Redfall begins with a wave goodbye. The goodbye consists of a number of people who try to leave the fictional New England town of the game’s title onboard a ferry. The wave is what stops them. It looms as high as a skyscraper, and the looming is permanent. It refuses to roll or break, presenting a sheer wall of broiling surf and beaching the ferry, along with a scattering of other boats, on the sand. What gives? Are we dealing with an anti-Moses—parting the Redfall sea, not to secure passage but to block it? Not quite. In a word: vampires. Nonetheless, the developer, Arkane Austin, is keen not to dispel the biblical air; note the gloom that engulfs the land, as the sun is blotted by an eclipse. I half expected a rain of bloodsucking frogs.
You wake on the bridge of the vessel, to the crunch and slurp of two vampires feeding on a corpse. They can fly, they have fingernails like knives, and they mean business. The town is under siege, its citizens penned in like cattle, to be picked off by night. The sun does rise, but it hardly shines; even at its height the daylight is anaemic, leached of warmth and falling dimly on the streets. You control one of four survivors. We have Devinder, who devotes himself to the cause of hunting myths, and who packs a range of Ghostbusterish gadgets. Layla, the recipient of psychic powers, courtesy of a botched clinical experiment. Remi, a tinkerer and robotics wonk, who tosses bricks of C4 at her foes. And Jacob, a former member of Special Forces and now the bearer of a magic bird, a glowing eye, and the power to turn invisible. Special Forces are probably keen to get him back.
The action has you tooling up, heading out, slaying ranks of the undead, and truffling for traces of backstory via diary entries, letters, and so forth. Plus, it’s geared, more or less evenly, toward single and cooperative play. I can’t have been the only one who breathed a deflated sigh at the news that the minds at Arkane, masters of the immersive sim, were making a multiplayer shooter—a genre in which you are immersed, ideally, in the company of friends, rather than a lonely and layered sandbox. The tension is never fully resolved. The mood only hangs thick when you’re alone, to say nothing of the plot, which relies mostly on reading. Try getting three friends, on a Friday night, to wait around for the bookworm before they can get blasting.
When it comes to combat, however, Redfall is at its best with backup. Layla, for example, can summon a telekinetic lift—a wrought-iron cage of rippling energy, which looks as if it would spirit you to the penthouse of a poltergeist. Try launching Jacob to a lofty vantage, the better for a spot of sniping. Devinder has the ability to freeze his foes with a blast of blinding UV light, at which point you can all pile on. The weaponry has a pleasing, D.I.Y. punch: shotguns with wooden stakes fixed beneath the barrel, assault rifles that look as though they had been duct-taped into working order. As you whittle down a vampire’s health, you must finish them off by impaling them, and I’m pleased to report that they expire in a burst of flame, a screaming skeleton flaking into a neat pile of ash.
We need more of this sort of thing. Vampires have been ill served by video games of late. How drab it was to watch the hero of Vampyr, Jonathan Reid, agonise over his newfound lack of life; all those nifty powers and all he could do was moan about his ebbing mortality. As for Vampire Survivors, though I’ve lost countless hours to it, most of that time was spent hacking down swathes of mutant plants, like an aggrieved landscaper. Frankly, it’s a relief to see real neck-biters treated with the proper pulp care. Arkane Austin gets right to it: teeth, claws, and clear agendas. You might call it incisive.
Credit to a Texan studio for tapping into home soil. Vampires have done well in that part of the world, caked in the dust of Westerns; think of From Dusk Till Dawn, the New Mexico of John Carpenter’s Vampires, and the desolate Oklahoma of Near Dark. Arkane may have opted for the polite mists of Massachusetts—Stephen King country, with its diners and lakes and legends—but the notion of a small town being smeared under the thumb of evil, and of a desperate last stand, is cowboy territory.
At first glance, vampires mark a departure for Arkane, which usually goes for hard science fiction or industrial fantasy. Glance again. Picture the heroes of Arkane games: Corvo, existing in shadow, walking between worlds, and conducting tides of rats to gnaw on the populace; Morgan Yu, punctured by unnatural powers and caught in the lunar pull; and Colt Vahn, a killer trapped in a loop of living death. Indeed, it’s a wonder that it’s taken the studio this long to get literal.
The problem with Redfall is one of focus. Each of those characters had the stage to himself, instead of being one of a quartet, and the settings had a slow-drip power, growing richer and more potent with time. Here, the environments are lightly strewn with Arkane touches (micro-narratives stashed in hidden rooms, ingenious methods of ingress) but you don’t get the sense of a place as a giant lock, the feel of keying into its corners and watching the secrets tumble out. Plainly, there are few other developer with so keen a sense of place; you need only glimpse the water tower, rising from a sea of copper-coloured trees, to fall for its world. But that’s the problem: Arkane threads its best magic with a long gaze in mind, not a glimpse, and there isn’t the same depth here as in previous works.
The closest comparison would be to Neu-Paris, another pretty burgh under monstrous occupation, in Wolfenstein: Youngblood. That game was co-developed by Arkane and MachineGames, with co-op play on the menu and its appetite for intricacy a little thin. Still, Redfall is well worth your time, for a few reasons. First, it isn’t often, in games, that you get the chance to walk down a street toting a pneumatic stake launcher. Second, the missions—liberating neighbourhoods, securing safehouses for fast-travel and ammo refills, invading vampire nests—give you a good measure of the geography. This must be Arkane’s most sprawling location to date. And third, not to over-sharpen the point, but where else are you going to get good vampires? I relished not just the sight of them, haunting the abandoned cinemas and churches, but the signs of their passage: long splatters of ketchup, in a steady, sticky draught. Who would want to leave?
Reviewed on PC. Code provided by the publisher. To check what a review score means from us, check out our review score policy.