Teamwork makes the dream work. Credit: Arkane/Xbox
The town of Redfall, Massachusetts has seen better days. I haven’t spent a lot of time in New England, but I know it’s not supposed to be overrun with sadistic vampires and cultists.
This quaint little hamlet is the setting of the aptly named Redfall, the newest game from acclaimed developer Arkane. It’s launching directly to Xbox Game Pass and, based on a roughly 90-minute demo I got to play, Redfall might have the sauce. That’s all thanks to an open-world that’s both threatening and empowering, four playable characters with unique roles in combat, and a structure that seems to work in both solo play and four-player co-op.
It’s too early to say if the next game from the brand behind Dishonored and Deathloop can live up to that lofty billing, but in less than two hours, I went from “vaguely curious” to “itching to play more.”
Open, but seemingly not compromised In case you’ve been out on the loop, Redfall is a first-person shooter set in an open world full of powerful vampires (created by a biomedical company) and the humans who enable them through cultish activity. You choose from one of four (at launch, anyway) playable characters, each bringing their own distinct abilities to the anti-vampire struggle.
This choice is immediately where Redfall started to grab me because all four characters seem incredibly cool and useful in combat:
Jacob, who can cloak himself and teammates while utilizing a ghostly sniper rifle to take out baddies from afar
Devinder, an amateur monster hunter who uses homemade gadgets for crowd control
Remi, who can heal allies and use a robot companion to distract enemies
And Layla, who uses telekinesis to protect her friends from projectiles and lift them up to inaccessible areas
I rolled with Devinder because it was a solo-only demo and his area-of-effect skills seemed especially useful for a scenario without teammates. I was right, by the way; Devinder can throw out a lightning rod that shocks enemies in a radius around it, as well as a UV light that petrifies any vampires who get caught near it. Both proved essential to survival.
From there, you’re thrown into an open world that’s noticeably larger than any environment Arkane has created before. My immediate worry was that increased scale would mean compromises to the kind of believable interior spaces Arkane is famous for. Individual levels in Deathloop or Dishonored aren’t massive, but they’re densely packed with apartments, offices, and other buildings you can fully explore and rummage through, discovering the stories of their inhabitants along the way.
Thankfully, Redfall doesn’t seem to cut back on that. For instance, my exploration led me to a huge, empty church full of side rooms to sift through. The house of worship had clearly become a place of sanctuary after the vampire outbreak, with sleeping bags and supplies strewn about the area. The belltower up top hid a dead body with a powerful sniper rifle next to it, while the teen youth group room had all kinds of notes about the kids attending each session.
Most importantly, all of that seemed completely optional. Aside from a few cultist stragglers hanging around out back, the church wasn’t guarded at all. There wasn’t even anything game-changingly valuable inside. It was just a place with a story that you could infer with enough exploration. That’s the magic of Arkane games, and it seems to be fully in place here.
Left 4 Deathloop
Some guns have stakes attached to them like bayonets. Credit: Arkane/Xbox
Having said that, Redfall does depart from those other games in some major ways that could be disruptive to the classic Arkane flow. Chief among them is that you can team up with up to three friends for some vampire-hunting fun. I didn’t get to try co-op, though I’ll say the game was impressively still very fun and perfectly enjoyable as a solo experience.
Still, I have some worries about how much deliberate exploration and note-reading you can do with three other chuckleheads running around. Game director Harvey Smith (lead designer on Deus Ex, among many other things) acknowledged that co-op will turn Redfall into a fundamentally different experience.
“Truthfully, if you add a third or fourth player, it ceases to be [like previous Arkane games] and becomes something else, and that something else is incredibly fun,” Smith said. “In my dream world, people would play solo once and then add more players and play another way.”
That brings me to the combat, which felt great in my limited time with the game, but is decidedly un-Arkane-like. The name of the game here is big guns that are color-coded based on rarity and power, with ammo that’s not exactly sparse and is easily refilled at a safehouse. Normal weapons like assault rifles and shotguns feel appropriately hefty with each shot, but they aren’t enough on their own.
Once a vampire’s health has been drained, you need to either physically run up to them and drive a stake into their heart, or find a source of fire to burn them to death. This is where special weapons like a stake launcher or a concentrated UV beam are handy, as they can kill or otherwise immobilize vampires from range.
Stealth is also an option, but it seemed to be much more of a tool for avoidance than conflict. I found it easiest to just go in guns blazing, turning encounters into fun and dynamic first-person shooting that was nonetheless still fairly conventional by Arkane standards. I imagine quiet play is even less optimal or possible with four players mucking things up, unless you and your friends are really coordinated.
Gotta love metaphors
Jacob can also use a spectral raven to track enemies from afar. Credit: Arkane/Xbox
Of course, a densely explorable open world isn’t very compelling without a great setting, and that’s where Redfall failed to capture me in its early marketing. Small town America just isn’t as scintillating on the surface as the fantastical or science fiction environs of games like Dishonored and Prey.
I started to change my mind about that somewhat as I played the game and spoke to Smith, however. Creeping around believable environments that feel close enough to what you might actually find in a New England hamlet has a certain charm to it. As Smith pointed out, the region’s history of witch trials and purported hauntings also makes it ripe for use as the setting for a supernatural video game.
Redfall has a lot to like based on the small amount of it I played. Its combat is challenging and exciting, its characters are varied and fill interesting roles in fights, and its interior spaces might be a step up from the average open world game. The fact that it’ll be free on Game Pass helps a lot, too.
But the thing that got me excited the most had nothing to do with the demo. Instead, it’s what Smith told me about the inspiration for the game’s villainous vampires.
“Monsters are always metaphors and the world we’re living in right now has a tiny percentage of people feeding off everyone else to the point where literally rivers are drying up and places are flooding and burning where they normally don’t,” Smith said. “But a tiny group of people are experiencing the greatest profits in human history. They have private jets, they have multiple mansions, some of them have islands, and it feels like a vampire from a biomedical startup is the right approach.”
Here’s hoping Redfall has the juice to back up that extremely astute sentiment.
Redfall launches on Xbox Series X/S and PC on May 2.
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