present both early and frequently. This unexpected event would come to represent my time in the Massachusetts town plagued by vampires. Redfall is an example of Arkane compromising its design principles in order to cater to a genre that it could have been better off avoiding.
A four-player cooperative loot-shooter called Redfall challenges players against vampires and the vampire cult’s adherents. The story’s premise is standard Arkane fare, but in practice it reads like a contest that the team’s often creative members couldn’t win. The majority of the elements for which the team is renowned—unparalleled world design, sophisticated immersive sim elements, and improvised combat—rarely appear here. Run-and-gun battles with unresponsive AI foes are now in their place, along with a plethora of other flaws that are so pervasive that it is truly disheartening to see the game premiere in this condition. Redfall has seen a number of setbacks, each of which seems to be the product of a team that has its feet in two very different worlds: the one for which it is renowned and the one for which it is responsible.
The game’s two maps are larger than anything Arkane has ever created, whether it is from its Texas-based team or its French-based team, but the development team finds it difficult to fill that space with the same intricate details that made games like Prey a cult classic and Dishonored and Deathloop both Game of the Year winners. Too frequently, when playing co-op, you and up to three other people will travel across desolate beaches or through dense forests with little to explore other than a few sheds or campsites. The second map of the game, which you’ll be able to access halfway through the campaign, is considerably better because it approaches the previous work of the developers by including more intriguing landmarks and more verticality integrated into its communities, but it still falls short.
Arkane has long been known for finding inventive ways to go from point A to point B. And in Redfall, there are ways to access some structures deviously, such as by climbing via a window, getting through the roof, or picking a lock on a door. But because they happen so infrequently, blander components like small groups of foes that can be eliminated by picking the right weapon to employ are frequently present in the middle. Redfall only actually allows you to communicate through murdering your foes. It discourages you from trying to handle any problem in a way other than just shooting everyone because there is no reward for doing objectives in a creative manner, and you are eventually dragged into an all-out gunfight in every encounter, even when you take the time to play more strategically.
With a team this accomplished and a publisher with Bethesda’s wealth of resources, enemies in Redfall are remarkably unresponsive. Using a sniper to kill enemies may frequently result in the nearby foes continuing their day unaffected by the loss of their companions. In a fight, they frequently take too long to shoot and struggle to find cover, allowing you to land fatal blows before they have even had a chance to react at all. Even the vampires, who are supposed to be stronger and larger foes, occasionally use attacks that are so simple to block that it often reduces them to afterthoughts, such a lunge that you can just back up to escape.
Also lacking in development are the stealth mechanics. There is no animation while sneaking up on an enemy to land a knockout strike. You simply hit them with a weapon the same way you would a window to break it, and this tactic causes some adversaries to be unexpectedly defeated while others manage to survive the blow and resume normal fighting.
After completing local assignments, you must draw out Underbosses, who act as neighborhood terrorizers. However, almost always, you can one- or two-shot them on regular level with the game’s Stake Launcher, a weapon that is far too effective for the game’s purposes. Naturally, stakes should rapidly kill vampires, but since they frequently appear throughout the game, Stake Launchers render many encounters ineffective. In Redfall, balancing problems are frequent. Even the more difficult challenges in the game, such as vampire nests and the powerful adversaries known as Rooks, which occasionally appear when you’ve wreaked too much havoc, can typically be vanquished without too much difficulty. When such wasn’t the case, it was frequently the case that unexpectedly overwhelming enemy troops would result in instantaneous death. Rarely does the game find the perfect balance.
Redfall is the most recent game in a long series to become obsessed with loot, but it struggles to get even the most fundamental, accepted idea of how that wealth should be distributed right. In the majority of other loot-heavy games, tiers of loot fall in an orderly progression; early loot gives you common or barely uncommon weapons, and as you advance, the gear gets progressively better and rarer. Redfall’s weapons tend to get stronger, but there is no pattern to their rarity. Each of the five colored rarities can appear at any time during the campaign. Similar to how I discovered grays and greens over the last few missions, I discovered purples and golds throughout the first hour.
As a result, Redfall’s loot system feels flawed and superfluous. During one of the game’s early side missions, a treasure drop gave me a gray sniper, a green sniper, a blue sniper, and a purple sniper all at once. There are some fascinating weapons to be found, such as a UV Beam that transforms vampires into stone so you can then blast them into stones, but the greatest weapons stand out for their fundamental capabilities rather than for the RNG-defined advantages that have been hamfisted into yet another game. It’s simple to imagine Redfall without the loot system, with smaller yet deeper areas. Perhaps that would be too similar to the studio’s other titles, which makes Redfall unique in Arkane’s portfolio. However, despite all the differences, it is worse.
Redfall is ultimately a game that shouldn’t have been made available yet. The gameplay loop of exploring its world with friends is hampered by a long list of issues, and the gameplay loop itself feels undermined by parts that are badly handled and inappropriate for the team creating them. I can’t pretend to know if Arkane wanted to create a loot-shooter or was required to create one, but I can describe how it feels to be one of the world’s top game studios abruptly reduced to nothing.